Kenneth Jennings was born in Connecticut on May 13, 1925. Unlike his predecessors at St. Olaf College, his family did not have any particular talents for music. However, as a child, Jennings enjoyed his piano lessons, and showed great promise in music.
Upon graduating high school where he was honored as salutatorian, Jennings was drafted into the army, eventually finding a home in the fifth U.S. Infantry Regiment, Seventy-First Division. It was in the army that Jennings met Luther Onerheim, a St. Olaf graduate, who studied under F. Melius Christiansen. With Onerheim, Jennings played organ and piano at church services, sang in the choir, helped lead the choir, and was a soloist.
Onerheim was an extremely talented musician, and an equally talented salesman. Onerheim convinced his superiors in the army to allow and support an army choir, and the Fifth Infantry Chorus, also known as the Soldier Chorus, was born. The choir was very successful, and held the same high standards found in the Lutheran Choral Tradition, including attentiveness to blend, precision of pitch, and singing of music from memory. The choir not only sang for weekly church services, but also performed frequently in Europe, specifically in Germany. After the war, they performed in many army camps, USO shows, and even the Salzburg Music Festival, frequenting many events for entertaining soldiers. “Given such a program, sung from memory, a cappella, and Onerheim’s emphasis on covered vowels, staying on pitch, and unity of tone, one clearly recognizes that the choral principles of F. Melius Christiansen had found their way to war-torn Germany and Austria.”92
Following his stint in the army, Jennings transitioned back to normal US life, studying piano with the late Onerheim’s wife, where he heard a recording of St. Olaf Choir. After discussing the school, Mrs. Onerheim suggested that Jennings apply. He was, however, originally denied acceptance to St. Olaf College, due to the return of countless veterans, which left no space for more applicants. Jennings went on to apply to Colorado College to study with the renowned composer Roy Harris. On his way out to Colorado, Jennings made a stop in Northfield at St. Olaf, meeting with Carl Swanson, who was the Dean of Men. The two talked about St. Olaf and the possibility of enrolling at the school. Upon looking at the Jennings’ records, Swanson stated “I guess you’ll be a good enough risk.”93
One week later, Jennings began his college life at St. Olaf College. Upon auditioning in hopes for a major in piano, Olaf Christiansen also requested for Jennings to try to sing. “Everyone auditions for the St. Olaf Choir.”94 Jennings was passed on to the second round of auditions for the St. Olaf Choir where he was able to sing a melodic progression that all other students failed to repeat from memory. Due to this, Jennings was accepted into the St. Olaf Choir, where he was in small company as one of the very few singers accepted to the choir all four years of their college lives, with three of those years in the role of section leader with occasional assistant conducting duties his senior year. He also studied voice, piano, and composition.
Upon graduation from St. Olaf College, Jennings continued his studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, completing a Master of Music degree in 1951, studying composition. Jennings immediately found work at a small North Carolina college, Mitchell College, where he taught for two years. During this time, he also conducted an elderly choir in the Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church, founded the Statesville Oratorio Society, and traveled to Oslo, Norway in the summer of 1952 to direct a summer school choir at the University of Oslo.
St. Olaf College, however, had Kenneth Jennings on their radar. Olaf Christiansen sought out Jennings, and the college extended an invitation to return to his alma mater as a faculty member. Upon discussion with friends and colleagues, Jennings accepted the position, while continuing his studies in the summertime in New York City and University of Minnesota, studying at the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary, along with studying at Columbia University. In 1958, Jennings took a leave of absence for two years to pursue a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Illinois. He completed the degree in 1966, where he studied with Jean Berger and later, Harold Decker.
Jennings’ main duty, prior to being appointed the conductor of the St. Olaf Choir in 1967, was conducting the Chapel Choir. Jennings built the program into much more than a preparatory choir for the St. Olaf Choir, introducing larger choral works, such as masses, passions, and oratorios. He received much support from the band and orchestra directors, and a choir that performed major works at St. Olaf was realized. Major works presented including the following during Jennings’ tenure with the Chapel Choir: Bach’s Magnificat, Cantata 11, Cantata 80, Passion According to St. John, and Passion According to St. Matthew, Fauré’s Requiem, Honegger’s King David, Mozart’s Requiem, Poulenc’s Gloria, Vivaldi’s Gloria, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.95 This experience was one of the major inspirations to his exploration of new repertoire upon the arrival of Jennings tenure with the St. Olaf Choir. “When Jennings became St. Olaf Choir director, he believed that the time had come to start performing the larger works.96
92 Shaw, 379.
93 Ibid., 380.
94 Ibid., 380.
95 Ibid., 389-390.
96 Kenneth Jennings, interview by Joseph Shaw, October 11, 1995.