The First Choir Tour To Metropolitan Centers in U.S.

On August 7 most of the choir members embarked on the Scandinavian-America liner Hellig Olav (St. Olaf) for New York. A few remained to visit relatives and friends and to see a little more of Europe.

Director Christiansen remained in Europe most of the year 1913-1914 visiting libraries in various countries and gathering material for future use by the St. Olaf Choir. Choirs and choir directors in America owe Dr. Christiansen more than any of them realize for re-discovering a wealth of choral music in Germany and bringing it to America, where much of it is now being used.

During the years that followed, 1914 to 1919, the choir continued to function, but because of World War I there were many interruptions. The concert tours were limited to cities of our own and neighboring states. In 1919, however, things looked much brighter. The war had ended; boys were returning to college in larger numbers and applications for membership in the choir increased. It was felt that an effort should now be made to bring the choir to the attention of our Lutheran friends and the music-loving public in general in the metropolitan centers of the eastern states. The choir was well known in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas, yes also in Norway; but in Pennsylvania and New York, strong Lutheran states, no one had ever heard of St. Olaf College or the choir.

In the summer of 1919 I went to New York City to begin there to plan the first choir tour of the major Eastern cities. I went to the National Lutheran Council headquarters, introduced myself, and explained my mission. They must have thought it strange that I should solicit their help in bringing to New York an unknown group of singers from the Minnesota prairies. I called on many prominent Lutherans and persisted in my efforts.

I believe this was one of the most difficult assignments I have ever had. The men I talked with were very considerate and kind, but I felt they were also more or less skeptical. During the day I did my best to talk persuasively and at night I lay awake trying to think of new approaches. Fortunately a new approach was suggested by some items that appeared quite frequently in the daily papers just at that time. A choir was to come from Italy to tour the United States. This gave me, I thought, an exceptionally strong talking point and I decided to make the most of it. Why should not our people support one of our own American choirs and give it a chance to prove its worth! That argument helped, for one of the leading men I had talked with finally became interested and he in turn interested others.

The result was that an executive committee was set up, a guaranty fund was subscribed, and later on a New York manager was engaged to arrange the tour. With his help concerts were booked in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Buffalo, and other Eastern cities.

The first tour through cities of the eastern part of our country was made in 1920, from April 6 to May 7. The concert manager that had been engaged by the executive committee in New York made all the arrangements east of Chicago. This included booking of concerts, selection of concert halls, transportation of the choir, and hotel accommodations. He was well acquainted in these cities, had good contacts, worked hard, and knew how to promote. His connection with the choir proved to be of great value especially on this first tour. The understanding I had with him was that I was to arrange a preliminary tour in Midwest cities and bring the group to Chicago. He would then take charge and manage the trip east to New York and back to Chicago. I knew that he was of a very nervous disposition and at times quick tempered; but I did not know that he could also be quite forgetful. I found this out when I reached Chicago with the singers and expected to find him and others at the depot to meet us. No one was there; all, including the taxicab drivers, had been told by him to go to the wrong station. After the Chicago concert he called me to his room and told me he simply would not be able to manage the tour east and that I would have to take charge. He said he had had no experience with a large group like the choir; that his previous work had been with only one or a very few artists at a time. Well, we sat up most of the night going over details. He gave me an itinerary of places and dates and I jotted down as much other information as I was able to get. The next day he went back to New York, and I started out with the choir on a concert tour through cities I had never been in and I fully realized I would have to feel my way along much of the time.

The concert in Orchestra Hall in Chicago was a complete sellout. All the critics were there and the next morning’s papers had columns of glowing reviews. Those by Karleton Hackett of the Evening Post and by Herman Devries of the Herald Examiner seemed to me most expressive of the accomplishments of Dr. Christiansen and the choir. Mr. Hackett wrote of the spiritual quality of the singing as follows:

“The Choir from St. Olaf College sang with a beauty that was astonishing to those of us who know little of what goes on outside the circle of our own interests. The choir did not exactly give a concert, at least not in the usual meaning of the word, since they sang religious music exclusively, and not for the purpose of showing their skill, but to lift up their voices in praise. The whole atmosphere of the evening was one of religious fervor. They evidently believe that to sing the praises of the Most High should call forth the utmost skill of those chosen because of their special gifts. In their singing nothing was left to chance, but everything bespoke results of the most rigorous routine under the direction of a man who knew how the thing ought to be done. The choir is a remarkable body of singers and the most practical sort of a demonstration of what can be done by a man of genuine power who is given a free hand. There is always the material if the man can be found. Mr. Christiansen is the man. This choir will be a stimulus to the singing of churches wherever it is heard and it ought to cause the choral societies to do some hard thinking. It is to be hoped that they will sing here again, for everybody interested in choral singing ought to have the chance to hear them. Now in choral affairs we shall date from the visit of the St. Olaf Choir. In my recollection there has been no a cappella choir in America which would compare with these young singers from Minnesota.”

Mr. Devries, in his review, stressed more the mechanical excellence of the choir. Said he:

“It is a group of young people, all of them letter-perfect, pitch-perfect, tone-perfect, text-perfect in the most difficult classic choral music, singing absolutely from memory and without accompaniment, even without the opening assurance of the diapason or tuning-fork. Their director, Mr. Christiansen, gets effects unlike those produced by any other like organization heard in these parts. The pianissimo is of wonderful tenuity, fine-spun as silk, yet never lacking in musical quality. Their dynamics are their own and the ensemble effects quite flawless. Their concert was one of the rarest expositions of the superlative in choral singing.”

Copies of the Chicago reviews were sent to the concert promoters in all of the cities the choir was to visit. This had a telling effect on attendance, for in almost every city a near-capacity crowd greeted the choir and its director.

In regard to transportation and hotel accommodations, we fared better than I had anticipated. I was not too familiar with conditions in each city nor with the arrangements that had been made by the New York office, so I was relieved and pleased indeed when things went smoothly.

Only a few difficult situations developed. One of these had to do with transportation. When I came to the depot at leaving time in one of the cities, I learned that there were two special trains, one from each of two different railroads to take us to the next stop. Evidently the New York manager had forgotten he had made arrangements with one of the roads when he applied for special service from the other. I had to do quite a bit of talking with each of the railroad crews, and then finally cancel one of the specials.

The other situation had to do with housing. When we came to Springfield, Ohio, at about five o’clock in the afternoon, no one met us at the depot and this seemed rather strange to me. I told the choir members to go out to nearby restaurants to get supper and to return to the depot by six-thirty. In the meantime, I thought I would be able to get in touch with the local committee, the chairman of which was one of the professors at Wittenberg College. When I called him by phone, he was surprised that we had already arrived. He said our concert was not until the next day, although according to the itinerary that was given me in Chicago, it was to be on the day of our arrival. No housing arrangements had been made for this first night so that I had to call one hotel after another in order to get rooms for all. A number of the girls were housed in one of the dormitories at the college.

As we came farther east we wondered more and more what the reception in New York would be like. Would there be a good attendance? What would the New York critics say? Well, our stay in New York on that first eastern tour was surely memorable in more ways than one. Our hotel proved a very pleasant home for the choir members. A host of friendly people came to bid the choir welcome and make the stay interesting and enjoyable. A tour in sight-seeing buses was arranged down to lower Manhattan, then up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, out Riverside Drive and back to our hotel.

The arrangements in the New York area called for concerts as follows: One on Sunday afternoon in the Academy of Music in Brooklyn, another on Monday evening in Patterson, New Jersey, and the final one on Tuesday evening in Carnegie Hall. In addition to these appointments the choir sang several anthems at Sunday morning services in one of the Lutheran churches. The Carnegie Hall concert was a complete sellout and, as in Chicago, the critics were all present and wrote many very impressive reviews. Said Mr. Krehbiel of the Tribune, dean of New York critics:

“The choir numbers fifty-two voices, exquisitely balanced, fresh and euphonious in quality. In Mendelssohn’s Saviour of Sinners and Gretchaninoff’s O God, hear my prayer, we were made to marvel at the ability of the choir; and there was ravishing beauty in an anthem by a modern composer, Lindeman, with its suggestion of bell chimes.”

Mr. Rawlins wrote in the Evening World:

“Like the life-restoring breeze from the Northwest that sweeps over New York at the close of a suffocating August day, the St. Olaf Choir descended upon us at a concert in Carnegie Hall and bestowed upon us in the overwrought, dying music season a benison of song. The half a hundred voices gave an impressive exhibition of choral singing.”

There were wonderful reviews without number. I have quite a large collection of scrap books filled with reviews of concerts from this and other tours, most of them written in superlatives.

When the choir members returned to Northfield, they were met at the depot by the entire St. Olaf family with the college band in the lead. A grand reception followed in the college auditorium where speeches were given by President Boe and by the director and managers of the choir. And, of course, the home concert was in some respects the most enjoyable and exciting event of the entire tour.

The next two tours were arranged by the New York office and again took the choir through Eastern cities. After the 1922 tour, President Boe went to New York for a conference with the executive committee and the New York manager. He explained to them that it was necessary to discontinue the connection with them largely because of the expense involved. Too much of the income from concerts was needed to maintain the New York office. A final settlement was made. Whatever had been paid in by the guarantors in 1920 was paid back, and the New York manager was given a handsome honorarium. The balance, a considerable sum, was given to St. Olaf College and was set aside to become the first contribution toward the building of a music hall.

Since that time the sole management of the choir has been my responsibility until my son Frederick took over in 1949.

The tours from 1923 on have taken the choir into all sections of the country — east, southeast, south, west, and midwest. On all tours the best hotels in every city were used, a liberal daily allowance was given the choir members for meals, and taxis were always provided to transport the singers from the depot to hotel and from hotel to concert hall. I felt that the tours should also be of some educational value, and so sightseeing trips were arranged in the principal cities. In Washington, D.C., for instance, a trip with guides was always arranged, through the city and out to Mt. Vernon, returning via Alexandria and the National Cemetery. In different years the choir met the following United States Presidents in the White House: Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Several of the Presidents, including Herbert Hoover, were photographed with the choir. Similar worthwhile trips were arranged in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, and other cities. These arrangements involved some expense, but it kept the morale of the singers on a high level, so that they were able to give their best at every concert; and it also added prestige to the organization.

An effort was also made in every city to secure the best concert halls. Symphony Hall in Boston, The Metropolitan Opera House in New York, The Academy of Music in Philadelphia, the Memorial Opera House in San Francisco as well as the one in St. Louis, and Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo are some of the exceptionally fine concert halls in which the choir has sung repeatedly.

The first tour to Pacific Coast cities was made during the school year 1924-1925. As considerable time was required for the trip, the Christmas vacation period was used. The tour started when college closed in December; and this meant that the members would miss their Christmas Eve at home. I therefore arranged with our pastor in Missoula, Montana, for a Christmas Eve service and party. One of the spacious homes in the city was offered for the occasion, a beautiful Christmas tree was secured, presents for the choir members were sent from their folks at home and placed under and around the tree, and typical Christmas refreshments were served. The Lutheran pastors of the city with their families were all present. The next day, Christmas Day, the large Presbyterian Church was secured for a Christmas service, at which one of the members of the choir, Rev. Conrad Engelstad, preached and the choir sang several anthems. All the Lutheran congregations in the city attended this service.

On this tour the choir gave concerts in coast cities as far north as Vancouver, Canada, and as far south as San Diego, California.

Early in the school year 1925-26 I began to plan another eastern tour. As the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra would probably also tour in the same direction, I thought it desirable to have a conference with Mr. Arthur J. Gaines, the manager of the orchestra, to compare notes on the proposed tour of each organization so there would be no conflict. Mr. Gaines was very friendly and cooperative and gave me many helpful suggestions. In the course of our conversation I mentioned the annual concert our choir gave in Minneapolis at the conclusion of each tour. It was then that Mr. Gaines proposed that we trade concerts, the Symphony to give a concert at St. Olaf College, and the choir to give one in Minneapolis under Symphony auspices. The offer was, of course, accepted with alacrity and the first interchange of concerts took place in 1926. Since that time the choir has appeared annually in a joint concert with the Symphony in Minneapolis and the Orchestra has annually come to St. Olaf.

Needless to say, the Symphony concert at St. Olaf is always looked forward to with great anticipation by a host of admirers in the Northfield area.

The concert tours in the twenties also proved to be quite successful financially. The present Music Hall at the college was built and paid for mainly through funds earned by the choir. The cost of the building was $140,000. Many of the concert reviews made mention of the fact that football is not the only extra curricular activity that pays and pointed to the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir and its home on the Hill “Built by Song.”

The reviewers very frequently, especially during the twenties and early thirties, mentioned it as a remarkable accomplishment that the choir began singing the numbers on the program without the visible or audible giving of pitch. After almost every concert people would come up and ask: “How do you get the pitch?” The answers were usually quite vague.

On one occasion a group of women cornered one of the boys and insisted that he tell them how it is done. He answered in a rather droll manner: “Well, you see, it’s like this. We have a carpenter back home at our college who is very ingenious. He makes some wonderful batons for Dr. Christiansen.” Before the boy could go any farther, one of the women exclaimed: “I knew it! I knew Dr. Christiansen gave the pitch somehow with the long baton he carries when he comes in. I was sure that baton had something to do with it.” “Yes,” said the boy. “Our carpenter gets this wood from up in Northern Minnesota. It’s a beautiful pine wood and it’s full of pitch.” Relating this little story about pitch reminds me of a number of other humorous incidents that occurred on our trips.

One warm summer evening the choir gave a concert in a large auditorium on the fairgrounds of one of our Midwestern cities. The windows were open and as there were no screens, night flies and bugs were attracted into the room by the strong light. As our baritone soloist, standing out in front of the choir, came to the climax of his solo, a June bug flew into his wide open mouth, and the poor boy sputtered and sputtered while Dr. Christiansen shook with laughter. For half a minute it looked as though the singers would have to take a rest, but the soloist got rid of the bug somehow and things then quieted down.

On another occasion the concert was given in a large Baptist Church in one of the cities in the East. Our risers had been placed on the platform just in front of some heavy curtains behind which was a large baptismal tub. There had been time before the concert for the choir members to walk around and inspect the large church building and they all saw the passage that led from some rear rooms to the tub. While we were singing the last number before the intermission, I noticed that the bass singer who stood next to me was having trouble. He would grab my arm as though he was ready to faint. Well, he did feel faint, so he sat down suddenly on the riser. His shoes hurt him so he took them off. Then he remembered the passageway from the rear rooms to the tub and slipped quietly off the riser, through the curtain, into the dry tub, and out to the rear of the church where he was able to get fresh air. Of course the audience only saw this big bass go down. They could not see what he did after that. When the choir marched off the risers for the intermission, all eyes in the audience were strained to see what had happened to the boy and how he would get along. All they saw was a pair of shoes on the risers and what had become of the singer was indeed a profound mystery.

The following paragraphs are excerpts from a letter written at Christmas time in 1955 to a friend by one of the members of the 1924 Choir:

When you think of those wonderful Choir Trips, aren’t there many happy memories tucked away? That trip to California in 1924-25 was, for many of us, our first experience west of Minnesota. Do you remember the night we stood on the rear platform of our train, watching Mt. Hood in the distance? As our train rushed through the cold, starlit night, we watched that majestic snow-crowned peak, bathed in moonlight. That year one of our favorite numbers was “Snow Mountain,” and I am sure it had never been sung like it was on the following night. All of us had tears in our eyes and hearts!
Remember all the interesting and exciting sightseeing trips which were arranged for us by Mr. P. G. Schmidt? He was always so kind and thoughtful. Just to remind you of a few — the trip to exotic Chinatown in San Francisco, where we visited that beautiful Chinese Temple and the huge Chinese Curio Store. The motor trip along the Columbia River Highway, where each turn in the road unfolded a view of rugged grandeur. The trip around fabulous ‘Hollywood, when we ‘had ourselves a grand time’ gaping at the mansions of our favorite movie stars. The trip to Sutter Fort in Sacramento, the greatest of the old trading posts in the West — built in 18391 The ‘out-of-this-world’ trip from Los Angeles to San Diego and on into Tia Juana, Mexico, during which we visited the historic old Missions, Ramona’s Marriage Place (where all the girls dropped pennies in the Wishing Well), and the lovely little Torrey Pines Inn at which we stopped for lunch. And remember the superb view, practically all the way down the Coast, of the majestic Pacific Ocean. Then, there was the exciting trip through the awe-inspiring Garden of the Gods, and to the Cave of the Winds where we all left hairpins. (What do you suppose the girls leave now — Bobby Pins?) Remember the swank Pierce Arrow cars which Mr. Schmidt rented for the trip?
And who could forget the sightseeing tour in New York — to the Wall Street Stock Exchange, to lovely old Trinity Church at the head of Wall Street, to the Woolworth Tower (then, the tallest building, because the Empire State Building was only a gleam in the architect’s eye at that time!) and to the Statue of Liberty by ferry where, like all red-blooded Americans, we were thrilled to our toes.
Remember the trip through beautiful Mt. Vernon, where we had our pictures taken on the front lawn; to the White House, where we had the honor of meeting President Coolidge and shaking hands with him; to the Capitol Building, where we visited the Senate Chamber, and later had the fun of riding on the little cars which are used by the Senators in going from one building to another.
I know we will never forget the trip through historic old Boston; the night we saw Niagara Falls illuminated in all its icy splendor; the evening we were entertained in the lavish home of the Cushman’s in New York; and the breath-taking climax of Banff and Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockiest The list would be virtually endless, were one to enumerate all the interesting and educational trips which Mr. Schmidt so thoughtfully planned for us, and we sincerely appreciated it.

TYPICAL ST. OLAF CHOIR TOUR, EAST

City Concert Hall Hotel
Milwaukee, Wis. Civic Auditorium

Plankinton

Battlel Creek, Mich. W.K.Kellogg Auditorium
Post Tavern
Detroit, Mich. Music Hall
Statler
Cleveland, Ohio Music Hall
Cleveland
Buffalo, N.Y. Kleinhans Music Hall
Statler
Utica, N.Y. Uptown Theatre
Utica
Troy, N.Y. Music Hall
Henrik Hudson
Boston, Mass. Symphony Hall
Statler
New Haven, Conn. Woolsey Hall, Yale
Taft
New York, N.Y. Carnegie Hall
Taft
Brooklyn, N.Y. Academy of Music
Taft
Philadelphia, Pa. Academy of Music
Adelp
Reading, Pa. Rajah Theatre
Abraham Lincoln
Bethlehem, Pa. Grace Hall, Lehigh U.
Bethlehem
Harrisburg, Pa. Forum
Penn Harris
Washington, D.C. Constitution Hall
Statler
Pittsburgh, Pa. Syria Mosque
William Penn
Chicago, Ill. Orchestra Hall
Palmer House
Champaign, Ill. University Auditorium
Inman

TYPICAL ST. OLAF CHOIR TOUR, SOUTH AND EAST

City
Concert Hall
Hotel
Chicago, Ill. United Lutheran Church, Oak Park
Knickerbocker
Joliet, Ill. High School
Woodruff
Bloomington, Ill. Capen Auditorium
Rogers
St. Louis, Mo. Odeon
Statler
Nashville, Tenn. War Memorial Auditorium
Andrew Jackson
Atlanta, Ga. Wesley Memorial
Ausley
Jacksonville, Fla. Templel Theatre
George Washington
St. Petersburg, Fla. First Congregational Church
Pfeil
Miami, Fla. The White Temple
Kortez
Charleston, S.C. Victory Theatre
Francis Marie
Columbia, S.C. Township Auditorium
Columbia
Charlotte, N.C. City Auditorium
Charlotte
Roanoke, Va. Jefferson H.S.
Patrick Henry
New York, N.Y. Metropolitan Opera House
Pennsylvania
Washington, D.C. Constitution Hall
Powhattan
York, Pa. Wm. Penn High School
Sleepers
Pittsburgh, Pa. Carnegie Music Hall
Fort Pitt
Mansfield, Ohio High School
Sleepers
Chicago, Ill. Orchestra Hall
Palmer House
Rockford, Ill. Emanuel Lutheran Church
Faust

 

TYPICAL ST, OLAF CHOIR TOUR, PACIFIC COAST CITY

City
Concert Hall
Hotel
Fergus Falls, Minn. High School
River Inn
Fargo, N. Dak. Moorhead Armory
Gardner
Grand Forks, N. Dak. High School
Minot, N. Dak. State Teachers College
Sleepers
Spokane, Wash. Lewis & Clark H.S.
Davenport
Seattle, Wash. First Presbyterian Church
Olympic
Tacoma, Wash. P.L.C. Memorial
Winthrop
Portland, Ore. Civic Auditorium
Heathmore
Salem, Ore. High School
Sleepers
Klamath Falls, Ore. High School
Sleepers
Sacramento, Calif. Memorial Auditorium
Senator
San Francisco, Calif. War Memorial Opera House
Whitcomb
Fresno, Calif. High School
Sleepers
Los Angeles, Calif. Philharmonic Auditorium
Alexandria
La Jolla, Calif. (appreciation) High School
San Diego, Calif. Hoover High School
San Diego
Pasadena, Calif. Civic Auditorium
Alexandria
Ogden, Utah High School
Ben Lomond
Denver, Colo. Civic Auditorium
Brown Palace
Cheyenne, Wyo. High School
Sleepers
Omaha, Nebr. Technical H.S.
Fontenelle
Des Moines, Iowa Sherman Auditorium
Kirkwood

 

TYPICAL ST. OLAF CHOIR TOUR, SOUTH

City
Concert Hall
Hotel
Siouxl City, Iowa Shrine Auditorium
Warrior
Omaha, Nebr. Technical High School
Paxton
Lincoln, Nebr. High School
Lincoln
Kansas City, Mo. Ivanhoe Temple
LaSalle
Emporia, Kans. State Auditorium
Broadview
Wichita, Kans. Auditorium Friends “U”
Lassen
Oklahoma City, Okla. Shrine Auditorium
Sleepers
Dallas, Texas Fair Park Auditorium
Adolphus
Shreveport, La. Municipal Auditorium
Washington-Youree
Denton, Texas State College
Adolphus (Dallas)
Waco, Texas Baylor “U,” Auditorium
Raleigh
Austin, Texas Gregory Gym, Texas “U”
Stephen F. Austin
San Antonio, Texas Municipal Auditorium
Plaza
Corpus Christi, Texas High School
Plaza
Houston, Texas Sam Houston Auditorium
Rice
New Orleans, La. Municipal Auditorium
Jung
Jackson, Miss. Victory Room, Heidelberg
Heidelberg
Memphis, Tenn. Ellis Auditorium
Peabody
St. Louis, Mo. Opera House
Jefferson
Peoria, Ill. Shrine Mosque
Jefferson
Chicago, Ill. Orchestra Hall
Palmer House

 

 

PROGRAM OF THE 1920
ST. OLAF LUTHERAN CHOIR TOUR

Part I
Blessing, Glory, and Wisdom Anthem for Double Chorus
J.S. Bach
Praise to the Lord Choral Anthem for Double Chorus
Peter Söhren
Built on a Rock Choral Anthem for Double Chorus
L. M. Lindeman
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Dr. Martin Luther
Part II
The Word of God Anthem for Six Voices
Edward Grieg
Saviour of Sinners Solo and Double Chorus
F. Mendelssohn
O God, Hear My Prayer Anthem for Eight Voices
A. Gretchaninoff
Part III
Father Most Holy Choral Anthem for Solo and Chorus
Johan Cruger
Hosanna
F. Melius Christiansen
Beautiful Saviour Solo and Chorus Melody from 12th Century
Wake, Awake Choral for Double Chorus
Philip Nicolai

 

My Years at St. Olaf

Chapters:

Foreword
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