There’s a Long Tradition for Singing in Northfield

Originally Published in the June 2009 Entertainment Guide

Ann North was the first fount of music for Northfield, playing piano and singing at the town’s first local gatherings. Photo credit: Northfield Historical Society

Northfield’s rich musical heritage can be traced back to Ann North, wife of Northfield’s founder, John North. When it came to a choice between bringing along either John North’s law library or Ann North’s piano when they moved from New York to Minnesota in 1849, her piano won and the law books were shipped later. Certainly, she fostered the inclusion of music in every civic milestone after the Norths moved from St. Anthony to Northfield, as she played and sang at local meetings of this new town.

The first schoolhouse for 25 pupils was built within a year of the town’s founding in 1855, and the celebratory dedication ceremony on Nov. 7, 1856, went on for hours. Ann North wrote to her parents in New York about this event, “I assure you we had a good time.” After mentioning the speakers, including the teacher and her husband, she said that a quintet of singers, including herself, sang three anthems: “Give Ear, O Shepherd,” “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain,” “Make a Joyful Noise,” and three pieces of secular music: “The Pilgrim Fathers,” “The Happiest Time is Now” and “Farewell Glee.” She said, “I played the melodeon.”

As described in last month’s column, John North wasted no time in establishing a Lyceum. When the Constitution for this debating society was written in October of 1856, the organizing committee recommended “that the Choir who now have the use of the hall for singing schools, have the continuance of such privilege only on condition of furnishing vocal music for the Lyceum at the opening and close of each meeting.”

The topic of women’s rights was one of the first to be debated and, after it was decided in the affirmative by both sexes, the session concluded (appropriately enough) with the singing of “There’s a Good Time Coming.” But during January of 1857, the Lyceum minutes noted an absence of singing. Hiram Scriver, secretary, wrote on Jan. 14, “Singing being called for, the genius of music had fled for the time, and the members were fine to content themselves with a musical excuse from the Pres.” A week later, Scriver wrote, “Singing was called for but being like our thermometers subject to great variations. We are now suffering under the minimum of the fever, consequently the music was minus.” Finally, in February, “Our ears were again greeted with music. The treat being not only in its merit, but in its novelty.”

It was not until 1872 when the Lockwood Opera House was built on Division Street that Northfield had a showcase of its own for musical and thespian talents. A souvenir program from the opening of the Ware Auditorium in 1899 on Washington Street said that the Lockwood stage was small but “on it played some good attractions for Northfield,” including lectures, plays, musicians and traveling shows. The opening of the Ware provided an even grander venue for entertainment, which continues today as the Grand Event Center.

By 1875, Northfield had a music teacher, Miss May Martin, and during the inaugural term of the St. Olaf’s School, also in 1875, the school offered instruction in piano, organ and the elements of note reading in vocal class. An early school choir was formed on Dec. 3 with 28 boys and nine girls. In April 1876, the choir officers decided to join a new gymnastics club instead and that choir ended, but a music teacher, Miss Ella Fiske, provided vocal and instrumental entertainment with her students that spring.

A Haydn Chorus (which included both students and town residents) was formed at Carleton and grew from 20 to about 60 participants by the end of the 1877-78 school year when this choir provided music for commencement week. In 1880, the Department of Music at Carleton became the first department to have its own building.

In March 1888, the Manitou Messenger reported: “Song choirs are springing into existence and are as long-lived as May flies, an ephemeral insect which our prospective zoologists will be able to fully describe.” The first “concert tour” occurred on May 17,1889, when the male Kjerulf Quartet, a ladies quartet, a piano instructor and a violinist from St. Olaf traveled to far-off Kenyon.

Emily Skinner was active in music in the early days of Northfield, playing the melodeon for her Congregational Church. She said in a Jan. 1, 1926, Northfield News story, “I enjoyed singing! I would sing till I couldn’t talk. We gave the cantata ‘Queen Esther’ three nights in succession one year. The receipts the last night went to build a fence around the park. Cattle ran loose in those days so everyone had a fence. That fence was the first improvement made in the park.” By the way, she greatly facilitated singing on Carleton’s campus by donating Skinner Memorial Chapel in 1916, in honor of her husband Miron, a pioneer merchant, banker, mayor and Carleton board member

F. Melius Christiansen (shown here at the age of 80 in 1951) was founder and first director of the famous St. Olaf Choir. Photo credit: St. Olaf Archives

In 1900, St. Olaf music professor Oluf Glasoe organized a Choral Union of 56 singers who performed on Founders’ Day, Nov. 6. In the fall of 1903, F. Melius Christiansen became music director in the newly established Music Department and organized the first St. Olaf Music Festival of May 17-18, 1904. This event featured Haydn’s cantata “Creation,” performed by a chorus of invited singers and the Danz Symphony Orchestra of Minneapolis (forerunners of the Minneapolis and Minnesota Symphonies). The first of the famous Christmas festivals took place in December of 1912 and had been preceded in the spring of 1912 by the concert tour (of Wisconsin and Illinois), which had announced the name of “The St. Olaf Choir” for the first time. In 1913, the St. Olaf Choir made its first of many tours abroad, to Norway. In 1926, when the new Music Hall at St. Olaf was dedicated, the Minneapolis Symphony played a concert, which led to yearly exchanges between the symphony and the choir.

Meanwhile, at Carleton College, singing by a glee club was part of the first “May Fete” on May 22, 1909, along with marches, pole dances, ice cream and crowning of a May queen at Lyman Lakes. (By the 1920s, this festival attracted more outside visitors to Carleton than any other event.) The year 1912 was a banner year for vocal music at Carleton. The School of Music became the Conservatory of Music and was authorized to grant a bachelor of music degree. This same year, Edward (Ned) Strong, a noted tenor and son of Carleton’s first president, James Strong, became Professor of Voice and Dean of this Conservatory. Also, famed composer Frederick L. Lawrence (nicknamed “Daddy”) returned to be professor of piano, organ and composition and director of the college choir. He had led the choir from 1898-1901, when the choir was in its infancy at the Congregational Church.

In 1919, J. Arndt Bergh started his 29-year career as a music teacher at St. Olaf. He became the organizer and director of the Northfield Male Chorus. St. Olaf voice teacher Gertrude Boe Overby was a universally praised soprano soloist with the St. Olaf Choir for many years, even after her graduation in 1923. Her husband Oscar Overby, a St. Olaf professor who directed what became the Chapel Choir, was well-known in the choral music field. Later on, Alice Larsen (St. Olaf Class of 1951) taught voice and directed the Manitou Singers (the first year women’s chorus) from the mid-1950s until 1983, before retiring in 1989. It was said that she had directed more than 2000 singers in her long career.

The renowned St. Olaf Choir continues to bring international recognition to Northfield. It has had only four directors, all very esteemed, since its founding by F. Melius Christiansen: Olaf C. Christiansen, who succeeded his father as director in 1943 until 1968, when Kenneth Jennings took over; and Anton Armstrong, who was named director in 1990 and continues today.

Carleton’s choir has an esteemed vocal tradition, as well, including a presentation of the cantata “The Swan and the  Skylark” in 1920, accompanied by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Starting in 1947, Henry L. Woodward and his wife Enid (who directed the choir and glee club) continued to build up the Department of Music at Carleton. Two years were spent in preparation for a three-day Bach Festival in March of 1950 in which the Carleton Choir, directed by Enid Woodward, sang the entire Bach B Minor Mass. Two other prominent names in Carleton’s recent vocal history: composer Phillip Rhodes, who composed and premiered two operas while at Carleton, “The Gentle Boy” in 1982 and “The Magic Pipe” in 1992 and Lawrence Burnett (winner of the first New York Governors’ Award for African Americans of Distinction in 1992) who has been Carleton’s choral conductor since 1993.

Current Northfielder Dixon Bond is shown here (foreground center) in 1959, singing with the Carleton Knights group he founded in 1955. Photo credit: Carleton Archives

St. Olaf student Luther Onerheim founded the male Viking Chorus in 1935, which is now composed of first year men and directed by Dr. Christopher Aspaas. Still going strong at St. Olaf is the student-led a cappella ensemble, the Limestones, founded at St. Olaf in 1989. Among the student-organized singing groups at Carleton, which still exist today is the “Carleton Knights,” which originated in 1955 when Carleton freshman Dixon Bond formed a men’s a cappella singing group called “the Carltunes.”

Among the names to remember with long service in the choral history of Northfield High School are Paul W. Stoughton, director of music for the Northfield School System, who was the first choir director, from 1937-54 (as well as director of the band and orchestra); Yosh Murakami (St. Olaf Class of 1951), who served as choir director at NHS from 1954-68; and Wayne Kivell, who then took over until 1994. (One of the many NHS Choir highlights was being named the highest rated choir at the Keynote Choral Festival in Chicago in 1990.) And, of course, among student shows, the eagerly anticipated Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival always rocks the rafters and sells out all of its performances.

Also worthy of note are the Northfield Boys’ Chorus, founded by Robert Swanson in 1969, which toured the country until its end in 1984; the senior men’s chorus “The Troubadours,” celebrating its 30th anniversary this year (see profile on page 22); the Northfield Chorale, founded by Connie Sansome and Robert Scholz, which existed from 1980-1998; the Northfield Youth Choir, organized by Cora Scholz and Judy Bond in 1987 and now directed by Elizabeth Shepley; and KidzSing (started in 2004) for elementary age students. One highlight of the Chorale was the 1987 premiere of St. Olaf professor Carolyn Jennings’ choral song cycle, “Sitting on the Porch,” based on poems by Minnesota poets, including  three with Northfield connections: Mary Easter, Joan Wolf Prefontaine and E. Reed Whittemore.

The Northfield Arts Guild, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has its own proud vocal tradition, which will be the subject of my August column.

Paul Stoughton (at piano) was the first Northfield High School choir director. His successor, Yosh Murakami, stands behind him in this 1954 photo.Photo credit: Northfield Historical Society

At the conclusion of a Lyceum meeting on April 14, 1858, Northfield’s first choir sang what was termed “a favorite piece” called “Old Obediah.” Their rendition “brought down the house,” according to the minutes of the meeting. This song was followed by “The Battle of the Nile,” sung with such “touching pathos” that it brought tears. The minutes concluded: “The society expressed their appreciation of the music, by frequent and continued applause…This choir reflects great credit on the musical ability of Northfield.”

The musical ability of Northfield continues unabated today – in the schools, at the colleges, in the churches, on the performance stages of the town and maybe even at your local karaoke venue.  Maybe.

Thanks to the archives of the Northfield Historical Society, the Northfield Public Library, Eric Hillemann of Carleton, Jeff Sauve of St. Olaf, Wayne Kivell of Northfield High School and Dr. Joseph Shaw, St. Olaf professor emeritus of religion and college historian, for information used in this story.

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