Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Lutherans’ one common activity!

Start warming up for Westwood retiree’s “Voices from the Passion”

Lutherans sing and, of course, somebody has to write that music. In fact, you likely will be singing something soon by a star Lutheran composer who lives quietly near the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

Ronald A. “Ronnie” Nelson was music director at Westwood Lutheran (ELCA) in St. Louis Park for 37 years until he retired in 1992. He led choirs of all ages, mentored young musicians, and composed sacred music himself.

From page 44 of “Voices from the Passion,” a special cantata written by Westwood Lutheran Church member Ronald A. Nelson; image provided by Randall M. Egan

“Voices from the Passion” is a cantata for four voices, chorus, and orchestra or organ.

Lutherans routinely still sing one of his settings for communion. You may know it well: “This is the feast of victory for our God, alleluia.”

On Palm Sunday, March 24, another well-known Nelson piece gets its turn: “Voices from the Passion” is a cantata for four voices, chorus, and orchestra or organ. And the congregation sings, too.

“Voices” closely follows the biblical account of events leading to Christ’s crucifixion. Soloists tell the story. Old Testament readings “remind us of the wholeness” of the Bible’s message, writes Nelson in the composer’s foreward. For example, Isaiah 42: “Here is my servant whom I uphold.” And Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Ralph Johnson quickly realized that “Voices” was “a lovely piece” when he sang it as a member of the Westwood choir. The congregation’s reaction struck him. “There’s something about it that really moved them,” says Johnson, a Nelson protégé who now is music director at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Minneapolis.

Good Shepherd will use “Voices” at its regular morning services on Palm Sunday. St. George’s Episcopal, 5224 Minnetonka Blvd., St. Louis Park, for the fifth straight year will also do “Voices” that afternoon at 4 p.m. Other congregations may hear it as well.

Composer Nelson, who turns 86 years old in April, had Westwood musicians perform “Voices” before it was published in 1995. He also wrote other compositions for choirs at Westwood, setting aside publication for later. Says protégé Johnson: “We were always singing new pieces.”

What’s it like singing a piece of music never performed before? “Different people in the choir will have different reactions,” says Johnson.

Some, he says, prefer old familiars, but for the most part the reaction to a new piece is “excitement, anticipation, what’s this going to be like.”

At Westwood, various Nelson choirs included toddlers through retirees. A Saturday morning choir school for kids combined rehearsal, worship and music training.

Nelson was the gentlest of music teachers as he endured youngsters’ horseplay. “He would never yell at anybody,” Johnson recalls. “The very scariest thing that could ever happen was to be sent to Ronnie’s office.”

Why? “I don’t know,” says Johnson, “because he never did anything.”

Being himself

Nelson has written about 200 musical compositions, many of them in retirement. He’s writing for organ at the time, because he serves as organist once a month at Becketwood, a residence for seniors overlooking the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. “Now that I’m retired from conducting, I keep composing,” he says, “in order to be myself.”

As a high school senior in Rockford, Illinois, he heard the visiting St. Olaf College choir perform “what seemed almost like a worship service,” according to Nelson. His high school choir director, Linden Lundstrom, was an Ole (St. Olaf grad) who eventually became Nelson’s “lifelong mentor.”

So the young Nelson packed for Northfield. At St. Olaf, he sang in the choir and studied composition with F. Melius Christiansen, St. Olaf’s fabled church musician who was then retired but teaching privately.

Nelson also met his wife Betty Lou at St. Olaf. They will observe their 62nd anniversary in April.

After graduation from St. Olaf, Nelson taught public school music at elementary and then junior high levels before returning to his home church, Tabor Lutheran in Rockford, as a church musician. Then came the job at Westwood.

Warm up

Nelson does not write music exclusively for choirs. He writes for people in the pews. “The work that has excited me the most is the congregational settings that I did for the liturgy,” he says, “and the knowledge that congregations are singing this music, not just choirs.”

So get over the flu and practice a few scales to prepare for “Voices.”

Randy Egan, St. George’s organist and choir director, runs his own music publishing house and is the one who eventually published the Nelson piece. “The congregation,” says Egan, “is in fact the principal chorus in the cantata. All the tunes are familiar so that folks can really sing out.”

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