On this day in Augsburg history… It was Easter Sunday and Augsburg was about to be put in the national spotlight.
What follows is an excerpt edited for length and clarity from an earlier draft of “Hold Fast to What is Good,” the sesquicentennial history of Augsburg University, by Phil Adamo.
Henry P. Opseth
Singing ourselves out of barns
We were happy to learn that the Augsburg College Choir … [has] been honored in a special way by the National Broadcasting Company through an invitation to sing on the annual NBC Easter Program that is broadcast from coast to coast in America, and from America to Norway.
THE FIRST TIME Augsburg College got on the map, the first time it had name recognition beyond the Norwegian Lutheran community—with people who didn’t have to care—it was thanks to its music ensembles.
Theodore Reimestad, an Augsburg graduated from 1875, returned to the faculty in 1882, having studied music throughout the United States and Europe. In 1892, Reimestad started the Augburg Quartet, whose forte was singing songs in the cause of the temperance movement during their summer vactions. Their success was fueled by the conviction that “few nationalities… suffered more from drunkenness,” than the Norwegians. In 1895, the Quartet toured Norway, the first American musical group to tour the homeland, giving 45 concerts. In 1898, F. Melius Christiansen became a student at Augsburg and joined the Quartet. Christiansen’s name has become synonymous with Lutheran choral music. He was recruited to teach at St. Olaf, and would later become the founding director of the St. Olaf Choir. Aaargh—St. Olaf!!!
But Christiansen repaid his alma mater in the early 1920s when he recommended one of his St. Olaf students to teach at Augsburg. Henry Opseth was a tuba virtuoso in the St. Olaf band, but when he joined the Augsburg music faculty he conducted the Men’s Glee Club. In 1922, when Augsburg went co-ed, he conducted a women’s ensemble known as the Choral Society. Male and female ensembles performed together in 1924, but this merger didn’t stick until 1933, when they officially became the Augsburg Choir. Under Opseth’s leadership. It was this mixed choir that performed coast-to-coast on NBC’s Easter Program in 1937.
According to music historian Paul Benson:
The choir sang well under Opseth’s leadership, with a passion which reflected Opseth’s intense personality. His training as a bandsman, as in the case of Christiansen, aided him in his work as a choral director. Opseth built a choir with distinctive choral tone and, with only limited vocal resources, accomplished the task of producing a quality choir year after year.
Opseth’s other skill was in recognizing and nurturing the talents of his students. F. Melius Christiansen had done this with Ospeth. Now Opseth did this with a young Leland Sateren, who would return to Augsburg to replace his teacher. According to Sateren:
Opseth was absolutely selfless in his encouragement of many of us. In my case, he gave me many opportunities to direct the choir – even in public appearances, and finally in my senior year appointed me assistant director.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the choir’s repertoire was entirely religious, aimed at Lutheran congregations. This changed with the arrival of Leland Sateren. Opseth’s prodigy graduated from Augsburg in 1935. He was a conscientious objector in World War II, and joined the faculty in 1946. Sateren took charge of the choir in 1950, upon Opseth’s death. As Sateren began to build the choir in his own image, it continued to perform in churches, but branched out to concert halls. Critics through- out the United States and Europe sang the choir’s praises. Again, Professor Benson:
Dagbladet (Oslo) commented on the choir’s “extraordinarily pure sound” while Oslo’s Aftenposten noted its “exquisite pianissimos and truly full-toned singing with power and body.” In Germany, the Stuttgart Nachrichten remarked that Sateren was “a virtuoso ‘playing’ on the choir as one would on a precious instrument.” In the American press, the Capitol Times (Madison, Wisconsin) called the singing of the Augsburg Choir “magnificent”; and perhaps the most generous praise came from the National Broadcasting Company’s music supervisor who wrote, “I can remember no better choral performance on the air in all the years I have been with NBC.”
It appeared as if thirty years might be the standard for Augsburg choral directors. Opseth served from the early 1920s to 1950; Sateren from 1950 to 1979. The run was broken following the Sateren era, with three choral directors over forty years: Larry Fleming (1979-86), who created the yearly ritual known as Advent Vespers; Tom Rossin (1986-92), a relatively brief stint; and Peter Hendrickson (1994-present), another alum of the College, who studied under Sateren. Over the years, the repertoire has continued to expand, as have the venues. Under Hendrickson, the men’s ensemble known as the Cedar Singers performed Gregorian chant as the opening act for Monty Python’s Terry Jones during a talk about medieval history that he gave on campus. (Pie Jesu Domine, dona eius requiem … THWACK!) The full Augsburg Choir served as the backup choir for Barry Manilow, when he performed at the Excel Center in Saint Paul. The annual Advent Vespers services continue, a pre-Christmas tradition—and a cash cow—for the music department. In 2005, the TPT broadcast of Advent Vespers, recorded in Central Lutheran Church, won a regional Emmy award.
Back in 1937, over 100 students auditioned for the 50 spots in the Augsburg Choir. The demand was so great that a second choir, and a men’s chorus were created, both under the direction of Norman Myrvik. Music had become so popular on campus that the makeshift rehearsal spaces of earlier days would no longer do. With the start of Bernhard Christensen’s administration, there was great anticipation that vigorous fundraising might bring a new music building. According to Myrvyk:
We seem to have come to a period in the growth of our college when visions of a glorious future in every field of activity prevails, and not least so in the department of music. With such an intense interest manifested in music, expansion has been necessary. Untold possibilities lie ahead. Perhaps Opseth’s prophetic statement of ‘singing ourselves out of the barns into a new palace’ will not seem as fantastic in the years to come as it does now.
The choir did eventually sing itself out of barns, yet they didn’t exactly move into a palace. Instead, in 1947, they got the old Baptist Tabernacle Church, which once stood on 8th Street South, across from Murphy Square Park.
Like many colleges, Augsburg found it easier to use an old building rather than build a new one. In the case of the Baptist Tabernacle, there was nothing a little paint and remodeling couldn’t fix. The church was built of brick on a square plan, with two large central gables on either side of a tower, arched windows on the top stories and above exterior doors. Crosses decorated the central, horizontal panels in each of the large, two-story gable windows. The College remodeled the space to include large and small group practice rooms. They covered over the large, full-immersion baptismal font, and the platform thus created became a performance stage. Over time, Augsburg shortened the tower and whitewashed the brick exterior. After this, any historic integrity the building once had was significantly diminished. The Tabernacle was torn down after the 1978 completion of the new Music Building, which choral director Leland Sateren infamously proclaimed would never be built in his lifetime. Sverdrup, Parcel, and Associates, who had designed the Urness Tower and the Christensen Center, also designed Music Hall.
In 2014, the College renamed the Music Building, the Charles S. Anderson Music Hall.
“Hats Off to the Choir!” Echo
41:5 (19 March 1937), 2.
 Chrislock, From Fjord to Freeway, 107.
 Paul Maurice Glasoe, “A Singing Church” (vol. 13, p. 92) at NAHA online, http://www.naha.stolaf.edu/pubs/nas/volume13/vol13_5.htm.
 Paul Benson, “A Cappella Choirs in the Scandinavian-American Lutheran Colleges” (1989), vol. 32, p. 221, NAHA online, at http://www.naha.stolaf.edu/pubs/nas/volume32/vol32_12.htm.
 Benson, “A Cappella Choirs”
 Leland Sateren, A Brief History of Augsburg College and Its Choral Music (Edina, Minnesota, 1983), 4.
 Benson, “A Cappella Choirs.”
 “Monty Python’s Terry Jones to Speak at Augsburg” Augsburg News Archives (26 September 2007), http://inside.augsburg.edu/news-archives/2007/09_21_07/terry_jones.mp3.
 “Advent Vespers video wins Emmy,” Augsburg Now 68:2 (Winter 2005-2006), 2.
 “Second Choir,” Augsburgian (1937).
 Norman Myrvik, “Music Box,” Echo 41:12 (21 May 1937), 2.
 See STrib article about Sateren eating his words.