The Choral Concept of F. Melius Christiansen


F. Melius Christiansen, circa 1926.

To say that F. Melius Christiansen was innovative in his concept of choral music would be a major understatement. Prior to the arrival of Christiansen to the choral scene in the United States, choirs were thought of as little more than clubs, with little talent. “The St. Olaf Lutheran Choir (came) onto the national scene at a time when most American colleges and high schools were proud if [sic] their singing groups could perform such works as ‘Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day.’”[1]

What Christiansen brought to the choral scene was simple - a choir that can perform like an orchestra. That is, a choir that consistently stays in tune, performs the music the way the composer envisioned, and conveys a message to all its listeners. Christiansen emphasized, more than anything, blend. As was stated earlier in Swan’s assessment on choral schools, “Every singer in the chorus has a primary responsibility to subordinate his own ideas concerning tone production, rhythmic stress, and pronunciation to the blended and unified sound made by the total ensemble.”[2] In other words, Christiansen stressed that a solo voice was not desirable. Rather, he strived to create a single, cohesive unit, working together, to create a common goal at the highest level of artistry possible as he saw fit.

Christiansen insisted that the singers alter their individual vocal tone to match what he deemed the ideal tonal sound of the section. He would have his sample section member, and build the rest of the section around them. The most successful singers were the ones that could easily and effectively alter their tone to match the sound that Christiansen strived for, without being heard above the choir.[3] Therefore, Christiansen would construct his sections by selecting one singer with a pleasant sounding, clear voice, produced with straight-tone, and ask other singers to match the tone of the first voice, building until he reached his ideal in the section with the forces he was offered. Christiansen was very committed to the concept of exceptional blend. He stated, “Soloists are what ruin choirs’ … the boys and girls who come into this choir must be prepared to sacrifice individual glory. If they aren’t, we don’t want them. That is the only way to build a choir.”[4]

As for the color that was sought after by Christiansen, he emphasized a sound without a tremolo (vibrato). He preferred the sopranos with small voices that had a reed-like quality to the sound, mixing in a few flute-like voices. This is a concept that he brought over from Leipzig from his years of hearing the boys choir of the Thomanerchor, the sound he tried to employ in his sopranos. As for altos, Christiansen loved to hear a section that emulated a cello, a full sound that has a lot of color and richness. With tenors, the sound should be smooth, but reed-like. His basses needed to be able to sing a low D effortlessly.[5]

Furthermore, Christiansen needed a quite rich bass sound that had fullness and presence. The sound that came out of his basses was always confident, and powerful. There was confidence in the sound that was unmatched in any of the other sections. Due to Christiansen’s weakness in vocal pedagogy, coupled with vocal pedagogy of the period, it was a sound, consistent in all sections, that often sounded forced or pressed, and had a tone color that was manufactured. The sound of the soprano, likewise of the basses, was a manufactured sound, most likely due to the constricting of voices to reach the ideal sound wanted by the conductor. The sound was a bit bright; however, there was a high sense of clarity and precision to pitch. The altos, in the author’s opinion, reached the closest to Christiansen’s ideal sound in a section. Although some voices were subordinated, the lower end of the spectrum allowed for a fuller sound, lending to less need for subduing one’s own vocal sound and timbre to conform to the ideal. This allowed for a sound more free from tension, and gave the altos the cello-like quality that pleased Christiansen. The tenors had the reedy tone that Christiansen looked for, but due to a lack of vocal support and proper pedagogy that is seen in the current tradition, the sound was forced in the upper extremities of the range, limiting the amount of blend with other sections. [6]

One must keep in mind that Christiansen himself was not a singer, or teacher of singing. His background, studies, and expertise was as a violinist and a composer. Although he understood how to write for choir, he understood very little in regards to vocal technique. Rather, he knew the sound he wanted, and sought to acquire that tone. “When (Christiansen) went to Leipzig and heard the Leipzig Men and Boys Choir, he was so enamored by the beautiful tone of the boy sopranos, its purity and its pitch. So when he returned to St. Olaf (College), he announced to the sopranos that from now on “You’re going to sing like boys!” With his Norwegian accent, “You’re going to sing like boys”!”[7]

Christiansen was never one to do warm-ups, or discuss vocal technique in rehearsals. As soon as he entered the room, he was down to business, giving a starting pitch, and beginning. Christiansen was one to use imagery, which he incorporated often into his rehearsals.

Once when the sopranos were singing with too heavy and dark a tone, [Christiansen] asked them to sing it more ‘pink,’ meaning light yet with color and warmth; and another time he wanted a high, floating tone to be ‘pure blue.’ After some particularly clumsy phrasing, he told the choir, ‘You sing as if you were throwing water out of a pail and splashing it against a wall, instead of letting it drop from a silver spool like little pearls.’ When the tenors had been singing with a thin, colorless tone, he barked at them, your notes are too bony, put some meat on them!”[8]

Equally important was the attitude of the singers. Christiansen did not want divas/divos, but rather singers who conformed to the ideal sound wanted of the choir. Every singer sublimated not only their voices, but themselves for the greater needs of the choir. Individual glory was shunned upon, and is a point of view that has continued with the Lutheran Choral Tradition today. This created an atmosphere of dedication to the furthering of the choir’s musical goals. “Whether you agree or disagree with what [Christiansen] did vocally, he was able to create a very crack disciplined group.”[9] Later in his interview, Clausen refers to one of his student’s quotes in the choir’s concert program: “There’s a certain dynamic here. A lot of it is discipline that’s needed to create the technical and emotional engagement with the music. There’s a degree of sacrifice that’s needed in order to sing every piece with all the conviction and precision we can muster. The thing is, we’re all willing to make this sacrifice.”[10] Every singer was, and is to the current day, willing to give up their personal desires while being a member of the group to be able to sing music at the highest artistic ability possible. F. Melius’ singers needed to be willing to commit to the extensive rehearsal schedule, which was usually more than ten hours per week, not to mention the extensive touring that developed over Christiansen’s tenure.

In regards to diction, Christiansen emphasized the vowels. Singing on the vowel for the longest time possible was essential, as vowels are where the choral tone resides. He took it to the point that occasionally the clarity of the written text would suffer in order to create the beautiful sound Christiansen searched for in a uniform vowel. Rather than creating a crisp, quick consonant within the text and at the beginning and end of words, the consonant itself was minimized.[11] The vowel itself was more “throaty” than that of future generations, and in current day, would be characterized often as “swallowed”. The placement of the vowel further back in the buccal pharynx, around the oropharyngeal provided a more full sound to the vowel, providing depth and roundness that adhered to Christiansen’s ideal of a blended sound with no singer standing out. However, it did provide the singer with tension issues, which contributed to the mechanical sound of the choir.

The placement of the choir members was also of major importance in Christiansen’s choir, and still is today in the Lutheran Choral Tradition. He would situate members of the choir in such a fashion as to create a pure sound, achieve perfect blend, and to address the issue of balance. Christiansen usually had a college choir of approximately sixty singers. Generally, the men, due to a later start in school because of military service commitments, sang with a more mature, full sound. This, coupled with the usually younger women, provided a bit of a challenge. Also challenging was the consideration of heavier voices in sections versus lighter voices. Christiansen addressed this issue as shown in the following chart:

Figure 1. Standard formation of a F. Melius Christiansen choir[12]

In the center of the choir, Christiansen placed many of his more advanced singers, who created the inner choir/semi-chorus. This choir was used to sing particularly soft passages, when it would be more feasible to use a smaller choir to achieve the demands of the music in the manner desired by Christiansen. He would then follow that by his heavier and darker singers, and on the end, his lighter voices. As seen, the choir was divided in four quadrants – sopranos in the front left, altos in the front right, tenors behind the altos, and basses behind the sopranos. Sopranos were the largest section of the ensemble, due to Christiansen’s desire of light, thin sounding sopranos. More basses were needed also to emphasize the root of the chords being sung.

Overall, F. Melius Christiansen was a galvanizing, but humble man. He emphasized a strict discipline within his choir, musically and in discipline. Blend was of utmost importance, even to the point of sacrificing clarity of the text being sung. His musical style was very neo-romantic, with a large emphasis on delivering the message of the text. Due to this, he was very serious in his treatment of concerts. They were for the beauty of the music, and to deliver the art, not for casual enjoyment. He rarely spoke during a concert, as he felt that a concert should be music and nothing else. He insisted on a straight-tone in his choir, free of tremolos, with special attention given to the blend of vowels. In addition to the sound and blend he wanted, being heavily influenced by his studies in Leipzig, along with hearing the choirs of Europe, Germany and Norway specifically, Christiansen added to his choral concept. His innovations in the choral music field took the choral art out of the casual cellar, and into the spotlight, emphasizing superior musicality, and attention to the choral art.

[1] Benson, A Cappella Choirs in the Scandinavian-American Lutheran Colleges.

[2] Swan.

[3] F. Melius Christiansen, School of Choir Singing, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1916).

[4] The Minneapolis Journal, (Minneapolis, MN), December 9, 1928.

[5] Bergmann, 147-48.

[6] St. Olaf Choir, with F. Melius Christiansen. Choral Masterworks Series, Vol. 1, CD, St. Olaf Records, 1998.

[7] Weston Noble, interview by Ryan Goessl, February 12, 2014, transcript.

[8] Bergmann, 161.

[9] René Clausen, interview by Ryan Goessl, February 12, 2014, transcript.

[10] Ibid.

[12] Bergmann, 155.

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© 2020, Ryan Goessl. Published under the GNU Free Documentation License.