Choral Music in the Driftless Area

Last weekend I drove about five hours northwest of Chicago, into the Driftless Area. This region, where Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin converge, was, mysteriously, not covered during the most recent ice age, and has a very different geographic character than the glacier-scoured lands surrounding it-- limestone bluffs, deep valleys, pine and hardwood forests, cold water caves and trout streams, all of it bisected by the Mississippi River and its tributaries, which cut the land into small, enclosed, isolated patches of prairie and forest. Farming here is a beautiful challenge-- the farms are small, and made up of irregularly-shaped pastures and tilled fields, gracefully terraced and contoured to prevent the topsoil from washing down to the Mississippi, and separated from one another by woods and stone outcroppings. Family farms are the norm, with dairy, hogs, sheep, orchards, vineyards, and the usual Midwestern crops of hay, corn, and soybeans—again, in small patches, rather than the enormous, horizon-to-horizon agribusiness plantings one finds in the prairieland in all directions surrounding the area. It is an area of great natural beauty, both subtle and dramatic, where humans have been inspired to fit in with that beauty, rather than subdue it. My Norwegian ancestors settled in this region in the 1860s; my great-great-grandfather, Ove Jacob Hjort, his two wives, and many of his children are buried in the cemetery at East Paint Creek Lutheran Church, one of several parishes he served, high on a ridge near Lansing, Iowa. He, and several other state church pastors, came from Norway to serve the needs of the Norwegian settlers who had settled in the area, in the midst of settlers from Bohemia, Ireland, and New England-- people from whom they were separated by language, religion, and cultural habits. The church had been the center of community and culture in their isolated settlements back in Norway; and they relied on this pattern in their new home, as well, depending on their pastors to lead them, to interpret their new experience, and to hold them together in their ethnic communities.

It happens that communal singing was an important trait of the Norwegians. I assume it was a koselig sort of thing to do, to gather in homes or in church on dark winter nights, share food and drink, and sing—both sacred psalms and secular folk-songs. Communities would probably have a pastor who was also a schoolteacher and a musician, and who might lead songs from a reed organ. The people tended to be remarkably literate, and read music as well as words. Accounts of my ancestor invariably refer to his rich singing voice; never to his preaching.   This habit of singing together took root in the Driftless Area, as well as in other locales, and became emblematic of the lives of Norwegian immigrants and their descendants in the new world. The settlers quickly began founding schools, colleges, and seminaries; and choral singing was an important part of the experience these institutions provided. The schools promoted their choirs, sent them on mission trips to isolated parishes, relied upon them to recruit new students. The choral conductor was an important member of the faculty, teaching general music courses as well as conducting, and embodying the institution’s mission to its constituency.

weston-nobleBack to last weekend: I visited my Alma Mater, Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa (right in the middle of the Driftless Area) to participate in memorial observances marking the death, last December, of the college’s most famous and long-lived choral conductor, Weston Noble. Though neither a Norwegian nor a Lutheran (his background was Yankee Methodist), Weston embodied, and tirelessly promoted, the ideals I have described: communities should sing; they should sing well; they should sing to the glory of God, and to promote their communal sense of identity. Not least of all, the choral leader should be as much pastor and teacher, as conductor. During the fifty-seven years he served Luther College, Weston brought substantive growth and change to his community, and led it through the immigrant identity into the modern, American musical world; he promoted a framework for communal singing, passed down through his generations of students, which I expect will continue unabated, despite cultural changes and influences which might otherwise cause it to wither away. The Lutheran college choral music tradition is not the only viable choral tradition at work in American today; but it is certainly one of the most notable, thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts and indefatigable spirit of Weston Noble.