Pastor Esbjörn’s Singing School: Notes for a workshop, on the 155th anniversary of the Augustana Lutheran Synod, Andover, Illinois, April 25, 2015

By Peter Ellertsen
From the very earliest days, the Rev. Lars Paul Esbjörn was conducting singing schools for his new Swedish Lutheran congregation in Andover. We even have a reminiscence that gives us a glimpse of his teaching style. “As long as he sang along, the hymn went well, but when he paused, they all stopped,” said an early settler in Andover, recalling a moment familiar to anyone who has ever sung choral music. “Singing the next verse, they stopped at the same place, so again he had to help them.” As they sang all 16 verses of the hymn, they caught the melody, and Esbjörn said they “sang it 16 times as all 16 verses were the same. Then everyone laughed heartily. He was always in a good mood.” [1]

kyrie 2019-08-01 at 10.26.04 PM

Kyrie (Lord have mercy upon us) opening chants of the Swedish Eucharist (Svenska Mässan) in Johan Dillner’s tablature (siffernoter) for psalmodikon. The numbers represent the degrees of the scale (e.g. do, re, mi, etc.).

Later, as a professor at a Lutheran college in Springfield and the forerunner of Augustana College in Chicago, he taught hymns – they were called psalms in the old country – to the Scandinavian students. “Both for edification and for practice, services with Swedish or Norwegian sermons and simultaneous singing out of both hymnals, using, the same melody, have been held every Sunday afternoon, likewise one evening each week a so-called prayer meeting,” he reported in 1859. [2] We have other evidence as well. In the L.P. Esbjörn Family Papers at Augustana College, we have two undated notebooks of psalmodikon tablature, or siffernoter (numerical notation) of Swedish psalms and Anglo-American hymns in Esbjörn’s hand. They are housed with a grade report on students at the seminary in Chicago and several pages excised from The Hallelujah, a tunebook by Lowell Mason, an influential educator and composer of hymn tunes from Boston. One of the tunes Esbjörn tabbed out for psalmodikon is I Jesu navn skal all vår gjerning skje [in Jesus’ name shall all our work be done] from a Norwegian psalmbook of the day. I believe that suggests he prepared the notebook in Springfield or Chicago, where he had both Swedish and Norwegian students.

The Psalmodikon
Early congregational singing was usually a cappella, and Esbjörn’s church in Andover had a little organ as early as 1857, but the psalmodikon was commonly used for home services and as a teaching tool. Esbjörn played one; in fact, he had assisted Johan Dillner in compiling a book of siffernoter before he left Sweden. [3] His psalmodikon, which was made in Sweden and handed down in his family, is on exhibit in the Jenny Lind Chapel museum in Andover. It is a sophisticated and obviously well-crafted instrument, with a catgut melody string and tuners for 10 sympathetic strings. I will be playing a modern replica of that instrument, by luthier Steve Endsley of Canton, Illinois, at the workshop.

As Swedish immigrant churches prospered, the psalmodikon became something of an icon of their pioneer days. The Rev. Eric Norelius, a protégé of Esbjörn’s and later an Augustana Synod president and historian, recalled the first Christmas morning service in a rented room in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Julotta 1860 was extraordinarily pleasant and edifying. The little teacher’s desk was tastefully covered, and the little room was radiant with light … a psalmodikon made do as [utgjorde] our organ.” Later, when they moved to a new building, “one man took the pulpit on his back and other the psalmodikon under his arm, and the chore was over.” [4] Ordinarily, however, the psalmodikon was used to teach music and in home devotions. In recent years, revivalist groups like the Nordic-American Psalmodikonforbundet in Minnesota and the Nordiska Psalmodikon-förbundet in Sweden play ensemble arrangements in four-part harmony.

The Esbjorn manuscripts
Two handmade notebooks containing siffernoter are included in the Esbjörn Family Papers in Special Collections at Augustana College. One contains Swedish and Anglo-American hymns in four-part harmony. The other, which I have not yet analyzed in detail, appears to be consist of harmony parts for hymns from Olof Wallin’s Svenska Psalmbok of 1819, among them “A Mighty Fortress is our God” and several German chorales and Swedish psalms. Included in the first manuscript are four-part arrangements of Gustavus Adolphus’ Krigspsalmen (war hymn, better known as “Be not dismayed, O little flock”) and Hosianna, a beloved Advent and Psalm Sunday anthem that did not appear in the 1819 psalmbook; along with music from collections by Peder Håkansson Syréen and other Swedish spiritual songsters. But the bulk of Esbjörn’s manuscript consists of Anglo-American hymns including Old Hundred, Pleyel’s Hymn and Lowell Mason’s Missionary Hymn (“From Greenland’s icy mountains”). Two hymns are attributed to a “Lutheran Hymnbook,” and no less than four to Lowell Mason’s Hallelujah. [5] In all Esbjorn’s notebooks suggest a keen interest in American hymnody.

Hymns for the workshop
In order to approximate the way Pastor Esbjörn might have conducted a singing school, I have selected four hymns from the 1819 psalmbook that are easily accessible online in Dillner’s siffernoter and a later koralbok (a separate volume containing hymn melodies) used by the Augustana Synod. [6] They are:

• All Hail to Thee, O Blessed Morn / Var hälsad, sköna morgonstund

• Blessed Jesus, at Thy word / Hit, o Jesu! samloms vi

• Prepare the Way, O Zion / Bereden väg för Herran

• Thy Glorious Sun Doth Arise / Din klara sol går åter opp

These hymns are printed in different keys in Dillner and the koralbok. Since the siffernoter reflect degrees of the scale rather than pitch, the intervals remain the same in different keys. Swedish psalmodikons (unlike the Norwegian models more familiar in this country) were retuned in order to change keys, and this feature made it easy to transpose from one key to another simply by retuning the melody string – I suspect pastors of small, rural churches made considerable use of it. My psalmodikon is tuned to C, and I will be playing our hymns without retuning – in effect transposing them to C.

[1] Margaretta Warner-Douglas, 1899, quoted in Lilly Setterdahl, A Pioneer Lutheran Ministry: L.P. Esbjorn and his Family in Andover, Illinois (Andover: Jenny Lind Chapel Fund, 1986), p. 32.

[2] Quoted in G. Everett Arden, The School of the Prophets: The Background and History of Augustana Theological Seminary, 1860-1960 (Rock Island: Augustana Theological Seminary, 1960), p. 88.

[3] See especially Oscar N. Olson, The Augustana Lutheran Church in America, Pioneer Period, 1840-1860 (Rock Island: Augustana Book Concern, 1950), pp. 361-70.

[4] Jubel-Album med en Kort Historik, Utgivet af Svenska Evangelisk Lutherska Församlingen, St. Paul, Minn., med Anledning af dess Femtioårsjubileum den 9-11 December, 1904. Google eBooks.

[5] This is probably the General Synod’s Hymns, Original and Selected, first published in 1828 and revised during the 1850s. See Carl F. Schalk, God’s Song in a New Land: Lutheran Hymnals in America (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1995), pp. 82-89. Cf. Olson, p. 368.

[6] Johan Dillner. Melodierna till Swenska Kyrkans Psalmer: Noterade med Ziffror, för Skolor och Menigheten (Stockholm, 1830); and Svenska Psalm-Boken af år 1819: Förenad med Koral-Bok och Svenska Messan Med Körer för Sopran-, Alt-, Tenor och Basröster (Chicago, 1892). Both are available in Google eBook editions.

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