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The Legacy of the Saint Olaf Choir

  The Saint Olaf Choir

The Saint Olaf Choir, 1919-20

April 15, 2001 Saint Paul Sunday Program
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About the Choir

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By the time he retired in 1941, F. Melius Christiansen had been knighted by the King of Norway, granted four honorary doctorates, and lauded in a book about his life. He was by then a much sought-after speaker and conductor, had composed or arranged more than 600 songs, and had directed his beloved St. Olaf Choir before kings, emperors, and United States presidents.

1996 marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of Christiansen, who founded the St. Olaf Choir and the St. Olaf Music Department and helped pioneer a cappella choral singing in America. Generations of concert-goers have thrilled to performances of his choral arrangements, though not many today would recognize his name.

The son of a Norwegian factory worker, Frederik Melius Christiansen was born in Eidsvold, Norway, on April 1, 1871, emigrating to the United States at the age of 17. He arrived in Washburn, Wisconsin, during the winter - cold, hungry, and penniless, but musically talented. The next several years were critical in establishing his career as a formidable musician. He studied at Augsburg College, and conducted and performed in the Twin Cities area.

In 1897, he returned to Europe to study three years at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, Germany. From 1900 to 1903, he taught violin in Minneapolis before accepting an appointment as director of the fledgling music program at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

In 1911-12, the St. Olaf Choir was founded as an outgrowth of the St. John's Lutheran Church Choir in Northfield. For the next 30 years, Christiansen led the St. Olaf Choir, striving for perfect intonation, blend, diction, and phrasing. He saw his contribution to music not as one of genius or inspiration, but one of hard work.

That standard was refined and the choir's repertoire widened under the direction of Christiansen's son, Olaf Christiansen, who provided distinguished leadership from 1941 to 1968. He added 16th-century and modern American music to the hymn settings of the Lutheran tradition favored by his father. Kenneth Jennings, who led the ensemble from 1968 to 1990, broadened its repertoire even further. He reached beyond traditional Western European works to Eastern European and Asian music. The choirs he directed were noted for their nuance of phrase and artistic sense of line. Jennings also introduced the occasional use of instruments.

Armstrong Builds on the Jennings Tradition
  The Saint Olaf Choir

Dr. Anton Armstrong

Anton Armstrong grew up on Long Island, outside of New York City. His parents came from the Caribbean, and both he and his mother sang in their church choir. That led to Armstrong's membership in the American Boychoir in Princeton, New Jersey, an American counterpart to the famed Vienna Boychoir. "That experience lit my fire for choral singing," Armstrong recalls. "So when I began to look at colleges, I looked for schools with a strong choral program." Not surprisingly, he settled on St. Olaf College.

After graduating from St. Olaf, Armstrong earned degrees at the University of Illinois and at Michigan State University. He became the fourth conductor of the St. Olaf Choir in September 1990, following 10 years in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he served on the faculty of Calvin College.

Armstrong has built on the Jennings tradition, retaining the healthy and free sound that he enjoyed during his own years as a member of the choir in the 1970s. He has also continued to add to the repertoire, programming more music from Eastern Europe, Africa, and from Latin and South America. Armstrong has also turned to contemporary young composers for new compositions and arrangements for the ensemble.

Selections included in recent St. Olaf Choir tours reflect the musical diversity that Armstrong has established a reputation for examining. In addition to classic and contemporary compositions from the western European choral tradition, Armstrong features a rich spectrum of music from the United States as well. Compositions included in the 2000 tour also reflect his ongoing commitment choral literature performed from a global perspective.

Internationally Acclaimed
Throughout its history, the St. Olaf Choir has performed for capacity audiences in the major concert halls of New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Ann Arbor, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Minneapolis. Nearly 25,000 people attended concerts during the 1995 East Coast tour; 20,000 turned out for its 1996 tour to the southern states. Eleven tours to Europe and Asia have contributed to the choir's international acclaim. The 1997 tour to New Zealand and Austrialia marked the St. Olaf Choir's first tour "down under" and further broadened its worldwide profile.

In 1993, the ensemble completed a 21-day concert tour of Norway and Denmark that included appearances at the Bergen International Festival and major concert halls in Oslo and Copenhagen.

In 1988, the St. Olaf Choir was one of only five choirs in the world invited to participate in the Seoul Olympic Arts Festival in South Korea. Two years earlier, the choir celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding with a four-week concert tour to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the People's Republic of China.

The St. Olaf Choir is also distinguished by being the only student ensemble ever invited to participate in the prestigious Strasbourg (France) Festival. The choir was so well received during its initial appearance there in 1970 that it was invited back
to open the festival in 1972.

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