The following essay was written by Katha Chamberlain and is reproduced here with her permission. Our trip to Norway to donate the manuscripts of Theodora Cormontan to the Nasjonalbiblioteket in Oslo and to perform her music in her home country would not have been possible without the support of Katha and her husband John.
Last summer (in 2014) John and I were invited by our good friends, Bonnie and Michael Jorgensen of St. Peter, MN who work in the music departments of Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter and MN State University, Mankato, to accompany them on a tour of Norway May 25-June 6, 2015. The purpose of the trip was to give concerts for Michael and Bonnie to present the lost works of Norwegian-American composer, Theodora Cormontan (1840-1922), a pianist, church organist, soprano soloist, composer, and the first woman in Norway to own her own publishing company. Baritone soloist Michael and professional piano accompanist Bonnie had received the original manuscripts from their St. Peter friend Barb Schmidt Nelson whose family had stored the box of music in three generations of Schmidt family attics. Barb's grandmother, Mollie Helgerson Schmidt, had been Theodora's friend late in TC's life in Decorah, IA where she died at the Aase Haugen Home, a facility opened in 1915 to provide a home for indigent elderly Lutherans.
When Michael and Bonnie asked us to present TC's music with them, we were enchanted! A trip to Norway with good friends AND singing, too!! What a fabulous way to celebrate our 45 years of marriage in 2015!
Accompanying us on this journey to return TC's original handwritten music and a few published by her own company, about 125 documents in all, was a choir of musical relatives and friends. Adrian Lo, violinist, Hardanger fiddle specialist (a Norwegian tradition), composer, arranger, and teacher at Norwegian-American Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, MN, was one of the first to make arrangements to appear with us at the concerts. He also wrote some violin accompaniments to several of TC's pieces so that he could play with Bonnie and accompany Michael as soloist and the TC Chor when we sang a few of her choral pieces and Lutheran Church hymns. Barb Schmidt Nelson and her husband Roger, friends of ours from The St. Peter Choral Society, also joined us, as did Barb's cousin from Ottawa, Canada, Martha Helgerson. Joel Botten, current president of the national Romerikslaget, and a yearly visitor to the country of his ancestors since his retirement from principalship in Mankato, was our translator and the one who could call for taxis in Norwegian! The last two to join us were Nancy and her sister-in-law Carla Clasen. Nancy and her brother Mark are the great-great-niece and nephew of TC and the great-great-great grandchildren of TC's father, Even Cormontan, Norwegian Lutheran pastor and Provst of Trinity Lutheran Church in Arendal, Norway in the second half of the 1800's. Mark was undergoing therapy for a serious illness and thus unable to join us, but he wanted his wife and sister to accompany us and kept in touch with our journey by phone calls and emails.
Michael made the arrangements for our concerts in Norway, and he and Bonnie and John made the travel plans, when and how to travel to each of four cities in southern Norway with the help of Molly Smith of Mankato's Travel and Cruise Center. Lots of phone calls, emails, and visits to the Travel Center ensued over the course of the year. Michael had lots of problems with communicating and receiving responses from the churches, libraries, museums, schools, and information centers he contacted about setting up the concerts, but he persevered and was able to choose The National Library in Oslo (where we donated the manuscripts), the KUBEN Museum in Arendal (Cormontan's hometown), a cabaret setting in Porsgrunn (the home of Porsgrund porcelain...one of my favorite designers of dishes), and finally at the Vest Norsk Utvandering Museet in Sletta. Each setting and each concert was unique and memorable.
The final concert, however, was the most moving! We were driven in cars an hour north of Bergen to the tiny hamlet of Sletta where a Norwegian-Amercian immigrant museum has been placed. The buildings on the site were all from America. in fact, they were from Minnesota and North Dakota! We were all astounded! We sang in the sweet little church from North Dakota and were well-received by the audience. The other buildings included a schoolhouse, a jail, a doctor's office, and a home all built in the 1880's by immigrants to the Midwest from Norway. They were brought by ship to Norway as a gift from the Norwegian-Americans proud of their family's roots in Norway and eager to share some of their immigrant family history with their cousins at home in Norway.
Each concert we gave came with its own history and its own wonderful serendipitous events making the music we shared even more special for us, the performers, as well as the audiences who applauded us.
I am forever indebted to the vision of the Jorgensens and the hard work they have expended the past four years to make Theodora Cormontan come alive again for her country of origin and her country of adoption. I thank God for her witness through music to succeeding generations. As she wrote using original German text from F.W. Krummacher, 1796-1868, and translated by Michael: " High from the Heavens above us, seeing our sorrow and sin, God, knowing all, knows and loves us. Heart, let the love dwell within...Love will not leave us forsaken; Heart, let the love dwell within."
The following article (electronically translated) appeared in the May 29, 2015 edition of the Norwegian newspaper Agderposten:
Arendal’s forgotten composer
She wrote 140 compositions, established a music publishing business, a music store, and a music rental library
Theodora Cormontan, Arendal’s forgotten composer
Theodora Cormontan was a known and beloved figure in Arendal in her time, but today there are probably many who have not heard of her. This Sunday Michael and Bonnie Jorgensen from the USA will visit KUBEN. They will present a musical lecture about Theodora Cormontan’s life and music.
Theodora Cormontan was both a performer and composer. She was born in 1840 in Beitstad in Nord Trøndelag. Her father was the pastor Even Meldal Schjelderup Cormontan (1798- 1893).
In 1847 he was named as the pastor [of the Trinity Church] in Arendal and the family moved there.
Like most women from the upper class, Theodora received private lessons in singing and piano. She also received organ lessons at the Trinity Church from [the town musician] Friederich Wilhelm Thoschlag.
Later she traveled to study music in Copenhagen.
She must have been a very gifted musician, for not many women went abroad to study in music conservatories during this period.
Did she learn how to compose at this time? It was not uncommon for educated women to compose in addition to singing and playing the piano, but these compositions were usually only performed for family members.
Theodora, however, released her compositions through her own music publishing company that she established in the 1870s. In the period ca. 1870 - 1910 she composed around 140 compositions. She also ran a music store and owned an extensive music rental library in Arendal.
Theodora must have been well-liked and very popular among the citizens of Arendal, since at one point they presented her with a gift of 280 kroner, a huge sum at the time.
Crash in Arendal in 1886. However, the economic crash in Arendal in 1886 led to difficult times for the Cormontan family.
In 1887 Theodora, her sister Eivinda, and their father immigrated to America. Theodora’s two brothers and a sister already lived there.
Their difficult economic situation is reflected in a letter from a lawyer named Dedekam to the piano manufacturers Brødrene Hals in Oslo.
Dedekam had been assigned the task of collecting money from the Cormontan sisters for a piano they had rented from Brødrene Hals.
It was obviously an unpleasant job, for he writes:
“After much work and in truth many annoyances that were made worse since both women were preparing to emigrate, I have personally paid the rest of the piano rental fee of Kr. 370.00, the fee Miss Theodora, a few hours before she boarded the steamer, gave written documentation that she owed you in the amount of kr 256, 50 kr, ...”
Theodora had received money from the city of Arendal to pay the piano rental bill, but this money was lost when the Arendal Savings Bank went bankrupt after the crash.
Years in America. Theodora, her sister Eivinda, and their father came to the United States to stay with the sisters' brother Christian in Minnesota. Their younger sister Maria also lived there.
According to local newspapers Theodora gave concerts with Maria and her daughter, Louisa. She was also a professional organist, choral conductor, and a voice and piano teacher, all while she continued to compose diligently.
Later the two sisters lived at the Aase Haugen Home in Decorah, Iowa. Theodora died on October 26, 1922, and is buried in the Aase Haugen Cemetery.
Rediscovered compositions. In 2011 over 100 of Theodora’s handwritten compositions for piano and voice/piano were rediscovered in a box that had been stored in an attic in St. Peter, Minnesota. Most of the works had never been published.
A couple named Barb and Roger Nelson found the compositions. They contacted a professor of music at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, Michael Jorgensen, and his wife, pianist Bonnie Jorgensen.
The Jorgensens were so impressed with Theodora’s music that they decided to find out more about the composer's life.
This has resulted in a performance that addresses Theodora’s life and music. Michael and Bonnie have traveled around the Midwest with this performance.
The following article is taken from:
Stjørna heimbygdslag Årshefte nr. 11 - 2015
The electronically translated article was written by Bjarne J. M. Selnes, the son of Johan A. N. Selnes. Theodora Cormontan set one of Johan's poems to music.
Concert at the National Library in Oslo
In April  I received a telephone call from the music division of the National Library in Oslo. The person who called told me that a box of old music manuscripts had been found in America, written by a Norwegian-American composer. One of the compositions was the setting of a poem written by my father, Johan Selnes. The caller added that a concert including the piece would be held at the National Library and that I would be sent a written invitation, which I subsequently received.
The invitation announced that the concert would take place on Thursday, May 28th, [2015 at 4:00 p.m.] in the large auditorium at the National Library and feature music by the composer and music publisher Theodora Cormontan (1840-1922). Cormontan immigrated to the United States in 1887, where she made her living as an organist and music teacher. The invitation letter noted that, in 2011, about 150 handwritten compositions by Theodora Cormontan were found in a box in the attic of a grocery store in St. Peter, Minnesota [the music was actually preserved in the attic of Barb and Roger Nelson and they offered to give it to Bonnie Jorgensen when they met her in the local grocery store]. Michael Jorgensen, a Professor of Music at Gustavus Adolphus College [in St. Peter], was contacted and [Bonnie and he] received the material [from the Nelsons]. The letter continued to describe that the music was being donated to the National Library and that Professor Jorgensen and a group of musicians were presenting a concert of the rediscovered music there. The concert would include Theodora Cormontan’s setting of Johan Selnes' poem "O, havde jeg Fuglen sin Vinge."
I was present at the performance, where the audience heard selections from the 150 rediscovered compositions. This included "O, havde jeg Fuglen sin Vinge," sung by baritone Michael Jorgensen, (who had translated the text to English: "Oh, Had I the Wings of a Sparrow"), with piano accompaniment by his wife Bonnie. This was quite an experience. A CD recorded in the U. S. and featuring 24 pieces composed by Cormontan, including "O, havde jeg Fuglen sin Vinge" was sold at the concert. (One of the compositions on the CD can be found in the Norwegian hymn book). Printed scores of some of the the pieces that were performed were also available. I got both the CD and the sheet music for the song from Michael and Bonnie. My dad wrote this poem just before he left America in the spring of 1906, and put it into the "Norwegian Ungdomsblad " of March 17, 1906. In America, the poem first appeared in a magazine called “Ungdommens Ven,” which was published in Minneapolis on August 15, 1909. He also included the poem in his book "Lyng," published in Christiania [now Oslo] in 1912 and also sold in America. Cormontan probably read the poem in "Ungdommens Ven" or in the book "Lyng, " and it must have inspired her, since she set it to music.
Besides the original Cormontan manuscripts that were donated to the National Library, there are digital copies of the compositions at the Aust Agder museum and archive in Arendal [also known as the KUBEN museum]. Theodora Nicoline Meldal [Cormontan] was born in Beitstad (Solberg), Nord-Trøndelag on June 9, 1840. Her parents were the parish priest Even Meldal Schelderup Cormontan and his wife Louisa Augusta, nee Hirsch. The [Norwegian] census of 1885 noted that [Theodora Cormontan] was a music dealer in Arendal. She immigrated to America in 1887 and died February 10th [October 22], 1922 in Decorah, Iowa, where she is buried.
In closing, the following is taken from an email I sent to an emeritus colleague on November 18,
Theodora Cormontan has taught me a few things. One lesson is that she kept composing through it all. A bank embezzlement robbed her family of all its wealth in Arendal, Norway so she came to America. Six months after arriving, the negligence of a railroad company caused her permanent injury. Gender and immigrant discrimination limited her at every turn. But she kept on writing. Year after year. Trying to get her music published and consistently failing. Declining into poverty. At the end, she handed her stack of manuscripts to her one musician friend and she died, probably wondering what it was all about, but with her faith intact and still a musician until the end. Then her music sat in a couple of attics for 90 years. Now, it has life again. And I don't know what will become of this renaissance. But if nothing else happens, it has changed my life. Theodora Cormontan's music changed my life. So, we never know what will become of what we do.