CHAPTER 20: Music at St. Olaf

FATHER and Mother were not musical, but Mother inherited from her family the first melodeon ever to appear in Winneshiek County, Iowa, where she was born. Across from our rooms in the boys’ dormitory, Miss Martha Larson, the piano teacher, had her studio, so I used to hear those music lessons constantly as a child; I believe, however, the first time I really became aware of music was when Father died and the St. Olaf band marched ahead of the funeral cortege playing Chopin’s Funeral March. It was a bitterly cold day, and they played continually all the way from Ytterboe Hall to town and across the river until we reached old St. John’s Church. I never hear that funeral march without thinking of those sad days.

My next memory of music was of the Norwegian Studenter Singers’ visit to the St. Olaf campus and of the all-faculty supper for them on the lawn in front of Ytterboe Hall. Though they looked quite old to me, they seemed to move about a great deal, the tassels of their funny caps flying as they went. My next recollection was of the band that went to Norway in 1906. Their new grey uniforms trimmed with black thrilled me. But what really impressed me was Professor P. G. Schmidt in uniform with a high white bearskin shako and leather straps under his chin. How handsome he looked marching proudly ahead of the band as they played lively march music. I was so proud of them. It seems strange to me now, but I don’t even remember Dr. F. Melius Christiansen at the time. I must have been too impressed with the outward and visible signs.

Cousin George Mohn was on that Norway trip which was such a huge success. He used to tell us many of his experiences, and we thought him an authority on everything Norwegian since he was the only one of us who had been to Norway.

The following winter we were all tobogganing down the hill in front of the Main. George, the great authority on Norway, told us that in Norway they steered the toboggan from the rear; so he got a fish pole, and we got on the toboggan with George steering at the rear with his fish pole. That was the only time we tipped over! After that, we became slightly suspicious of Cousin George and his great knowledge of Norway.

Music was really in the air on the campus. We children never missed a senior or a junior recital in Hoyme Chapel. The ushers always wore evening dresses; only close friends of the ones who were giving the recital were chosen to act as ushers. It was considered a real privilege. Concerts flourished. I remember the Flonzelle Quartet and shall never forget David Bispham in his most famous song “Der Erlkonig” as well as many other wonderful musical treats. One summer the St. Olaf Octet travelled most of the summer giving concerts, with Dr. Christiansen directing and Dr. Kildahl giving spiritual talks between numbers. My brother-in-law, Joseph Tetlie, was a member of that octet, and Dr. Christiansen said to my sister and my brother-in-law in my presence that he considered the St. Olaf Octet the forerunner of the St. Olaf choir.

How romantic the spring open-air band concerts in the Finseth bandstand were. Ida Marvick always sang two songs on such occasions, and we thrilled to her lovely voice. It seems to me that the moon always shone during those concerts. The air was full of springtime and the moonlight made soft patterns on the grass. We girls usually had a boy friend hovering near so that real romance filled our hearts. Lovely evenings they were.

Gradually, F. Melius Christiansen became more interested in the choir than in the band. I believe it was in 1913 that the choir went to Norway. I sang in the Choral Union when I was in the Academy, but when I became a freshman in college, I wanted to get into the choir. Oh, how I wanted to get into the choir! It was my heart’s desire. Dr. Christiansen was holding tryouts in the studio at his house that year. I took my piece of music and marched down the avenue to his house, trembling with fear. Of course, our family knew the Christiansens very well, but that didn’t matter. I was really scared to death. The piece of music I had selected was “The Requiem,” the music by Sidney Homer with words by Robert Louis Stevenson.

F. Melius wasn’t a very good accompanist. He always played too loud. The opening of my piece had a crashing chord, and Christy, as we affectionately called him, really crashed down on it. I lifted my voice and in a quavering small voice started to sing the words “Under the wide and starry skies.” Christy stopped abruptly, turned around on the piano stool and said, “Edel, turn your face to the wall and think of your grandmother and your grandfather. Now sing!” Then “crash” went the chord. I lost all my fright and sang as I have never sung before. I got into the choir! My life was complete! Then came the years of the first World War, and many of the boys in the choir left school. The membership of the choir was greatly diminished. However, we did take some trips to small towns not far away. We members were parceled off to stay with church parishioners.

We always sang in Lutheran churches. It was then considered sacrilegious to clap hands in church, so the Chautauqua Salute was given us. That consisted of the audience waving their handkerchiefs after each number to show their appreciation!

In the fall of 1919 the boys came back from the war and the men’s sections were then completed. We students felt there was something in the air. Oftentimes at rehearsals in Hoyme Chapel strangers came in to hear us. I remember an elderly man, I think he was a Frenchman. After one number he rushed on the stage and said: “I haven’t heard that song sung so well since I heard Gounod himself conduct it.”

One evening while we were rehearsing “Beautiful Saviour,” Christy said to us, “Let us try this.” He went over to the piano and played a few measures. We were given the music written in his own hand. It was the last seven measures of the hymn “Beautiful Saviour” with its gradual crescendos and gloriously powerful ending. After we sang it, Christy smiled at us and said, “Good.” Those last seven measures are now such a part of his arrangement of “Beautiful Saviour” that we can hardly believe they had not been a part of it from the very beginning.

Then came a man from New York City. His name was Mr. Hanson. We later learned that he was a professional agent and that he had powerful connections in musical circles in the East and throughout the country. The St. Olaf authorities showed great wisdom in selecting him as agent as he had entree with some of the most distinguished critics in our land. Mr. Hanson looked like a rather nervous fat man to us. He seemed jolly enough and told us to call him Papa Hanson.

Christmas came and the year 1920 arrived. We practiced constantly, then we were told we were going East to give concerts in all the big cities of the East. We were thrilled. A new platform was made for us. It was a circular platform made of small boards which, we were told, would be more restful for us while standing through the long concerts. We thought that was most thoughtful, but, to tell the truth, we were so young and healthy we never got tired. Then we got vestments. The black academic gowns were used, but white satin cottas were made for each one of us. Now that was really grand in our eyes because we had never used vestments of any kind before. Wearing those we felt we could tackle anything. We didn’t worry about the music at all; at least, I didn’t, and I do believe that was the feeling of all the choir members. If we pleased Christy, that was all we needed to do. In our eyes he was all powerful, all knowing, and we held him in deep affection and great awe. I had heard that Christy could get very angry and that sometimes he even threw his baton at the band members, but I never saw him lose his temper.

He was always kind to us and sometimes gave us fatherly advice. I remember he said to us one evening during practice “Do not be self-conscious, it is the greatest barrier to friendship. You may not realize it, but self-consciousness is a form of selfishness. You are only thinking of yourself. You should try to think of others and then your self-consciousness will go away.” What wonderful advice to give to young people. I have always remembered his words and have used them many times in my life when I wanted to help young people.

We didn’t see very much of Papa Hanson and when the time came for us to depart, we left Northfield in two railroad coaches and stayed in very nice hotels throughout the trip. Dorothy Schmidt was my roommate. We had known each other since we were babies, and, although she was a couple of years younger than I, we had been intimate friends all our lives. It seemed to me that Professor P. G. Schmidt took charge of all traveling arrangements. He must have had many difficulties taking such a large group around, but he was always calm and serene and truly we were well taken care of. But I do not for a moment want to discredit the work of Papa Hanson. The success of our trip was largely due to him. He had powerful musical connections and it was to him that credit must be given for the musical acclaim the choir received. That an unknown choir from a small town in the Middlewest was able to bring to its concerts the most noted, the most gifted and the most discerning musical critics of our great country was entirely due to Papa Hanson. Of course, in back of it all was the genius of Dr. F. Melius Christiansen.

We students were given two dollars a day to pay for our breakfast, dinner and supper. We thought that was a generous amount, but as time went on we found that the two dollars went very quickly. Whenever we came to a new city we used to look for a restaurant. We would first look into the window to see if they had baskets on the table filled with bread and rolls. If they did, that was the restaurant we chose, and I can truthfully say that when we left, there was not a piece of bread nor a roll left in the basket.

Alpha Lindaas was soloist for “Beautiful Saviour” and she was a close friend to Dorothy and me. She must have had some money of her own, because at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago she ordered chicken sandwiches to be sent to the room. Dorothy and I refused to share the expense with her, but when she couldn’t eat all the sandwiches, we finished them off.

I was able to save enough from my two dollars a day allowance to buy my mother a present. It was a rather gaudy pin, but I thought it was elegant. I noticed afterwards that my genteel mother wore it a few times, but after that I didn’t see much of it. It must have been a rather cheap looking affair. We didn’t see much of concert halls, only the stage entrances. As we marched in and took our places, we never stared at the audience in the theater. We were not told to do this, but we instinctively felt it was not the proper thing to do. We had eyes only for Christy. We were dignified and poised. However, when we got to Carnegie Hall in New York, I did cast my eye for a brief moment to look at that famous hall with its boxes and tiers of balconies. The concert at Carnegie Hall was a great success, and I remember that when Alpha Lindaas sang the solo in “Beautiful Saviour,” Christy motioned to her to bow. How proud Dorothy and I were of Alpha. She had a full, rich voice, and it seemed to us she raised the full splendor of bel canto singing when she sang those lovely words “Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands robed in flowers of blooming spring.”

To go back for a moment, the morning before the Carnegie Hall concert the choir was taken on a bus tour of the city. Dorothy, Alpha and I were sitting on top of the bus. A Mr. Simpson, who evidently was a musician of some sort, was our host. When we got to Grant’s Tomb on the Hudson River, someone started to sing, and we all began to “agonize” as we called it. That disturbed Mr. Simpson very much. He kept saying: “Save your voices, save your voices.” We were astonished to hear him say that as we all felt we could sing all day and all night and never tire our voices, but I can well understand his consternation now that I am older.

We were to sing that night in Carnegie Hall, and the greatest musical critics of New York City were to be there to hear us. Mr. Simpson was a worried man.

I have often wondered in later years if F. Melius Christiansen ever was nervous before such a concert. If he was, he never showed it to us; he was as firm as a rock, and we felt that if we sang well enough to satisfy him, that was all we needed to do.

With that concert tour, Christiansen’s revolutionizing of choral singing in the United States began. Up to that time, even in the ivy league colleges, the glee clubs used to sing such songs as “Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day,” and “The Pope He Leads a Jolly Life.” Now these same glee clubs began to sing good music. The St. Olaf Choir had lit a candle that would soon grow into a bright flame as college after college became acquainted with the famous St. Olaf Choir.

When we got back to Northfield, we were met by the St. Olaf Band, and St. Olaf College declared a holiday. We were surprised because we felt we hadn’t done anything great; it was all the work of Christy. We were accompanied by the band from the depot up to The Hill. At Hoyme Chapel, we choir members were seated on the raised chairs back of the platform where the faculty usually sat during chapel exercises. Every seat in the chapel was taken. Dr. Boe was President and spoke as only Dr. Boe could speak in glowing terms of love and pride, then he said, “We want to hear a word from Dr. Christiansen.”

Dr. Christiansen got up, walked over to the lectern, looked calmly at the students gathered there and said “hello” and then he sat down!

I presume it was the shortest speech ever known to man, but Dr. Boe had said “a word” — so Christy said it.

That was the end of the famous 1920 concert tour, but certainly it was not the end of the choir’s fame. The St. Olaf Concert Choir became world-renowned.

After that, I graduated and married and didn’t have a chance to hear the choir for a number of years. I often visited Mother, but it was always in the summertime, and the students were not there. Then we heard that the St. Olaf Choir was to take its first trip South. The nearest city to us was Chattanooga where it was to appear. Of course, my husband and I went to hear it. I must say this in praise of my husband: he had learned to admire the Norwegians very much and had become almost as good a St. Olafite as I am. We had friends in Chattanooga, and my husband wrote to his friend, Mr. George Fort Milton, who owned The Chattanooga Times. He gave the choir much free publicity. We went up to stay with our friends, Mr. and Mrs. James Finlay, who entertained the choir at an afternoon tea. I was a little concerned as to how Christy would appear, as I knew him and I knew that if he did not feel like saying anything, he didn’t say anything, but if he were in a good mood, he could be as charming as anybody!

I didn’t worry about Professor P. G. Schmidt, who always met people so well with manners so gracious. Therefore, at the tea, I hovered around Dr. Christiansen to help out if there were any awkward moments. I didn’t need to worry. Christy was having a good time. I remember he was standing in the large hall surrounded by five or six people. The President of the University was there. They were all holding their tea cups and plates. All of a sudden Dr. Christiansen said to the President of the University in his rich Norwegian accent “Have you ever heard of Mark Twain’s trip to heaven?” The President of the University answered in a dignified way, “No, Dr. Christiansen, I don’t believe I have.”

“Well, it was just like this,” said Dr. Christiansen. “Mark Twain died and he went to heaven. He played on his harp and he sang the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ Finally, he got sick of playing the harp and he got sick of singing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ and I am sick of holding this plate.” Well, that made a hit and immediately his tea cup was removed. Truly F. Melius Christiansen was an original.

He promised me that the choir would sing “Beautiful Saviour” as an encore. The concert was a great success, and the large auditorium seating three thousand people was filled. After the concert, my husband and I went backstage to say “goodbye” to P. G. and Christy. When I stood talking with Christy, he said to me: “Edel, what is it you look for in the desert?”

I didn’t know what he meant, so I said that I really didn’t know. And after that, he said a couple of times, “Oh, you know what you look for in the desert. Everybody looks for it in the desert.”

I still didn’t know, and then he smiled at me and said: “Oasis. Edel, you are an oasis in the desert to me,” meaning, of course, that I was the only St. Olaf alumna whom he knew in the South. It was one of the sweetest compliments I have ever received.

The subject “Music at St. Olaf” is getting too long, but thoughts keep crowding my mind urging me to write them down. I want to give you one more story of the choir. It was when Olaf Christiansen was director and Frederick Schmidt was the impresario. Years ago Ole and I were great friends, although he was some years younger than I was. I can’t remember what year it was that the Northfield community started a public swimming place on the Cannon River. They built two tin bath houses, one for the boys and one for the girls. They were located some distance above the southernmost bridge. There Ole and I were given jobs for the summer. We were not even given the title of swimming instructors, nor were we even given the title of lifeguards. I believe our titles were “keepers of the bath houses.” There Ole and I spent a delightful summer. Our friends Gertrude and Dorothy Schmidt, Nordis Felland and the Lawrence twins from Carleton were with us every day. Ole and I were given salaries, but they were very, very small. We were in and out of the water constantly and, as a result, we often got water in our ears. To get the water out of our ears we would bend our heads and give a big kick with our leg. That usually did the job. We called it the Bath House Salute.

I lost track of Ole for a while, but whenever we met, whether it was in a dignified hotel in a strange city or on the St. Olaf campus, we gave each other the Bath House Salute. It became a real tradition.

Years later, the choir came to sing in Anniston, Alabama, my home town. They were on the regular concert course. I started work in September, although the concert was scheduled for February. It might seem strange to St. Olaf people, but in our town of more than 40,000 people in the Deep South, the rank and file of people had never heard of the St. Olaf Choir. The South was far behind the rest of the nation in the knowledge of choral singing. Of course, the musicians had heard of it, but they were a small number compared to the rest of the population. It was my task to tell them about the choir.

First, I wrote an article in our newspaper, then I talked up the choir in all the clubs. At last the day arrived. I went to meet the choir at four o’clock in the afternoon. They were in two buses, and I took them all over the city and up on the mountains, as we live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I took them to our beautiful cathedral, which is written up in Baedeker as a thing of beauty to look upon. Then we went to the country club where my husband and I entertained them for dinner. Before we sat down, I talked to the choir members, telling them of my love for the choir and my devotion to St. Olaf College, ending up with my father’s words, “Stand by the college, stand by the college.”

The auditorium was packed. I had asked the Mayor of our city to give Dr. Christiansen the keys to the city. Our Mayor was a politician, and not very knowledgeable in music, so he asked me to write his speech for him. Olaf Christiansen responded beautifully, and it gave a feeling of intimacy between the choir and the audience, which it otherwise would not have had. I really was quite tired, so I decided I would just relax and enjoy the concert to the fullest. This I did. The choir was as beautiful as ever and in some respects even more so with its lovely delicate shadings. When the concert was over and two encores had been given, I saw the entire middle section of the audience standing up and I thought that they were hurrying to get to their cars; but no. They were giving the choir the first standing ovation ever given in Anniston! My eyes were filled with tears, I was so touched. Later on, I was selfish. I had Ole and Fred up to our house where they, my husband, and I had a good time talking about the days of our youth and becoming acquainted again. I also had the opportunity to tell Ole he had become a great artist and that he and Fred were worthy sons of their fathers.

Everybody spoke so highly of the concert and the dignity of the choir members. I even got letters of appreciation from people I did not know, thanking me for giving them a great and wonderful spiritual experience in song. Truly, I was proud of them all.

 

 

Olaf Christiansen, Mrs. Ayers, Frederick Schmidt taken in Anniston, Alabama before the dinner given in honor of the St. Olaf Choir.

The Old Main

Chapters:

Foreword
Mohn and Ytterboe Family Connections
The Old Synod
The Reverend Bernt Muus
Young Professor Ytterboe
The First Bathtub at St. Olaf College
1898-1899
1899
A New Day and A New President
Chapel Prayers by H. T. Ytterboe
1903-1904
Aftermath
Erik Hetle and Ole Rölvaag
Hoyme Chapel
Old Buildings at St. Olaf College
1300 St. Olaf Avenue
Agnes Margaret Kittelsby
Professor O. G. Felland
Agnes Mellby
Town and Gown
Music at St. Olaf
St. Olaf’s First Rhodes Scholar
My Mother, Mrs. H. T. Ytterboe