Jorgensen Music

Biography of Theodora Cormontan

 

 

  

Theodora Cormontan

1840 - 1922

Norwegian-American Composer

 

 

[These first two paragraphs are electronic translations of the original Norwegian from the following source: Kari Michelsen: Musikkhandel i Norge (Music Publishers in Norway), Chapter 10, pp 216-219.  University of Oslo:  2010.  Editorial additions are in yellow print and bracketed.] 

Theodora Nicoline Meldal Cormontan was born June 9, 1840 in Beitstad in the county of Nord Trøndelag in Norway, the daughter of Reverend Even Meldal Schjelderup Cormontan (1798-1893).  In 1847 the family moved to Arendal, and settled in the parsonage. [Her Confirmation Records from the Trinity Church in Arendal note that she was baptized on September 20, 1840 and confirmed on April 19, 1857.]  In 1865 there were 15 people living in the parsonage, including the pastor, a son Nicolai [Hans], and three daughters [Eivinda, Theodora, and Marie], all unmarried and all in their twenties.  Theodora probably received music training with F.W. Thoschlag before continuing her studies in Copenhagen during the 1860s.  As a singer, she later appeared in several concerts.  Probably in 1879 Theodora became a music publisher, developing a significant music shop and a fairly extensive music rental library in Arendal.  From the many advertisements for her music shop, we see that she was well up to date with inventory.

In February, 1886 the old parsonage burned down, and the same year the bank collapsed in Arendal.  The following year Theodora, her father, and one of her sisters immigrated to Illinois [Minnesota], USA.  She made a living as a music teacher and died in Decorah, Iowa in 1922.

 

[The following is based on research done by Michael Jorgensen.  Valuable information was provided by Nancy Clasen, great-great granddaughter of Marie Cormontan Lyders]: 

Theodora came from Norway to the United States with her father Even and older sister Eivinda to live with her older brother Gottfred Christian Vogelsang Cormontan (also known as Gottfried, Christian, C.G., or--usually--C.G.V. Cormontan).  C.G.V. received a Chemistry degree from the Norwegian University in Christiania (later Oslo) on December 10, 1868.  According to the December 15, 1899 edition of the Madelia, MN Times C.G.V. arrived in the United States in 1873 and probably began practicing as a pharmacist that year.  He became a naturalized citizen on June 8, 1880 in Clayton Co., Iowa, where the 1880 census listed his occupation as a school teacher.  By 1881 he had moved to Sacred Heart in Renville County, Minnesota where his youngest sister Marie had lived since 1880 with her husband, Edward Lyders, a doctor and pharmacist.  In the early 1880s C.G.V. returned to Norway, perhaps to visit his father and sisters Eivinda and Theodora.  He returned to Sacred Heart in 1884.  Theodora, her father Even, and her sister Eivinda joined the Lyders family in Sacred Heart in the summer of 1887.  By this time C.G.V. lived in Franklin in southern Renville County, MN.  Theodora's older brother Hans Nicolai Patroclus Cormontan, a carpenter, also came to Sacred Heart around 1884, probably from Illinois.  None of the four siblings ever married.  Their mother, Louise Augusta Hirsch Cormontan, died in 1865.

 

The front page of the Granite Falls Tribune reported on October 18, 1887 that "Miss Theodora Cormontan, of Sacred Heart, will give a concert at Winter's Hall Friday evening, Oct 21st, consisting of vocal and instrumental music.  Miss Cormontan studied music for 7 years in Germany and other countries in Europe; has given concerts at Copenhagen, Denmark and Arendahl and other cities in Norway.  She will sing English, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Italian, some of the pieces being of her own compositions.  The concert promises to be a rich treat and let all remember the day and place."  In a review of the concert on October 25, 1887, the front page of the same paper read "The concert at the hall on Friday last was well patronized and we hear many flattering words of praise for the singer who entertained for nearly two hours.  Her superior gift is plainly instrumental music and her admirers are numerous. We hope to hear her again."  Cormontan advertised as a teacher of vocal and instrumental music in the Granite Falls paper that November and December.

 

On November 4, 1887, the Renville Weekly News reported “The concert given by Miss Theodora Cormanton [sic] with the assistance of Mrs. Lyders [her younger sister Marie] and Miss Louisa [Marie’s daughter] was a great musical treat and a decided success.  Miss Cormanton is a capital musician, a fine singer, and is highly spoken of in musical circles and those who did not attend missed a rare treat.”  Even, Theodora, and Eivinda all moved to Franklin, MN in 1888, where C.G.V. owned and operated the first drug store in Franklin.  Hans appears to have joined the family a few years later. In 1888 C.G.V. was elected to the first town council, and  served several years as a town councilman.

                                                                                                                    

Twin City newspapers reported in October, 1889 that Eivinda and Theodora Cormontan were in St. Paul where Theodora was the plaintiff in the U.S. Circuit Court.  Theodora brought suit against the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company for damages from injuries received in Granite Falls, MN on December 3, 1887.  She was returning to nearby Sacred Heart after a day of teaching music lessons.  The train lurched forward as Theodora was boarding, causing her to fall and resulting in a spinal injury that left her partially paralyzed.  The jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded her $5,000 damages. 

 

Theodora was in St. Paul again in March of 1891, according to the composition date written on one of her manuscripts.  In 1891 C.G.V. was advertising his business in newspapers published in the towns of Franklin and Morton in Renville County, Minnesota.  By 1892 Theodora played the organ for two area churches, conducted choirs, and taught music lessons.  The Morton Enterprise reported in April of that year “The lady [Theodora] is certainly an excellent teacher in vocal as well as instrumental music.”  Also by 1892 she was traveling to nearby Morton, where she taught approximately fifty students. Around this time she saw several of her Norwegian language hymns published in a Norwegian magazine entitled Ungdommens Ven (The Youth's Friend) and subsequently in a Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran songbook called the Frydetoner (Joyful Songs).  Her father Even Cormontan died in Franklin in 1893.  C.G.V. and Hans were among a group of founders of the Concordia Evangelical Lutheran church in Franklin in 1898.  Seven of Theodora’s manuscripts carry dates that indicate that they were composed or edited while she lived in Franklin.  A number of the undated works were also written there.

 

Picture below:  Fort Ridgely and Dale Church in Franklin, Minnesota (photo taken in 2011). 

This is believed to be the actual organ procured for the church by the Cormontan family in 1892 and, therefore, the very organ played by Theodora.

 

In February of 1899 C.G.V. Cormontan purchased the Madelia Drug Company on Main Street in the town of Madelia in Watonwan County, Minnesota.  By March Theodora described herself in ads she placed in the Madelia Messenger newspaper as a composer and music teacher.  In October of that year she advertised that she was selling several of her own compositions at the drug store.  In her advertisements for her teaching, Theodora described herself as “Pupil of Europe’s Greatest Musicians” and said she “gave instruction on piano, organ, and vocal.”  She said she practiced “The newest and best methods . . .Vocal Culture, Mathilde Marchesi’s Italian Singing Method.”  It appears she offered piano and voice lessons from her home on 405 Shepard Street in Madelia. She offered organ lessons at another residence on Shepard.  She traveled to Linden and Hanska, Minnesota to offer music lessons to students outside of Madelia.    

 

By 1901 C.G.V. no longer owned and operated the Madelia Drug Company and was managing a drug store in nearby Hanska.  Theodora, Eivinda, and Hans moved to Hanska in June of 1902.  Theodora continued performing, offering a prelude and a "closing instrumental" at a Christmas program for the Lutheran Ladies' Society at the Hanska school house in December of 1903.  Early in 1904 C.G.V. traveled by himself  to take a pharmacist position in the town of Kennedy in Kittson County, Minnesota, leaving Hans, Eivinda, and Theodora behind. In an ad from the Madelia Times Messenger in January of 1905 Theodora reported that she was offering lessons from her home at the L.A. Dodge residence in Madelia.  She continued to perform, including playing Schubert's "Serenade" at the 1906 Madelia High School Commencement.  Many of Theodora’s manuscripts bear completion dates from 1899-1908, indicating that Theodora continued composing in Madelia and Hanska.

 

C.G.V. rejoined his siblings and they moved to St. James, Minnesota by 1908, where they became members of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, C.G.V. continued to be employed as a pharmacist, and Theodora continued to teach music and perform.  The St. James Journal Gazette reported in its January 22, 1910 edition that she played the piano in a program for an anti-tuberculosis educational meeting.  Quoting the paper, "Miss Theodora Cormonton [sic] will render a piano solo at the State Board exhibit both Monday and Tuesday afternoons.  This number will be given just previous to Dr. Pratt's lecture.  Miss Cormonton is a pianist of rare ability.  Her study under the greatest masters of Europe has made of her a player of ability, as well as a composer of piano music.  All lovers of music and especially the ladies are urged to attend all of the meetings."  She also performed at the 1910 Farmer's Institute, as noted in the February 5 edition of the Journal Gazette.  While the men attended meetings, programs were provided for the women, featuring addresses on "Sanitation in the Home" and "Poultry Raising" as well as performances by a vocal duet team of Misses Flora Rasey and Georgine Minder and the High School Girls' Chorus in addition to Cormontan.  Though none of her manuscripts are dated later than 1908, the catalog numbers she assigned to many of her works indicate she continued to be an active composer until at least 1913.

 

Hans died on April 17, 1913, and C.G.V. died on June 13, 1917.  Theodora and Eivinda entered the Aase Haugen Home four miles southwest of Decorah, Iowa on August 7, 1917. According to handwritten notes from the Home they were the 65th and 66th people registered there. Theodora died at the Aase Haugen Home on October 26, 1922. Eivinda passed away on November 8, 1924.  They are buried in the Aase Haugen Cemetery near the site of the former Home, now a private residence.

 

Otto Schmidt (1873-1946) was a Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran pastor in Decorah and assumed a leading role in the erection of the Aase Haugen Home.  In 1915 he resigned as pastor of the Decorah Lutheran Church to manage the Home, continuing in that position until 1944.  His wife Mollie played the piano for the people at the Home, including Theodora, and that is how Theodora knew Mollie and knew of her abilities as a pianist.  According to oral tradition passed on by the Schmidt family, Mollie played some of Theodora’s music and, before she died, Theodora gave Mollie the manuscripts.  Mollie's daughter, Carola M. Schmidt (1903-1975), trained as a nurse and took care of Mollie until Mollie died in 1933, and later took care of her father Otto and also worked at the Home.  Carola received Theodora’s music from her mother Mollie.  When Carola died, Barb Schmidt Nelson received the music from her aunt and stored it at her home in St. Peter, Minnesota until 2011, when she gave the manuscripts, along with other music, to Bonnie and Michael Jorgensen of St. Peter.  The Jorgensens donated the scores to the National Library of Norway in 2015. 

 

Michael is a Professor of Music (voice) at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, while Bonnie is a professional pianist, having served as staff accompanist at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota and accompanist at Gustavus.  Michael began to research Theodora and discovered that she is still remembered in Norway.  The Jorgensens decided to promote the life and music of Theodora Cormontan through various outlets, including a website, newsletters, and lecture/recitals.  They hope to generate interest in this first-generation Norwegian-American woman composer and a critical reappraisal of her life and music in the United States and Norway.

 

The Cormontan music that Bonnie and Michael rediscovered includes six piano solos published in the United States and approximately 150 manuscript scores (the exact number depends on how several incomplete works are counted).  The vast majority of the manuscripts are piano solo, but there are a few hymns, works for the organ, vocal solos, and vocal duets as well.  Almost all the manuscripts are in ink and stand as completed works.  Theodora may have sent these copies to potential publishers and/or used them as performance copies.  There are a few works in pencil that seem to be draft copies.  It appears that about 25% of the compositions were written in Europe and 75% in the United States.  Most have no markings to indicate when they were composed, so determining where her music was written is an educated guess based on some dates and opus numbers as well as titles written in English compared to titles written in Norwegian. Music written on paper with the marking “Made in Germany” appear to have been late compositions.

 

Theodora dated a few of her works.  The earliest dated manuscript in the collection comes from 1876 and the latest 1908, though cataloging numbers she assigned to most of her manuscripts seem to indicate she was still composing at least until 1913.  Kari Michelsen writes that Theodora’s first published works date from 1875 (in Norway).  The last published work in the Jorgensen holdings dates from 1905 (in the United States), so it appears that Theodora’s activity as a composer spanned from approximately 1870 (when she was 30) to 1915.  A small percentage of Theodora’s manuscripts have opus numbers.  Many of these numbers seem to indicate compositions that were published.  It appears that opus numbers through the 40s were assigned to works by Theodora that were published in Europe, mostly by her own publishing company in Arendal, Norway.  Opus numbers in the 50s were published in the United States (including Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Chicago).  There are several unpublished manuscripts with much higher opus numbers, going as high as Op. 140.  Theodora also assigned what might be described as a catalog number to approximately 3/4 of her compositions in manuscript.  These numbers range from the 200s to the 900s.  Works assigned lower numbers were written earlier than works with higher numbers.  There are enough manuscripts with catalog numbers that appear with (and correlate with) dated manuscripts to permit a general dating of all of Cormontan's manuscripts with catalog numbers.

 

 

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