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Christiansen, F. Melius (1871‒1955)

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F. Melius Christiansen

F. Melius Christiansen, 1938.

Norwegian immigrant musician F. Melius Christiansen founded the St. Olaf College Choir in 1911. Through his career as a conductor, composer, and arranger, he established the preeminent Lutheran a capella (unaccompanied) choral tradition in America.

Born on April 1, 1871, in Berger, Norway, to parents Anders Christiansen and Oleana Jonsen, Fredrick Melius Christiansen was baptized in the Lutheran Church in nearby Eidsvold. Members of the families of both parents played in local orchestras and bands. His father, Anders, led his own band. As a child, he learned to play the clarinet, violin, and pipe organ. To pay for his own violin lessons, a teenage Christiansen taught violin to beginners.

To further his music training and work opportunities, Christiansen, age seventeen, emigrated in 1888 to the United States, where two uncles and a brother had already journeyed. After arriving in New York he traveled to Oakland, California, to stay with his uncle Hans and pursue work as a church organist.

Unable to find a post, Christiansen moved to Washburn, Wisconsin, to live with his brother Karl. Two years later he moved to Marinette, Wisconsin, to work as director of the Scandinavian Band as well as the organist and choir director of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. At the church he heard a performance of a touring male vocal quartet from Augsburg College and Seminary, Minneapolis, and learned about musical opportunities there.

In 1892, at age twenty-one, Christiansen enrolled at Augsburg, intending to become a concert violinist. He taught harmony and singing lessons at the college and conducted the student chorus. After his freshman studies he transferred to Northwestern Conservatory of Music in Minneapolis, where he studied music theory and counterpoint and graduated with honors. He continued to live and work in Minneapolis directing a number of choruses, serving as organist for several Lutheran churches, and teaching violin lessons.

In July 1897 Christiansen returned to Marinette to marry Edith Lindem, a woman he had met while directing the church choir there. After their wedding the couple lived in Germany for two years to allow Christiansen to study at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music.

In Leipzig, Christiansen enrolled in music theory classes and studied violin with the prominent German virtuoso Hans Sitt. He regularly attended the rehearsals and concerts of the St. Thomas Church Choir, whose choir director in the 1700s had been Johann Sebastian Bach. Its then-current choir director, Gustav Schreck, became Christiansen’s conservatory instructor in composition, counterpoint, and choir conducting.

Christiansen received his diploma from the conservatory in 1899 and returned to America. For the next four years he worked in Minneapolis as a violin teacher, church organist, and chorus director. In 1903 he accepted a job offer from President John Kildahl to lead the newly established music department of St. Olaf College, Northfield.

Christiansen directed the St. Olaf Band beginning in 1903 and took the group to perform in Norway in the spring of 1906. After the tour, he returned to Leipzig to continue his studies with Schreck. He studied folk music and its influence on church music and re-harmonized chorales, the hymns of the German Lutheran Church, before moving back to Northfield.

St. Olaf Choir was formed as an outgrowth of St. John’s church choir during the 1911‒12 school year, and Christiansen gained international acclaim for his role as its founding director. He took the group on tour for the first time in 1912, then toured internationally the following year after a trip to Norway. For the next thirty years he revitalized choral singing in America, touring throughout America and Europe, performing before kings and presidents. He retired from conducting the choir in 1944 and ceded the position to his son Olaf, who had joined the faculty as co-director in 1942.

Christiansen died in 1955. His legacy includes more than 250 choral arrangements published as the “St. Olaf Choir Series,” by Augsburg Publishing, beginning in 1919. His most beloved and performed works include “Beautiful Savior,” “Praise to the Lord,” and “Wake, Awake.”

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Armendarez, Christina Marie. “The Influence of Fredrik Melius Christiansen on Six Minnesota Conductor-Composers.” Master of music thesis, University of North Texas, 2006.

Armstrong, Anton. “Celebrating 75 Years of Musical Excellence: The Evolution of the St. Olaf Choir.” DMA dissertation, Michigan State University, 1987.
――― . “The Musical Legacy of F. Melius Christiansen.” Choral Journal (November 1996): 9‒14.

Bergmann, Leola Nelson. Music Master of the Middle West: The Story of F. Melius Christiansen and the St. Olaf Choir. New York: Da Capo Press, 1968.

Clausen, Rene. “The Compositional Style of F. Melius Christiansen.” Choral Journal (November 1996): 18‒25.

F. Melius Christiansen 135th Anniversary Concert Program, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, 2006. American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota.

Johnson, Albert Rykken. “The Christiansen Choral Tradition: F. Melius Christiansen, Olaf C. Christiansen, and Paul J. Christiansen.” PhD dissertation, University of Iowa, 1973.
Schmidt, Paul G. My Years at St. Olaf. Northfield: St. Olaf College, 1967.

Shaw, Joseph M. The St. Olaf Choir: A Narrative. Northfield, MN: St. Olaf College, 1997.

St. Olaf College Shaw-Olson Center for College History (College Archives), Northfield, MN.

Related Images

F. Melius Christiansen
F. Melius Christiansen
Christiansen family
Christiansen family
F. Melius Christiansen, ca. 1940.
F. Melius Christiansen, ca. 1940.
F. Melius (right) and Olaf C. Christiansen
F. Melius (right) and Olaf C. Christiansen
F. Melius Christiansen and family
F. Melius Christiansen and family
St. Olaf Choir
St. Olaf Choir

Turning Point

In 1904, after his first trial year at St. Olaf College, Christiansen decides that after years of striving as a musician he has arrived at a home base for his career and family.



Christiansen is born in Norway.


Christiansen emigrates from Norway to the United States.


Christiansen begins to study music at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.


Christiansen marries Edith Lindem.


St. Olaf College hires Christiansen to lead the school’s new department of music.


Christiansen conducts the St. Olaf Band during its first tour of Norway.


Christiansen founds St. Olaf Choir. It performs at its first Christmas festival on December 17, 1912.


St. Olaf Choir goes on tour in Norway.


Augsburg Publishing releases “Beautiful Savior” as part of the “St. Olaf Choral Series.”


St. Olaf Choir performs at New York’s Carnegie Hall to critical acclaim.


WCCO broadcasts a performance by the choir for the first time.


Christiansen and his son Olaf co-found Christiansen Choral School, which is promoted as “A master Course for Choral Directors of College, Church & School.”


Olaf joins his father on the St. Olaf faculty as the co-conductor of St. Olaf Choir.


Christiansen retires, passing his baton off to Olaf.


Christiansen dies in Northfield at age eighty-four.