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On frozen northern campuses, tradition of choral music brings warmth

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Philip Bryant
Philip Bryant teaches in the English department at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. Bryant's latest book of poetry is "Stompin' at the Grand Terrace."
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Late one night, a week or so ago, I was walking across campus. It was cold and windy, and the windows of the chapel were covered in fog. But inside, I could hear the Gustavus Adolphus choir practicing hard for the big annual Christmas concert.

For this small, church-based college, it's a production tantamount to staging a Hollywood blockbuster: dazzling vocal pyrotechnics, multiple choirs, ever more challenging orchestral arrangements and spoken-word recitations. 

Where I grew up in Chicago, we had great Gospel choirs. But we didn't have the choral music tradition Minnesota does. 

It's a cultural institution in this state, built in part by our friends at St. Olaf College and the legendary choir director F. Melius Christiansen. I was part of a search committee some years back when Gustavus was looking for a new choir director. And almost every finalist made a point of tracing his or her musical pedigree back to him. "I studied with so and so, who studied with so-and-so, who studied under F. Melius Christiansen."

Christiansen was the very model of an immigrant success story. He left Norway in 1888, when he was only 17. And he eventually became one of the most prominent musical figures in America. His legacy endures in the St. Olaf Chistmas Festival and its counterparts at colleges around the state.

I suspect the impulse to do these Christmas concerts grew out of an immigrant sense of homesickness. It was a longing for the sounds of the old country, and it became even more acute during this, the coldest, darkest part of the year. 

I can see how that music resonated with Minnesota's immigrant souls. Just like lefse or lingonberries, those old Scandinavian hymns buoyed the sagging spirit. They gave people the strength to face the cold winter night. And for a moment, at least, the music kept their homesickness and isolation on these frozen prairies at bay.

I don't think I have a single drop of Scandinavian blood in me. But, still, I felt uplifted as I passed by our chapel that frigid night. In the dark of winter, it's hard for any soul, Swedish, Norwegian or otherwise, to resist these beautiful voices, singing hymns full of praise and light.

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Philip Bryant is a poet and a professor of English at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Some of his poems were recently featured in the book "Best Music Writing 2010." The St. Olaf Christmas Festival will be broadcast Sunday on Classical MPR.