New Interest in Music at St. Olaf

In the fall of 1902, when I came to St. Olaf to become a member of the faculty, there was no music department at the college. This does not mean, however, that there was a lack of interest in either vocal or instrumental music. Far from it! There was a teacher of piano, an instructor in band, a choral union which rehearsed regularly for a presentation of Harvey Gaul’s The Ten Virgins, and compulsory group singing for some of the classes in the academic department. There also were some smaller voluntary groups, quartets and octets that now and then sang at school functions. During the years prior to 1902, a number of music instructors had been engaged, mostly on a part-time basis, to instruct the classes in singing and to direct the band and the choral union; but no instruction in theoretical music was given and no attempt was made to coordinate the efforts that were being put forth along the various musical lines. The most important music group was, of course, the band which had been organized in 1891 and under the voluntary leadership of students, had made considerable progress. One of these students, Mr. Andrew Onstad, was officially engaged as band director on a salary basis in 1899 and continued as such until 1903. The band then numbered fifty players, appeared at concerts in uniform, and made a number of appearances locally during the year, one of which was a part of commencement festivities.

To show that interest in singing has always been a characteristic of the student life at St. Olaf, it may be mentioned that on the day “Old Main” was dedicated, November 6, 1878, a mixed chorus of twenty students under the leadership of professor Lars Lynne sang a number of anthems. One of the members of that first chorus — at that time a girl named Mathilde Berg, later in life Mrs. Reverend Grevstad — gave me, sixty-nine years after the dedication day, some information about the chorus and the program presented. She stated that the rehearsals were long and exacting and that the numbers sung were:


Herre, O hör vort Raab!
Herre, os i Naade!
Du, Du alene os hjelpe kan.
Styrk os i Tro, i Haab.
Altid os lede til Himlen’s Land.


O Lord! Hear our Cry
In Mercy hear us.
Thou alone can’st help us.
Strengthen our faith, our hopes
May Thy spirit guide us
And lead us to the Heavenly Home.


Lydt gjennem verdener’s rum
Jehovah’s store Navn gjentoner;
Han Lovprises av Stövet og av Englenes Kor.
Förend Jorden blev dannet
Og Himlen blev velvet
Var Gud, — var Gud.
Bringer ham Tak og Pris!

Song of Praise

Clearly through the world’s wide space
Rings the name of great We
Before the earth was made
And the heavens arched above it,
God was, God was.
Bring Him thanks and praise!

She also stated, incidentally, that very good reviews of the singing were given in the local papers. She remembers the names of the members. Among the boys were I. F. Grose, Thorvald Larsen, Langemo, Nils Remen, Knut Finseth, Breding, O. T. Lee, Guttormson, Thompson, Peterson and Hovland; and girl members were Sophie Aaker, Clara Muus, Marie Larson, Valborg Loftness, Berit Ellingboe, Julia Malmin, Gunhild Solberg, and Mathilde Berg.

The situation so far as music at St. Olaf was concerned in 1902 was rather confusing. The president of the college, Pastor J. N. Kildahl, was much concerned about it and had urged the synod both in 1901 and in 1902 to establish a music department at the college. His third effort was successful, and in June 1903 the synod did decide that such a department should be included in the curriculum, and the president of the college was authorized to secure a capable man to assume the responsibilities of establishing the new music department on a secure and permanent basis.

President Kildahl was also pastor of St. John’s congregation and when we moved to Northfield in the summer of 1902, both Mrs. Schmidt and I joined St. John’s church choir. Quite frequently we had occasion to talk with President Kildahl about music matters. Invariably he would mention the problem that was of so much concern to him at the time — whom he could engage as music director at the college. He asked us if we knew of anyone who was capable and who in other respects would be the right man for the place. It was then only natural for me to suggest the man for whom I had learned to have very great respect, my friend in Minneapolis, the director of the Kjerulf Male Chorus, F. Melius Christiansen. President Kildahl did not know him, but agreed to go to Minneapolis to meet him and talk matters over with him.

No doubt there were others too who urged the president to consider Mr. Christiansen for this newly created position at the college. An interview did take place in Minneapolis, after which Mr. Christiansen came to Northfield to look things over. An offer was made and accepted, and Mr. Christiansen became the first Director of the music department at St. Olaf College. He entered upon his duties with the opening of the school year 1903-04.

Mr. Christiansen did not move his family to Northfield the first year, for he considered the arrangement he had made as more or less an experiment. He did not know the school, was not at all familiar with its background, had probably never heard the names of the men and women who were instrumental in its founding, and, what is of greater importance, did not realize or visualize that here was good ground for real growth and expansion and that here were inherent possibilities for great and worthwhile accomplishments. I believe he at first looked upon his place at St. Olaf as another job which would help him earn a living for himself and family; for in Minneapolis he had been holding down a number of jobs as church choir director and part-time instructor in violin. He apparently had not had a full time job anywhere before coming to St. Olaf.

The establishment of a music department on a permanent basis was not achieved in a short space of time, nor without a great deal of study and hard work. The new music director took his time and made such proposals to the faculty as he thought could and should be made so as to put courses in music on a level with courses in other departments. This involved the granting of credit, and to secure the approval of the faculty for credit in some of these new courses proved to be no easy matter. There were at that time two especially strong departments in the college, the ancient languages and the rather newly created scientific, both quite self-centered. As a rule, if one group favored a certain measure, however important or unimportant, the other was quite sure to be opposed to it, and there was considerable sparring at almost every faculty meeting. Yes, faculty meetings in those days were not only important but quite often interesting and entertaining. When therefore the proposal was made to grant credit for courses in harmony, counterpoint, music analysis, and similar subjects — to say nothing about granting a certain amount of credit for playing in the band — more than one long faculty meeting was necessary to make it clear that harmony and counterpoint were not games like checkers or crossword puzzles. It proved to be a long and arduous struggle for Mr. Christiansen and no doubt he often felt discouraged. In the course of time, however, credits were granted and the music department was established on a sound and permanent basis.

There were two music organizations at St. Olaf at that time in which the director took a great deal of interest and which in turn gave him much encouragement to continue the work he had begun here; these were the St. Olaf Band and the Choral Union. The band had a membership of about forty-six. I remember well the first rehearsals under the new director. Although I was not then connected in any way with the organization, I attended quite a number of rehearsals and kept in close touch with Mr. Christiansen for old times’ sake.

The first rehearsal was rather brief. The director made a quick survey of the men and instruments at hand; told some of them to take off their hats or caps and sit up straight with feet on the floor, explained in a very forceful manner the importance of strict attention to the work at hand during all rehearsals, requested everyone to be in his place at the next rehearsal exactly on time for extensive work, and then left the room. It took some time for the boys to get used to the new director. Most of them had looked on band work as fun and entertainment. Many were careless and noisy. All of them were fond of playing marches and waltzes for their own entertainment and considered that to be the aim and purpose of rehearsals. Their preference was to play one piece after another just for the fun of it. They soon learned, however, that their new director had other ideas than that. He demanded and enforced strict discipline and attention. He was not at all impressed by the fact the band could play some marches from beginning to end without any noticeable mishap, but made every effort to improve tone quality and balance in the different sections, spent a great deal of time in repetition of certain musical phrases, and — what really surprised some of them — took time to show them how to handle and finger their instruments most effectively. After ten or twelve rehearsals the members began to realize that now they really had a master director and that the band was on the way to becoming a really high-class musical organization. Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Wagner’s Lohengrin, Schumann’s Traumerei, and his ownNorwegian Rhapsody were some of the numbers added to the repertoire.

The director found the instrumentation of the band to be quite good when he began work with the organization. Most of the smaller instruments were the personal property of the boys and therefore various makes were found in every section. The director hoped that in time the instrumentation could be enlarged and new instruments purchased which would be the property of the band. He also was very anxious to get, as far as possible, instruments of the same make in the different sections. My impression from the beginning was that Mr. Christiansen loved to direct the band and was eager to bring it to a high degree of perfection as a concert organization; also that he was interested in having it accomplish a useful purpose as a student organization. For this reason, he favored a marching band for various college occasions. So it came about that new uniforms were purchased, a drum major was elected, and regular marching rehearsal hours were added to the band’s schedule. As I had had some military experience at the university where two years of drill were required, the band and its director elected me to be the new drum major, which position I held for a number of years. The band soon learned to march quite well and to go through some simple maneuvers.

During Mr. Christiansen’s second year at St. Olaf, band members began to talk about the possibility of a concert trip. Someone in the organization knew of a Mr. Walker who, it was said, had had some experience as a manager and who could be secured to plan the trip. A petition was submitted to the faculty, the trip was allowed with some restrictions about class work that would be missed, and the band engaged Mr. Walker as trip manager. A number of towns in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa were included in the itinerary. Just before the start of the tour, in January, 1905, President Kildahl asked me to go along as faculty representative.

Transportation was of course by train. The first stop was Faribault for an afternoon concert. The attendance was so poor that, although a local friend gave me a five-dollar bill to help pay expenses, it was necessary for me to collect a small amount from each band member to enable me to buy the ticket to the next town. In the depot I overheard Mr. Walker call the next town by telephone; he explained that he was Mr. Walker, the manager of the “St. Olif Band,” and asked how the sale of tickets was progressing. Result: that concert was canceled. The attendance at some of the other towns was better, although the tour turned out to be a financial flop.

Boys who were members of that first concert trip I am sure will never forget the ride from Lanesboro to Spring Valley. It was a bitterly cold day. After the matinee in Lanesboro, the manager, Mr. Walker, scurried around among the farmers who had come to the concert and pleaded with them to drive groups of band members across country to Spring Valley. He had hoped that a freight train would come along to take the entire group over, but had made no definite arrangement for train service. Some of the members, including the director and myself, did get a ride by freight train. The others went with the farmers in box sleighs and were nearly frozen when they finally reached Spring Valley. Needless to say, it was difficult for the band to play a good concert after such an experience.

Former President Brown of Concordia College, who was a member of the band, likes to tell this story to show how poor we all were when we neared the end of the trip. He claims that at Red Wing I borrowed ten cents from him in order to get a shave. I cannot remember if I ever paid it back and, so far as that is concerned, I cannot remember that I got it from him in the first place. Well, the final concert of the trip, which was given in The First Baptist Church in Minneapolis, was more heartening from the standpoint of attendance and income. I was able to buy the ticket for the entire group back to Northfield. So far as I know no one in the band ever saw or heard of Mr. Walker again.

The trip was not altogether without rewarding results. Important observations were made and much was learned about tour planning and conducting that was of value to the manager of St. Olaf organizations in later years. The reception given the band by our church people and by friends of the college was most cordial and sincere. We were all housed and fed in private homes, were shown every possible courtesy, and were earnestly implored to come again soon. This personal contact with students and teachers from their college meant more to our college friends and members of our congregations than I had dared to imagine. The college was, as it were, brought into their midst and they appreciated it and loved it. As the years passed and more trips were taken into other sections of our own state and into other states, I became more and more convinced too of the importance to the college of such contacts. On our return to college from this first trip, President Kildahl asked me to assume the duties of manager and to arrange yearly trips for the band, which I agreed to do.

Early that spring, announcement was made at the college that a famous music group from Norway would soon pay St. Olaf and Northfield a visit and give a concert in the Ware Auditorium in town. There was at that time no auditorium on the campus. The date was to be the afternoon of May 27, 1905. This proved to be an important and noteworthy occasion, for the group was the Student Singing Society from the University of Norway, with Mr. O. A. Grondahl as director. As a matter of historic interest it may be mentioned that the day on which they were at St. Olaf was a memorable one also for the visitors, for word had just been received that Norway had declared herself free from the union with Sweden and that a King was to be chosen for their own country. Excitement was intense for no one could foresee what results would follow from this action by the Norwegian Parliament. Would this lead to war between the two countries? Would the singers be recalled home at once?

When the singers came to Northfield, they were taken at once to the campus where a bountiful lunch was served on the lawn in front of Ytterboe Hall. Two things especially seemed to interest them greatly — the heaping bowls of fresh strawberries and cream and the playing of the band. Director Christiansen had arranged some favorite Norwegian music for the band to play during the lunch hour and the visitors were simply spellbound. I remember especially how they applauded the playing of Bjorneborgernes Marsj, The Norwegian Rhapsody, and their own national anthem, Ja vi elsker. It was not long before they suggested and then urged a visit by the band to Norway; and this suggestion was brought by them to the attention of their American tour manager, Mr. Harry Randall. He took the matter up in earnest and some months later brought word to the President of the college and to the director of the band that he had secured the promise of Mr. Olaf Searle, a prominent business man in Minneapolis connected with the Scandinavian American Steamship Line, to pay any deficit that might be incurred on a concert trip by the band to Norway. This, of course, created a great deal of excitement at the college. The tour would take place in the summer of 1906 and Mr. Randall would go to Norway early in the year to make all necessary arrangements. He would also accompany the band as tour manager.

My Years at St. Olaf


Early Family History
My Years at St. Olaf’s School
Interim Days at the University of Minnesota
Teaching and Administrative Assignments at St. Olaf College
New Interest in Music at St. Olaf
The 1906 Band Tour to Norway
Band Trips — 1907 on…
The Founding of the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir Tours of 1912 and 1913
The First Choir Tour to Metropolitan Centers in America
The 1930 European Tour
Some Interesting Experiences
Other College Interests
The Choir Workshop
Dr. F. Melius Christiansen, A Brief Biography
A Notable Achievement