by Emma Janssen
Although Northwestern’s music department is now strong and well-known, it hasn’t always been that way.
In 1946, Northwestern had no choir, no orchestra and no music program of any kind, and Professor Berntsen (who later became President Berntsen) decided it was time for a change. When he was chosen as the dean of the new music department, he led the way for the organization and founding of a new music program.
Under the direction of Berntsen, Northwestern soon formed a very successful choir that traveled all over Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa to different churches and organizations to perform. One year, as Dr. Ray Smyth (a member of the class of 1954) recalls, the traveling choir took a trip to the West Coast to visit Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Colorado before making its way back to the Twin Cities. The following year, the choir hit the East Coast, going through New York, New Jersey and Florida before heading back once more.
“Some true lasting friendships developed,” said Bud Lindstrand, another member of the 1954 class. “The experience of being together was unique to the purpose for which we were together.”
These trips were just the beginning; this successful a cappella choir was about to spark the beautiful holiday tradition known and loved today as Christmas at Northwestern. Taking place on the original Northwestern campus located in downtown Minneapolis, Christmas at Northwestern soon became the culmination of the holiday season for students and faculty alike.
Another claim to Northwestern fame is Berntsen’s arrangement of “Under His Wing,” which was sang at Christmas at Northwestern performances as well as when the choir was traveling. The choir performed so well that Dr. Smyth said a review in the Minneapolis Star compared Northwestern’s choir to that of St. Olaf, which meant a lot.
“That review is what made me choose to attend Northwestern,” said Smyth.
Today, Christmas at Northwestern is one of the most elegant affairs on campus; rewind several decades, and it was just as classy then as it is now. Lindstrand recalls what it was like when he was a part of the choir: “The men wore black tuxedos, and the women wore long, black, floor-length gowns. After intermission, the men returned in white dinner jackets to sing a couple of numbers, and then the full choir returned. It was a glorious event at the very least.”
Only a select number of students were chosen to be a part of this elite a cappella choir; 90 students got their chance. Dr. Smyth said that through the years, the choir has lost no flair or talent and is holding to the standards of the choirs of Christmases past.
Christmas at Northwestern brings fond memories to everyone in attendance and all the students who performed in it as well. Lindstrand said, “As a student coming from Oregon, one of my fondest memories was that when the last concert was performed, it meant I was on the train the next day to go home for Christmas.”
This glimpse into the past has shown just the tip of the iceberg of this magnificent event. The memories, the history and the establishment of Christmas at Northwestern are all a part of the foundation and testament to what Northwestern stands for: using your God-given talents to bring Him all the glory and to “Light the Way.”