The History of the Wartburg Choir

Liemohn Conducting The Wartburg Choir in the 1940s

Dr. Edwin Liemohn
Dr. James Fritschel
Dr. Paul Torkelson
Dr. Lee Nelson
Dr. Lee

Selecting 1937, the year of Dr. Edwin Liemohn’s arrival at Wartburg College, as the founding year of the choir is somewhat arbitrary. There have always been music organizations, including choral groups, at Wartburg College and its predecessors. George Grossmann, who founded Wartburg, was a musician. As early as the 1920s there was an a cappella touring choir at Waverly. But before 1937, choirs at Wartburg College were modest singing groups. Their tour concerts rarely extended much beyond the near neighborhood. Hence, we begin the history of “The Wartburg Choir” with Liemohn.

With solid music credentials — he secured degrees from the McPhail School of Music and the Eastman School of Music, among others — Liemohn infused in the fledgling a cappella group a love of Scandinavian choral literature. Of Norwegian Lutheran parentage, he brought to the ensemble, which he renamed “The Wartburg Choir” in 1937, an appreciation for the compositions of his mentor, St. Olaf Choir founder and director F. Melius Christenson.

Keenly aware of Wartburg’s German Lutheran heritage, Liemohn created his own arrangement of Martin Luther’s signature Reformation hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. After 75 seasons, the Wartburg Choir continues to sing this powerful and stirring composition at concerts.

As early as 1946 tour concerts were garnering rave reviews. Said the music critic for the Duluth, Minn., News-Tribune, “[This choir demonstrates] freshness and fluency of singing, skill in dynamics, polyphonic dexterity, rhythmic precision [and] perfect unanimity in every attack and turn of phrase.”

Liemohn found other ways to give the choir a public face. Already in the 1940s there were radio broadcasts, originating from the college campus, featuring the choir — along with other music groups and, on occasion, speakers and lectures. During the choir’s 1938 tour, a trip that took the choir through Illinois, the singers were featured for an hour on radio station WLS in Chicago. Broadcast after dark, the clear-channel 50,000-watt signal carried the program all over the country. Letters flowed in, all of which were forwarded to Liemohn. They praised the sound of the choir. Some former choir members who heard the broadcast were downright giddy with excitement after having heard the musicians from their alma mater on a major radio outlet.

Liemohn clearly loved touring stateside. But he soon set his sights on wider vistas. He wanted to take the choir across the Atlantic. After a decade of planning, he got his opportunity.

In late spring of 1959, the choir traveled to Europe and sang concerts in a half-dozen countries. Unlike later overseas trips, planned and executed by a tour manager, Liemohn made all the contacts for this first European adventure himself. The tour was a triumph for the singers and their director. Newspaper reviews in Germany, Denmark, Holland, and England offered effusive reviews. Among other things, the Europeans seemed surprised and delighted to experience a concert in which the singers had memorized all the music.

Dr. James Fritschel put his own stamp on the choir. The familiar black and white silk choir robes from the Liemohn era were retired in 1971. The singers began appearing at concerts wearing formal gowns and tuxedos.

The college had begun an annual Christmas concert decades earlier. By the Fritschel years, the Wartburg Choir was an integral part of Christmas at Wartburg. The festival was renamed Christmas with Wartburg when the event added concerts in nearby Cedar Falls and the state’s capital, Des Moines. In recent years, the annual celebration of Advent and Christmas, usually presented before sellout audiences, has been broadcast statewide over Iowa Public Television and other public television stations.

When Fritschel’s singers toured Europe in 1974, a new activity — one destined to become an overseas tour tradition — was included. The choir visited the college’s namesake, Wartburg Castle. Because the Iron Curtain was still in place, there was no vocalizing inside the structure, but graduating seniors touring with the choir received their diplomas in the shadow of the famous fortress.

In 1980, the Wartburg Choir became the first American choral group to win first-place recognition among mixed choirs of 30 voices or more at the International Choral Festival in Cork, Ireland. Fritschel proudly displayed the silver trophy when stepping off the bus as the choir returned to Waverly. With the trophy came a cash prize of 200 Irish pounds (around $450). As late as the year 2000, no other North American choir had won a first prize at Cork.

A prolific composer, Fritschel left a lasting mark on choir and college traditions with a disarmingly simple composition. Taking the text of a four-line poem, penned years earlier by college English professor (and American Lutheran Church poet laureate) Gustav J. Neumann, the composer set words to music of his own creation. For years, In Thy Hand was offered as a benediction at Homecoming and Baccalaureate services.

Until his retirement, Fritschel directed the touring choir at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Under Dr. Paul Torkelson the Wartburg Choir achieved even greater stature. As part of the college’s long-running, highly acclaimed Artist Series, the singers performed the ambitious and difficult Mass in B Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Torkelson led the choir into prestigious new performing venues. During May Term 1985, his musicians sang at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, New York City. The choir performed for the American Choral Directors Association in San Antonio, Texas.

A 2004 performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., caused staff writer Cecelia Porter to headline her review in the Washington Post, “Wartburg Choir, a mighty fortress of skill.” She wrote, “[This choir] is
trained with rock-solid discipline.”

When the choir performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Torkelson received an unexpected telegram just before the performance. Weston Noble, then-director of the Luther College Nordic Choir and the dean of Lutheran choir conductors, sent a congratulatory message. The essence was that the Wartburg Choir was singing on that night for all of the nation’s Lutheran college choirs. Wrote Noble, “You make us proud.”

With the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany, the choir found it possible in the year 1995 to return to Eisenach, the home of the Wartburg Castle, and this time sing inside the Great Hall. The Wartburg Choir is currently the only U.S. Lutheran college choir with a standing invitation for concerts at the castle.
In 2008 Torkelson accepted an opportunity to work short-term with a music placement agency in New York City. During his sabbatical, the college hired recently retired Luther College Nordic Choir director Weston Noble to direct the Wartburg Choir. Noble described one of the concerts on tour as "one of two GREATEST EXPERIENCES" of his entire 67-year teaching career.

When it became clear that Torkelson had decided to retire from Wartburg at the end of his sabbatical a search for his permanent replacement began.

Dr. Lee Nelson, a graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., and previously director of choral music at St. Cloud State University, assumed leadership of the choir in the fall of 2009. The following year he took the choir to Europe, recreating the itinerary of Liemohn’s first overseas tour in 1959.

In fall 2011, the choir received an unexpected invitation to sing at the White House in Washington, D.C. Nelson
led his singers in a program of Advent and Christmas music, both at the executive mansion and at the Washington National Cathedral.

The Wartburg Choir has evolved from a marginal singing group on the campus of a tiny Lutheran college on life-support into one of the premier academic mixed-voice a cappella ensembles in the country. Today the choir auditions from the ranks of 1,800 students at a robust church-related private college whose thriving music program draws students from across the country. If the past is prologue, the Wartburg College Choir is on the cusp of still greater triumphs in decades yet to come.

– Michael L. Sherer, Wartburg Choir, 1962-63