Remarkable coincidence gives Winnipeggers chance to hear Norwegian composer’s hymns
WINNIPEGGERS can hear a minor musical miracle next weekend during a performance of works by a longforgotten female composer and hymn writer.
Although a published hymn tune writer in her native Norway, composer Theodora Cormontan’s music was largely unknown in North America until five boxes of unpublished compositions were discovered in an attic nearly 90 years after her death.
“It’s beyond my understanding, but it feels to me there’s something remarkable here,” says music professor Michael Jorgensen, who was given the Norwegian-American’s 150 manuscripts of vocal music, hymns and piano compositions by a friend in 2011. “I believe there’s some divine intention.” Jorgensen, a voice teacher at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and his wife Bonnie perform several of Cormontan’s compositions for voice and piano, next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 637 Buckingham Rd. Tickets are available at the door for $15.
The compositions reflect musical tastes of the 19th and early 20th centuries, says Jorgensen, but they are remarkable for their lovely melodies.
Although several of Cormontan’s hymns were published in Norwegian religious periodicals and hymnals, none were ever printed in North America after she immigrated to Minnesota in 1887 at age 47 with her sister and father, a Lutheran pastor, looking for a new life after a house fire and bank failure left them in poverty.
In Norway, she had managed her own publishing house, an unusual occupation for a 19th-century woman, as well as performing and composing her own music, mostly piano compositions and vocal solos and duets, says Jorgensen, who has dedicated the last five years to researching Cormontan’s life and work.
What he discovered is both remarkable and ordinary: the story of a Norwegian Lutheran woman who emigrated to Minnesota in search of a better life and had to fight hard just to survive, but who kept on composing despite obstacles and barriers. Women of Cormontan’s time usually studied voice and piano, but very few were published composers or hymn writers, says Jorgensen.
“I think it’s important to know women have been composing a lot longer than they’ve been given credit,” he says.
“It would have been more acceptable for her to write vocal music like hymns.”
In Minnesota, she worked as a music teacher, church organist, performer and composer, despite suffering a paralyzing injury after falling off a train. Before her 1922 death at an Iowa seniors home, she passed on her boxes of music and personal effects to Mollie Helgerson Schmidt, wife of the home’s superintendent.
Those boxes remained in family attics for nearly nine decades, passed from one Schmidt generation to another and unopened until granddaughter Barb Schmidt Nelson gave them to Jorgensen five years ago.
That’s where the Winnipeg connection comes in. Nelson’s Winnipeg cousin Martha Helgerson and the Norwegian Canadian Club invited Michael and Bonnie Jorgensen to perform Cormontan’s music in its Canadian première.
“It’s nice to think that today, nearly 100 years after her death, through a series of happy coincidences, that her music is being played and her story is being told. It’s like her life did matter,” says Helgerson, part of a choral group that travelled with Jorgensen to Norway in 2015 to perform Cormontan’s music.
While in Norway, Jorgensen donated the original manuscripts to the National Library of Norway, which scanned the well-preserved compositions and made them available online at http://www.nb.no/ English.
Not only did her life matter, Cormontan’s music stands as a testament to her Lutheran faith and her belief in her abilities as a composer, says Jorgensen, who has performed it dozens of times.
“She kept writing consistently year after year regardless of what was happening” in her life, he says.
“I believe she felt God created her as a composer and that was her calling.”