For members of the St. Olaf College community, and music fans in general, the arrival of the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival is as eagerly anticipated as the holiday it celebrates. Since its founding a century ago, the festival attracts people from all over Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as alumni from around the United States, and is regarded as one of the premier choral concerts in the world.
The festival’s beginnings were modest, though the work of an ambitious man. F. Melius Christiansen began teaching music at St. Olaf in 1903, and four years later reorganized the choir. Seeking to improve the quality of choral music, he focused intently on developing the a cappella tradition of singing unaccompanied, and eventually began holding concerts at the school and touring to small towns in Wisconsin.
Under Christiansen’s stern leadership, the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir soon became recognized as one of the finest choirs in the Midwest. To showcase these efforts and celebrate the holiday for the students and faculty at the close of the year, the choir (which was called the St. Olaf Choral Union for that first concert) performed in the first Christmas Program (as it was then known) on Dec. 17, 1912, in the Hoyme Memorial Chapel.
Over the years, as the choir’s status under Christiansen grew (its tours included highly lauded trips to Norway, Germany and the East Coast), so, too, did the festival, which moved from the Chapel (which burned down in 1923) to the school’s gymnasium, to the Skogland Athletic Center (now known as the Skogland Center).
Attracting more than 15,000 people to Northfield, the Christmas Festival features five different choral ensembles — The St. Olaf Choir, the school’s premier a cappella choir; The Cantorei, which performs during Sunday services at the chapel; The Chapel Choir, the largest choir on campus; and the Viking Chorus and Manitou Singers, choirs composed of first-year men and women, respectively.
Those experiencing the St. Olaf Christmas Festival for the first time will find themselves encountering a musical event of the highest order. “Once the lights go down, it’s serious business,” says Dr. Joe Shaw, professor emeritus in religion at St. Olaf, and author of “The St. Olaf Choir, a Narrative,” considered the definitive history of its subject. “There’s a hush of expectation at the very beginning, not forbidding but welcome, and when the music begins there’s a dynamism and energy to keep you focused for 90 straight minutes without interruption.”
Each chorus has its own moment to shine, performing as individual units before closing the concert with all five ensembles singing together — more than 500 students, accompanied by the orchestra. And at various times, audience members who are so inclined may rise and join them, following along with lyrics published in the night’s program [PDF].
The four-day festival sells out every year, but is broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio (Dec. 2 at 3 p.m.) and many of its affiliates, around the world on Armed Forces Television and Radio, on the Internet, and even in movie theaters. Go here for details. It is frequently broadcast on public television, and one of these broadcasts so moved President Richard Nixon that he wrote an effusive letter to the president of St. Olaf.
With the 101st festival under way, the tradition that F. Melius Christiansen began once again brings the college and the community together to celebrate the holiday season.