St. Olaf College | News

Lift Every Voice and Sing: Anton Armstrong reflects on choral music during Black History Month

Anton Armstrong ’78 conducting during the St. Olaf Christmas Festival.

In 1990, Anton Armstrong ’78 became the fourth conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. Today he is the Harry R. and Thora H. Tosdal Chair in Music, Artistic Director of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, and a worldwide leader in the arena of choral music.

Before Armstrong’s tenure, music programmed for the St. Olaf Choir was mostly focused on Western traditions and white composers. After joining the faculty, Armstrong immediately brought his personal touch and perspective to the choir, building on its legacy while maintaining its rich heritage.

One of Armstrong’s biggest contributions has been expanding the repertoire performed by the St. Olaf Choir to include more diverse narratives, languages, and composers. Programming for the choir now regularly includes music from the Pacific Islands, Africa, and Latin America as well as the Judeo-Christian and African American experience, among so many others.

Armstrong is likewise a champion for music created by marginalized voices across the wider choral music community, both in his programming as a regular guest conductor of youth choirs across America and as the editor of a multicultural choral series for Earthsongs Publications.

The world has changed profoundly since 1990 when Armstrong accepted the position of conductor for the St. Olaf Choir. Through his individual efforts and the shared values of other contemporary colleagues, choral music has shifted to become more inclusive. Nationally, thanks to the many steps taken by diverse leaders and change-makers who influenced their own communities, important conversations and changes have happened as well. Contributing to that progress is something Armstrong has committed to for his whole professional career.

“And if somebody gets upset with them, with all due respect, the problem is not mine it’s theirs,” Armstrong says.

Through it all, Armstrong has held to his belief that music is transformational and transcends language and culture. It communicates messages of truth, understanding, justice, peace, hope, and love.

He is committed to performing works that speak on social justice issues, whether he’s programming for a tour of the St. Olaf Choir or hosting an episode of Sounds from St. Olaf. He often parallels the messages of social justice in choral repertoire with the teachings of the gospel.

As the choir’s first Black conductor in a string of all-white conductors, Armstrong’s appointment to the position was a landmark decision at the time, and one that has greatly enriched the college.

Although Armstrong has thrived at St. Olaf, and has developed here as a worldwide leader in both music instruction and diversifying choral music, progress still needs to be made — both at St. Olaf and within the broader choral music community.

I have flourished, I have thrived, but too many of my colleagues have not. And that has to change.Anton Armstrong ’78

“St. Olaf is a wonderful place, I would have been a fool to have been here for 31 years if there wasn’t a lot of goodness,” Armstrong says. “But there are a lot of things that have inhibited. And I have flourished, I have thrived, but too many of my colleagues have not. And that has to change.”

Lift Every Voice And Sing: A Celebration of African American Music

On Sunday, February 14, at 3:30 p.m. CT, Armstrong hosted a new episode of St. Olaf’s digital concert series Sounds from St. Olaf. The episode is titled “Lift Every Voice And Sing: A Celebration of African American Music” and honors Black History Month and lifts up musical works that have been created or inspired by African Americans. You can watch it here.