Historical documents show that the year 1891 is “when the idea first entered the heads of a few energetic young men to start a band” at St. Olaf College. It was the first musical organization at St. Olaf, a college which is now internationally known for its excellence in music. Fourteen young men met four times a week to practice with the help of Prof. John Dahle and later with student directors from within the band. The band gave its first ever open-air concert at Northfield City Park on June 17, 1893.
In 1899, Andrew Onstad, a former student clarinetist, took over as the formal leader of the ensemble. “Mr. Onstad, having been a student here himself and knowing how hard it was for the students to meet the necessary expenses every year, to say nothing about paying a leader, undertook to instruct the band for a very small salary,” according to a report in the 1904 Viking yearbook.
F. Melius Christiansen, who founded the college’s music department and later the St. Olaf Choir, took over direction of the St. Olaf Band in 1903. He took the group on its first tour in January of 1905, with concerts in 17 cities in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. This was no small feat considering the state of transportation technology in those early years. In 1906, Christiansen took the Band on an even more ambitious tour – to Norway, his homeland – thus making it the first American college instrumental musical organization to conduct a concert tour abroad. The band performed for King Haakon and played to capacity crowds at 30 separate concerts.
In ensuing years the St. Olaf Band continued to play an important role in campus activities, performing in specialized concerts, at college celebrations and at commencement exercises. J. Arndt Bergh assumed the position of band director in 1919, followed in time by Donald Berglund and Bruce Howden. Another milestone was reached in the 1920-21 season when the band welcomed its first female members, Klara Overby and Clara Duea.
The band’s centennial was celebrated in June of 1991 with a three-week tour of England, Wales and Scotland. One of the highlights of that tour was a meeting with renowned British composer Malcolm Arnold, who attended the band’s concert in Norwich. The composer was lavish in his praise of the group, which performed “Four Scottish Dances,” one of his compositions. The St. Olaf Band was also the only American college music ensemble to perform at the famed Aldeburgh Festival in England.
The St. Olaf Band opened the next page in its illustrious history with the 1994 appointment of Dr. Timothy Mahr as conductor, replacing Miles Johnson who retired after his 37th year as band director. A St. Olaf graduate and a prominent composer, Dr. Mahr has since continued the band’s legacy by pushing the ensemble to new levels at every possible opportunity. Besides traditional annual domestic tours, the band, under Dr. Mahr’s direction, has toured in Norway, Britain and Ireland, Mexico, Japan, Spain, Italy and France and, in 2018, Australia and New Zealand. The band celebrated its 125th anniversary with a winter tour climaxing in a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Feb. 6, 2016. The band was the 2021 recipient of The American Prize for small college band programs.
In 2023, Dr. Henry Dorn was named the newest conductor of the St. Olaf Band, following the retirement of Dr. Mahr. A composer and conductor in his own right. Dr. Dorn will continue to maintain the band’s legacy, and chart a course for the ensemble’s bright future.