The following newspaper article was electronically translated and edited from the original Norwegian. The author, Jan Hartvig Henriksen, is a retired music professor. He held the position of Rector at the Agder Music Conservatory, which is now part of the Norwegian public regional college system. Editorial comments included below are bracketed and in yellow type.
The pastor's daughter: a singer and music publisher By Jan Hartvig Henriksen
[From page 6 of the Wednesday, February 8, 1984 edition of the Agderposten, published in Arendal, Norway. Arendal is the city where Theodora Cormontan lived from the age of seven until she immigrated to the U. S. at the age of 46].
A striking feature in musical history is the relatively small number of women composers. In the past it was acceptable for women to play the piano, but they were expected to run households, not to compose music.
So, it is somewhat surprising that in the 19th century of Arendal, Norway’s music history the only two published compositions by native residents that were widely performed were by women: Sophie Dedekam and Theodora Nicoline Cormontan. There have been a number of professional musicians and organists in Arendal who can be traced back to before 1723. Many of them were trained and competent musicians, some of them amazingly versatile, but they have written few compositions, and as far as I could ascertain, none of them were published composers until the organist Olsen, but he came after these two women [The organist Olsen is Alfred Theodor Olsen, organist for Trinity Church in Arendal from 1886-1936].
Today there are probably even fewer who know the name Theodora Cormontan than who have heard of Sophie Dedekam. But, Cormontan has written a song that many [Norwegian] people know, # 268 [currently #487 in the Norwegian hymnal] – "Høgt frå den himmelske klåre" ["High from the clear heavens"] harmonized by Fartein Valen [the current edition has a different harmonization]. Except that both women--to the extent that they are remembered --are only known for one song each, they were quite different, both in their background and their music.
Sophie Dedekam ran in the circles of high society, with balls and parties and theatre. She performed at institutions like the Dramatic Society and the Musical Society, exclusive venues which typically produced at best a modest level of artistic expression.
Theodora was 20 years younger than Sophie, and was influenced differently by the mid-century cultural and social revolution in Norway. This national breakthrough after 1840 facilitated more popular cultural expressions. Choirs and choruses made up of the middle classes emerged.
Another influence was the religious revivals in Arendal around 1850, inspiring the growth of independent congregations. The town was visited by the evangelist-singer Oscar Ahnfeldt, along with Lina Sandell. They made such an apparent impression on the young clergyman's daughter that one of her most beautiful songs, "Det døende Barn" ["The dying children"] with text by Hans Christian Andersen, has such an unmistakable resemblance to the Ahnfeldt-Sandell hymn “Day by Day” that it could be characterized as plagiarism. [I have seen this score and I do not think it is plagiarism]. Sophie Dedekam was also deeply religious and affected by the pietistic wave. But she had grown up with Danish vaudeville songs and singing popular music.
Theodora came to Arendal when her father, Even Meldal Schjelderup Cormontan, was appointed as Trinity Church’s parish priest in 1847. Theodora was the second youngest of seven children, having been born in Beitstad in 1840.
(above) A painting that shows what the Trinity Church (Trefoldighetskirken) looked like during the time Pastor Cormontan served there.
(above) The Trinity Church in Arendal in 2015.
Her last name does not sound Norwegian, but Theodora’s father was born in Øvrebø, Norway, himself the son of a priest. His Danish grandfather’s last name was Hansen. The grandfather came from Hjerteberg in Stege, Denmark. The Latin equivalent for Hjerteberg [Danish for "Heart of the Mountain"] is Cor Montan--Cormontan.
Not a lot is known about Theodora’s childhood, but it is fairly certain that she received her musical education from the town musician, the organist F.W. Thoschlag. As evidence, the name of the organist's oldest daughter, Felicita, frequently appears with Theodora’s in concert programs. Two years younger than Theodora, Felicita was likely her close friend. Theodora preferred singing to playing the organ, and she also likely studied voice with Thoschlag, who was an excellent singer and appeared on one of Ole Bull's concerts in Arendal performing Schubert’s “Erlkønig!”
In the years 1863-1865 Theodora studied music in Copenhagen. She almost certainly received instruction in music composition at that time, for her songs and piano pieces demonstrate a skill beyond an amateur’s. In the next 20 years she made her presence felt in Arendal’s music scene. She held regular concerts, often with the assistance of the city choir or the Arendal Hornmusikk Association.[Theodora performed beyond Arendal. The April 28 and May 3, 1869 editions of the Bergens Adressecontoirs Efterretninger announced two concerts she gave in Bergen on April 29 and May 4. The April 19 edition described her as a singer and noted that she had studied in Paris. The April 26, 1869 edition of the Aftenposten noted a concert in Stavanger. See "Theodora On Tour: 1869" for more information.]
She also started a music lending library business, like her teacher Thoschlag. It is amazing to see both the scope of her music rental collection and the breadth of repertoire it contained. I do not know exactly how many numbers it covered, but some remnants of the library have come into my possession, and the highest numbered of the library is 11,858! This includes piano sheet music for two and four hands, chamber music, songs, opera and song collections, and symphony scores, including the complete works of Mozart and Beethoven!
Who would borrow scores of Beethoven's symphonies in Arendal in the 1870’s and 1880’s? Well, the prosperity of the city during this time has not been equaled before or since. But one still might ask: was there a market for this music, or was the lady a romantic collector without a completely realistic view of the demands of the marketplace?
In fact, she simply had great ambitions! She started her own music publishing company in Arendal! And it was not primarily in order to realize a dream of seeing her name on the title page entwined by decorative arabesques; no, she already had a number of compositions published by a recognized publishing house [Warmuth] before she started her own. The music she published used materials of high quality, like the music published in Leipzig. She published her own songs and piano pieces, and also issued a series of songs by Sophie Dedekam, as well as a number of songs by Caroline Schytte Jensen, who wrote “Three cute babies with blue eyes” and “Waiting for father!”
While Sophie Dedekam limited her output to songs, Theodora displayed her versatility by also writing for the piano. She was also more productive than Dedekam. Opus 46 is the highest opus number I have seen registered, but many of her opuses consist of several songs, so the total number of her compositions is significantly higher. I have not been able to track down everything she wrote, but the 12 solo songs, three duets, nine piano solos, and her hymn “ Høgt frå den himmelske klåre ” gives a pretty good picture of her output. [Of course, when Henriksen wrote this article he was unaware that Cormontan had published piano solos and hymns in the U. S. that she did not publish in Europe, not to mention the approximately 150 works she composed—that we know of--that were never published]. She had a penchant for Hans Christian Andersen, and his texts must have resonated with her, for they provide the words to some of the best songs she wrote. She also chose texts by Jørgen Moe, Henrik Ibsen, Christian Winter, and Thomas Moore.
A nationalistic tone is not prominent in Theodora Cormontan’s music, although she was influenced by the nationalism in the music of Nordraak, Kjerulf and Grieg. Only in her Op. 3 does she make a nationalistic reference, in "Blandt Fjeldene" ["Among Mountains"] that is described under the title as being in the style of two folk songs for piano. [There are a number of pieces that display strong nationalism among her manuscripts]. “Blandt Fjeldene" is dedicated to Mrs. Agathe Backer Grøndahl, and it is not impossible that the two may have met when Agathe was in Arendal to visit her cousin, postmaster Nils Backer. [A new, revised version of a movement from this work can be found in the manuscripts]. Cormontan also wrote fantasies and paraphrases based on hymns, including "Kjærlighed er Livets Kilde" ["Love is the source of life"], "Fred til Bod for bittert Savn" ["Peace to the source of bitter loss"] and "Herre Jesu Christ" ["Lord Jesus Christ"].
She composed two marches for the popular music scene. Her "Honnør-Marsch for norske Turnere" ["Honors March for Norwegian Turners"] is dedicated to the Arendal Turner Association, a group that had its own band for many years [This piece is also in our manuscript collection. To cite a speaker quoted in the 9/12/1900 edition of the New Ulm Review "Turners admire and foster art, literature, music, physical culture and free thought."]. The other is nothing less than the "Norske Turneres National-Festmarsch" ["Norwegian National Turners Festive March"], obviously aiming at a wide audience. It is dedicated to the Norwegian Turners. She advertised that the various versions of the piece include piano 2 hands, piano 4 hands, piano and flute, piano and violin, piano and cornet, brass sextet and large orchestra, and military band! The most representative version Cormontan published was printed in glittering red and gold and looks like a diploma. She also published the "Norsk Konge-Polonaise" ["Norwegian King Polonaise"] for King Oscar II, with a powerful showcase trio section that is a paraphrase of the King’s song.
Theodora Cormontan does not show original and distinctive compositional talent. It is fairly conventional, and can sometimes seem like plagiarism. The opening of her "Norsk Konge-Polonaise" is so blatantly borrowed from Chopin’s Polonaise in A major that it must involve a deliberate quote--she obviously knew a lot of music. But, at its best, she has a pianistic sweep of design that is quite effective in her piano pieces, and several of her songs are marked by sincerity and a genuine feeling that make them quite persuasive. [Professor Henriksen only had access to the music Theodora published in Norway. The best of her unpublished manuscript compositions that we uncovered display, in our opinion, significantly more original and distinctive compositional talent than Theodora revealed in any of her music published in Norway, with the possible exception of a few of her songs. Additionaly, I believe she was original and distinctive just by being a woman composer. As a woman in 19th century Norway, she had to work through pervasive and restrictive societal conventions that no male composer encountered].
Theodora Cormontan’s ambitious music company did not enjoy a long life in Arendal. We can only guess at the reasons why. But, it is a fact that the city's golden age of the 1870’s was succeeded in the following decade by a serious depression, with sailing ships put out of business and an economic crisis [three Arendal banks went bankrupt in 1886].
Old Cormontan must have been a tenacious and persevering clergyman. He was for some years the Provst [a position of regional authority in the Church of Norway] of Nedenes diocese, and did not step down from his position in his parish church until 1882, when he was 85 years old and had preached for 57 years!
There is a painting from the old church where he looms as the patriarch with his two daughters, Theodora and Eivinda, in their permanent seats in the choir. The two musical girls obviously sang in the church choir for the old Provst. The rest of the children had emigrated.
[This is a copy of the painting referenced by Henriksen, painted in 1928 by Leonard Rickhard. This digitalized photograph was taken at the KUBEN museum in Arendal in 2015].
In 1887 the 89 year old father boarded the steamship Hekla with his two daughters to spend their last years together with the surviving children in Franklin, [Minnesota], USA. The Provst died in 1892 , and his unmarried daughter worked for many years as a music teacher. Theodora Cormontan appears to have lived until about 1920. [Theodora Cormontan died on October 26, 1922].