Minnesota's Lutherans find their voice
It is a simple, haunting hymn, the kind that seems to rise directly from the soul of the person singing it. The words are translated from a German hymnbook; the melody is a Silesian folk tune. It is called "Beautiful Savior," and it is the signature piece of the St. Olaf College Choir.
"Beautiful Savior" is one of many choral arrangements by F. Melius Christiansen, a Norwegian-born musician who studied in Leipzig, Germany, before moving to Northfield, Minnesota. His first job was as organist at Northfield's St. John's Lutheran Church, which was affiliated with St. Olaf College. In 1903, he was also hired to teach music and direct the band at the college. He soon reorganized the church choir, filling out the ranks with St. Olaf students and faculty. In 1912, before his choir made its first extended tour to Wisconsin, he renamed it the "St. Olaf Lutheran Choir."
Christiansen became a recognized pioneer in arranging and conducting a cappella choral music. Through his influence, Minnesota became the acknowledged home of the Lutheran choral tradition in America. He trained hundreds of choral conductors, who spread his influence nationwide, including his sons Olaf, who succeeded him as director of the St. Olaf Choir, and Paul, who directed the Concordia College Choir in Moorhead, Minnesota, from 1936 to 1986.
Today, "Beautiful Savior" is always the final song performed at the St. Olaf Choir's popular Christmas Festivals. Audience members, including many former choir members, hum or sing along quietly with the choir. "At the end of each concert, as the applause dies away," writes Joel Hoekstra, St. Olaf Class of 1992 and former choir member, "it wells up out of nowhere: a rich humming sound that settles over the hall like a velvet blanket."
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My grandmother was at St. Olaf as a student in the academy (high school) way back in the early 1900s, and had F. Melius and Ole Rolvaag as teachers. I was in the 1970-3 St. Olaf Choir, and Dr. Kenneth Jennings directed. (Your exhibit says 1974-85, and that is probably from a record label, but he was director of the choir when I came to the college in 1969.) Our choir sang in Strasbourg Cathedral in France, performing the b minor Mass of J.S. Bach there. It was completely packed. From listening to the recordings you have in the exhibit, I think Dr. Jennings really improved the sound of the Ole Choir. He is also a notable Minnesota composer, as is his wife, Carolyn. Brenda Sielaff, Class of '73.