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The Choral Concept of Olaf Christiansen

Brought up in a musical Lutheran household in Northfield, Minnesota, Olaf Christiansen had the luxury of growing up in the shadow of his father, the St. Olaf Choir, and music. This was imperative to Olaf’s musical growth and the continuation of the St. Olaf Choir under his command. Following the full transfer of the choir to Olaf, he retained many qualities established by his father: the choir continued to be a touring ensemble, the performance of a cappella works continued, emphasis was given to blend, and the choir was built on the solidity of the bass section. However, as stated earlier in the previous section of this study, Olaf Christiansen’s approach to choral singing was vastly different than that of his father. Based on his studies with Paul Potts, Olaf acquired a vast knowledge of vocal technique, and grew a love for Italian vowels. This love emphasized the importance of clear text, along with the correct placement and pronunciation of vowels. Therefore, Olaf’s choral concept was, due to the result of his study with Potts, a brighter, more forward placement of the voice. “(Olaf’s) goal was to have the music be beautiful and perfected enough so that it didn’t distract from the message of the text...We did work on text articulation, but mostly on vowel colors, and very little on consonants.”37 With F. Melius, the choir shaped vowels more in the shape of an /o/ or /u/ placement, but in regards to Olaf’s style, he insisted on using the vowel /i/ to brighten the color, and give a sense of ‘openness’ to the choir.38 Furthermore, the emphasis of music of the Renaissance required the tone to be a brighter tone in the mind of Olaf. “Olaf... in favoring selections from the Pre-Bach period, sought a more brilliant tone.”39

Olaf’s concept of choral sound, built on the basses, was that if the low voices were well prepared, having good resonance, intonation, blend, and a uniformity of vowels, it provided a solid structure that would further enhance the balancing and intonation of the upper voices.40 This provided for a firm chordal structure, with a firm root note, which is often prevalent in the bass line, and allowed for the rest of the choir to effectively build on the full, rich sound of the basses in the fundamental notes. The availability of having young men returning from their military service from WWII allowed Olaf to indulge in using a firm, mature male sound. This sound was enjoyed by most; however, Olaf needed to spend more time on balance issues, due to the fact that he had a more mature sounding men’s section in comparison to the younger women’s section. One reviewer in Chicago noted that the imbalance between male and female voices made the younger ladies sound thin.41

Although younger in age and maturity in voice, the women often also received great praise for their tone. However, some felt that the female sound was unnatural and mechanical, in comparison to the men. Alice Eversman of Washington, D.C., singled out the sopranos. “They are ‘firm, true and clear,’ she wrote, but ‘that cool, rather hollow tone’ made for a monotonous effect. Eversman remembered a warmer and more vital tone from the choirs led by F. Melius Christiansen compared to ‘the finely thought out and restrained singing’ she heard at the concert in Constitution Hall in 1948.”42

Olaf Christiansen believed that vocal pedagogy was a concept that all of his students should understand. Therefore, he centered his teaching on vocal pedagogy. Unlike his father, Olaf incorporated approximately 10-15 minutes for warm-ups in rehearsals almost every day. However, he let the warm-up exercises speak for themselves, rather than speaking too much about technique. “(Olaf) would start out with warm-ups, and he didn’t have a whole lot to say...we had a lot of people who could make the sound he wanted to have without his fussing too I have less a feeling of his being confining to the choir in terms of tone, because there were a lot of us who could just do it.”43 Due to the high demand for being a member of the choir, most choir members and auditionees worked relentlessly on perfecting their vocal technique to conform to the ideals sought after by Olaf. The members of the choir would be the ones that could sing in the manner wanted effortlessly, without hurting themselves. “We had six or seven first sopranos that could make the sound (Olaf wanted) without hurting their voices, without them having to tell him, from his viewpoint, how to do it.”44

Many of the other aspects that Olaf worked on in rehearsals were “the development of breath, posture, vocal cords, flexibility of resonant space, and a sensitive ear. He established these emphases though a series of stretches and vocal exercises.”45 Beginning the rehearsal by working on breath, Olaf effectively stretched the muscles of breathing. He also passively stretched the glottis and pharynges, by emphasizing a relaxed opening of the vocal instrument in breathing. Olaf used a lot of kinesthetic exercises, such as stretching with hands, bending at the waist, and more. Possibly due to his athletic nature, he employed these facets onto his students.

As stated previously in this section, Olaf’s emphasis was on vowels, specifically Italianate vowel placement and production. Vowels had to be uniform in the choirs in Olaf Christiansen’s tenure. The vowel was not created in the mouth, as Olaf felt that the opening of the mouth was not necessary to create the vowel. Rather, the vowel was created in the pharynx, from the upper laryngeal pharynx to the oropharynx, and with minimal movement of the mouth and lips.46 In order to keep the brightness that was preferred by Olaf, incorporation of the /i/ vowel was imperative to open the nasal cavity and incorporate the use of the nasopharynx, allowing for a ping in the tone. The vowels were quick and did not morph into each other.

Although Olaf Christiansen did not adhere much to the concept of vowel modification, he did allow for a change in the vowel structure to give a different timbre on the vowel, based on what was called for in the music and text. In essence, he was allowing for different ‘shades’ of vowel sound to enhance the text of the music being sung. By raising the soft-palate, the oropharynx and buccopharynx were given more space to allow resonation of the vowel. This also allowed for the nasopharynx to open wider, providing more resonation in the nasal cavity, thus, a brighter, more brilliant sound. By requiring a lower soft palate, a fuller, almost covered effect was apparent in the sound. The vowel needed to be created further in the back, and the lack of space created a smaller resonating chamber, thus a darker sound.

Overall, Olaf Christiansen brought the choir firmly into the 20th century from a technical standpoint. Unlike his father, who was an instrumentalist, Olaf had ample study in vocal technique, and he incorporated this knowledge into his choirs. He emphasized a bright sound with ping, which was vastly different from his predecessor. His selection of repertoire stressed the importance of the text rather than his music. He always strove for pureness of vowels throughout the range, but would incorporate coloring of the vowel by shaping the buccal pharynx by raising and lowering the soft palate.

36 Alan Zabriskie, “Evolution of Choral Sound of the St. Olaf Choir and the Westminster Choir” (PhD diss., Florida State University, 2010), 17. 37 Robert Scholz, interview by Ryan Goessl, February 19, 2014, transcript. 38 See Appendix B for a list of IPA symbols.

39 Shaw, 270. 40 Ibid, 273. 41 The Chicago Sun, February 7, 1947. 42 Alice Eversman, Washington Evening Star, February 10, 1948.

43 Scholz, interview.

44 Ibid. 45 Zabriskie.

46 Anton Armstrong, “Celebrating 75 Years of Musical Excellence: The Evolution of the St. Olaf Choir,”(DMA diss., Michigan State University, 1986).


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