In the summer of 1906, 48 members of the St. Olaf College band sailed into history. Playing 26 concerts in Norway that July, the all-male musicians from Northfield became what’s believed to be the first U.S. college music ensemble to tour Europe.
But as they descended below deck to their steerage quarters, the band members were initially unimpressed when the SS Oscar II left New York for an 11-day north Atlantic crossing.
“The furnishings were not stately in the least … feather pillows which had become petrified through the ages,” saxophonist Herman Roe jotted in one of the journals that college officials handed out when the journey began. “One whiff of the air in that lower region before we were up on deck again gasping for air — all in less time than you can say, ‘skidoo.’ ”
Seasickness swept through their ranks — especially at meal time.
“The guys sat like so many pigs about a trough,” clarinetist Oscar Hertsgaard wrote. “The grub was served in big galvanized pails.”
Rough start aside, the trip quickly turned triumphant — especially for their 35-year-old taskmaster conductor, Fredrik Melius Christiansen. The son of a mechanic, Christiansen emigrated from Norway at 17 in 1888 and his return “brought glory and honor to the land of his birth,” one local newspaper reported.
Norwegians, just one year into their independence from Sweden when the band arrived, embraced the boys from America like celebrities.
When their ship arrived in Norway, “boats came out to meet us, cannon was fired in salute, handkerchiefs were waved on every side,” Roe said. “Flags swayed over every house and hut, enthusiastic people shouted hurrah! Oh, it was great!”
Newspapers estimated 12,000 Norwegians crowded the shore, waiting up to six hours for their arrival. More than 62,000 Norwegians attended concerts and swarmed the St. Olaf musicians during their monthlong tour. Even Norway’s royal family saluted them.
“The mounted and foot police had the task of their lives … .” Roe wrote. “We marched through a mass of humanity.”
One newspaper in Oslo said: “When we remember that these musicians are young students, not professionals, it is hard to understand how it is possible for them to reach such perfection.”
The fjord-storming exploits of the St. Olaf band in 1906 are retold in a new, 600-page, photo-filled book, “Milestones and Memories of the St. Olaf Band 1891-2018” — co-authored by former St. Olaf archivist Jeffrey Sauve and longtime Northfield history writer Susan Hvistendahl, who played clarinet in the band in 1966. (Women first joined in 1920.)
The authors will discuss the book Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Northfield Historical Society. Their $25 book is also available through local publisher, ByAllMeansGraphics.com/books.
“It was really a ramshackle band” when Christiansen took the part-time job in 1903 for $600 a year to lead St. Olaf’s music department, said Sauve, who combed through a half-dozen student journals, letters and newspaper clippings for the book.
In one letter to his parents, clarinetist Hertsgaard compared Christiansen to a “Prussian general” who demanded musicians repeat the same phrases over and over until it came out “half polished.”
“We were just no good,” Hertsgaard said in 1967. “And yet dumb enough to think we were pretty good.”
Before the Norway trek, Christiansen “drilled that band as it had never been drilled before,” wrote Roe, who would own the Northfield News years later.
The drills worked so well that, at one of the concerts in Eidsvold, the band played the Norwegian national anthem “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” so flawlessly that one city official collapsed in “a quivering faint.”
He later admitted the St. Olaf Band’s version of the anthem “was the most stirring music he had ever heard and altogether too exciting for him.”
Using a fencing mask as a catcher’s mask, the St. Olaf band organized a baseball game with local singers on July 4, 1906 — perhaps the first ever in Norway. The Norwegians found the game “too dangerous, especially catching high flies,” one participant recalled.
The tour reached its crescendo on July 21, 1906, in Christiansen’s hometown of Larvik, where the conductor received a silver Viking ship. His father, who led a local factory band, had tears in eyes, Sauve said.
And transportation vastly improved, with the band taking a luxury boat through the fjords most of the month.
“We certainly struck it rich” Roe wrote. “The swellest, finest boat on the coast! … The rooms immense, the berths fit for a king, the board ‘scrumptious!’ ”
Christiansen went on the create and direct St. Olaf’s vaunted choir from 1912 until 1943, when his son succeeded him.
The trip to Norway, Hertsgaard wrote to close his journal, marked “the greatest and grandest and most glorious and enjoyable time.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.