Featured Stories, National Lutheran News

A celebration of ‘The Sacred Song’

Wartburg College Choir marks 75 years

Wartburg College Choir alumni prepare for the 75th anniversary concert. Photos provided by Wartburg College

There’s something special about the Lutheran college choirs. They tend to be signature institutions for their schools. They lift up the Lutheran sacred music tradition in memorable ways. Some would say they are the best advertising agents and recruiting tools their campuses have.

And, these choirs have incredibly loyal alumni. Many who once sang in the college choir at Augsburg, Augustana, Concordia, Gustavus, Luther, St. Olaf, or Wartburg have migrated to the Twin Cities. This helps explain the amazingly rich post-collegiate choral tradition in Minneapolis and St. Paul. During the holiday season, their musical offerings overwhelm music lovers with almost too many choices.

Dr. Lee Nelson, director of the choir at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, made a concerted (pun intended) effort to reassemble its singing alumni in late October. It had been 75 years since Edwin Liemohn organized, in 1937, what came to be named “The Wartburg Choir.” (It existed more modestly under a less auspicious title for two years before that, but under Liemohn it took off.)

When the singers streamed into Waverly for a four-day reunion experience, the city welcomed “home” not only the choir alumni, but also the non-choir homecoming returnees. It made for a festive, but at times extra-crowded, scene on campus.

Nelson was joined on the podium, for rehearsals and the festive reunion concert, by previous conductors James Fritschel and Paul Torkelson. Liemohn died decades ago, but his daughter, Muriel, who sang in one of his choirs, returned to vocalize with fellow alumni.

Preparing for the day

The run-up to a Sunday afternoon concert performance was a rigorous four-day schedule of rehearsals — six in all — led by Fritschel, Torkelson, and Nelson. Fritschel, now retired, had recently created a new composition, “Come in Silence,” based on a text by alumnus Herbert Brokering (a prolific writer who was a one-time Metro Lutheran Gold Pen recipient). The alumni choir premiered the work.

Dr. Paul Torkelson, currently director of choral music at the University of Nevada at Reno, conducts a number performed by the Wartburg College Alumni Choir. Members of the current choir (in black) joined the alumni (wearing white).

When the singers streamed into Waverly for a four-day reunion experience, the city welcomed “home” not only the choir alumni, but also the non-choir homecoming returnees.

When the more-than-200 singers finally took the stage in Neumann Auditorium for their Sunday afternoon performance, some feared there might be more people on the stage than in the seats — especially since it was the fourth musical concert of the afternoon. To the delight and surprise of many, a sizeable audience filled the hall.

Designed to be available for distribution at the event, a 75-year history of the choir, Singing the Sacred Story, chronicles the history of the ensemble. (See “A choir in pictures … and words,” below.) A year in the making, from research to writing to publication, the book was created by the author of this article. It includes a section of recollections by former members of the Wartburg Choir. Some of the stories are highly entertaining. Here are a few samples:

Charles Lutz (editor emeritus of Metro Lutheran) remembered that, when he was in choir, 18-year-olds in Iowa couldn’t legally drink beer. But in Wisconsin it was permitted. “That meant that [on our Wisconsin choir tour] we freshmen could legally go to bars. And so we did.”

Victor Nelson, who sang under Liemohn in the 1950s, was a vocalist during an era when choir members used a “secret” hand-held device, created by their director, to provide pitch for the singers. He remembers a concert after which his overnight host, a high school vocal music teacher, asked how the choir managed without a pitch pipe. Nelson said that, with a straight face, a fellow tenor told the woman a clever fib in order to keep the method under wraps. He “explained” that section leaders all wear Bulova watches that emit a quiet F# tone. From that, he said, all the singers could get any pitch in any key. The host apparently accepted the explanation.

Traveling overseas created a host of challenges for the singers. Wartburg is a German-heritage school and some vocalists tried out their “classroom German” on their host families. One singer refused still another helping of food at a meal, mouthing (she thought) the German equivalent of “I am full.” After the laughter subsided, she was informed she had actually declared to everyone in the room, “I am drunk.”

At a celebration dinner following the Sunday performance, the alumni singers honored Dr. Weston Noble, considered by many to be the dean of Lutheran college choir directors. Noble led the Wartburg Choir as an interim for one year, after retiring following a more-than-50-year career leading the Luther College Nordic Choir. In appreciation for his service at a crucial moment in the Wartburg Choir’s history, the college made him an honorary alumnus.

Said Noble, referencing the Waverly school’s “Be Orange” motto, “This is a great honor for me. And this you can be sure of: Tomorrow I’ll be wearing orange.”

A choir in pictures … and words

Singing the Sacred Story

In connection with the 75-year celebration of the founding of the Wartburg Choir, the college published a coffee table book full of information about the choir, the directors, the singers, and including a lot of photos and memorable stories from choir alumni. The book is available from Wartburg College (www.wartburg.edu) for $35. A companion two-CD set of choir anthems, gleaned from the archival recordings developed through four directors’ tenure, is available for $20. The book and the CDs can be bundled for a discounted price of $50.

Mike Sherer, who wrote the history of the Wartburg Choir, says researching it felt like joining a monastery for six months. “I was hidden away in the Wartburg College library archives for three hours a day, three days a week, and then spent countless hours organizing the material into 110 pages of choir history,” Sherer told Metro Lutheran. “But as a history major, and a lover of the choir, as an alumnus myself, I have to say, it was a highly satisfying experience. And the excitement the finished publication caused among choir alumni who purchased it made the project seem worthwhile.”

Bob Hulteen

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