Re­mark­able coin­ci­dence gives Win­nipeg­gers chance to hear Nor­we­gian com­poser’s hymns

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - FAITH - BRENDA SUDERMAN

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 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.”

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