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'Messiah' is an Easter tradition in Lindsborg

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, April 10, 2011, at 12:06 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, April 10, 2011, at 3:01 p.m.

LINDSBORG — When the opening strains of Handel's "Messiah" are sounded this Palm Sunday, it will mark one of the oldest Lenten traditions in North America.

Each year — often for nearly three months in advance of Easter — local farmers, homemakers, college students and business owners gather twice a week to rehearse the three-hour piece.

The end result is a 200-person chorus with a full-volume organ — one of the largest in the Midwest — and a class-act, nimble-fingered orchestra.

For 130 years, Lindsborg's "Messiah" has been a mecca for music aficionados.

"There is this incredible sound — with that many people, with that huge of an organ and with that orchestra," said Becky Anderson, owner and operator of Lindsborg's Swedish Country Inn, who has sung the "Messiah" for 41 years. "There is just this exhilaration. You have to wipe people off the roof of Presser Hall. And as the audience jumps to their feet yelling 'Brava, Brava,' golly, that's fun."

Granted, people do renditions and recordings of Handel's "Messiah" all over the world, in all styles and variations.

But none like Lindsborg's.

And none with the rock-star staying power of Lindsborg's.

If there is a bucket list of things to do for every Kansan, this should be on it, said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which champions Kansas' rural culture and causes.

"It is a threefold thing," Penner said. "It is just so great to sit there in this historical building, to be part of tradition and hear the voices singing one of the greatest compositions of all time."

And it is live.

"You can listen to the same performance on a recording, but it is not the same," said Leah Anderson, chorus member. "You don't see what the chorus looks like when they are singing with their heart.

"In a live performance, that's part of the thrill — to see their heart."

Finding framtidslandet

During the 19th century, emigrants from Sweden came to Kansas, where they hoped to find framtidslandet, "the land of the future."

Kansas was reason enough for these immigrants to have hope. Many were poor, facing starvation and hoping to create a new life.

Famine led to the exodus of 80,000 people from Sweden between 1867 and 1869.

Many of them took advantage of the Homestead Acts passed by the U.S. Congress — beginning in 1862 — that allowed settlers to claim land in the Midwest and West.

The most notable Swedish colony in Kansas was in Lindsborg, founded in 1869, but others — such as Falun, New Gotland, Smolan and Salemsborg — sprouted along the Santa Fe and Kansas Pacific railroads.

Railroads encouraged the colonies. They offered group rates for people wanting to move to America.

Within 10 years, the Swedish communities had been established — but just barely.

Within that decade, those Swedish immigrants, as did other homesteaders across Kansas, faced droughts, blizzards and a devastating grasshopper plague. And although the communities were established, they were rough, at best.

Many of the homesteaders survived in sod houses and dugouts in hills.

"It is hard work to come west to make a home ... This year everything was a failure in this country. Everybody left that could, ... but they are not all gone, for we are here yet," one Morton County homesteader wrote in the 1870s.

Within the immigrant communities, English was seldom and haltingly spoken.

In 1879, 22-year-old Carl Aaron Swensson and his wife, Alma, arrived in Lindsborg and he became pastor of the Bethany Lutheran Church. Within two years, he started Bethany College for the immigrant children of the parish to receive a higher education.

Swensson had been a graduate of Augustana Seminary in Rock Island, Ill. When he returned to Rock Island for the spring graduation, Swensson saw a local church's rendition of the "Messiah" and vowed to produce it in Lindsborg.

Establishing a tradition

That winter, Alma Swensson, a gifted singer, began working with Lindsborg parishioners to learn the "Messiah."

It was an ambitious undertaking.

"She taught people a phrase at a time, both notes and English words," said Jim Ruble, vice president of advancement at Bethany College.

On March 28, 1882, the Bethany Oratorio Society performed the "Messiah" in Bethany Lutheran Church as a fundraiser for the new college.

It was such a success, Alma Swensson took the show on the road, "in lumber wagons along dusty Kansas roads, to the neighboring towns of Salemsburg, Salina and New Gotland," Time magazine reported in 1939 when it featured Lindsborg's "Messiah."

Through the years, the chorus grew, acquired a permanent orchestra and conductor, and hired famous soloists to perform.

Soon, it was billed as the "Oberammergau of the Plains," named after the town in Bavaria, Germany, that has produced the Passion Play every year since 1634.

For years, Messiah trains from across the state and nation brought tourists to Lindsborg's annual Messiah festival.

Presser Hall, which seats about 1,700 people, was built specifically for the "Messiah" performances.

And, in 1929, Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" was added as part of the Easter tradition for performances on Good Friday.

The reputation of Lindsborg's "Messiah" is such that the Bethany Oratorio Society has performed it at Carnegie Hall and on national television.

"I think the strength of our community and our state is that we realize we have to do it all — we have such a stick-to-itiveness that we will make this happen," Becky Anderson said. "Whether we decide we will put giant Dala horses on our sidewalks or put on the Messiah festival, we do it with only 3,400 people. We have learned to believe that for things to happen, somebody has got to do it, and it might as well be me. So we step up to the plate and we do it the best we can — and sometimes, the results are pretty good."

Today, the trains have stopped coming but the people haven't.

"You talk with people after they attend and, my goodness, they had no idea about the energy," Ruble said. "And how you become part of the experience. It's not the audience and chorus are separate but you are together. And we bring this cultural experience every year to the plains of Kansas."

'It is like a calling'

One of the most powerful aspects to Lindsborg's "Messiah" rendition is its sense of community spirit.

Bethany College's Oratorio Society features a 200-member chorus and 40-member orchestra.

It has stiff rules: You have to be at least 16 to participate, you have to audition, and if you miss more than three rehearsals in the eight to 10 weeks before the performance, you're out.

Every Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night they come, pouring into Bethany's Presser Hall — devoted volunteers from all walks of life. Some live only a block from Presser Hall; others drive hours.

Leah Anderson pencils the number of years she has participated in the "Messiah" in the back of her musical score.

This home-grown soprano has sung the score for 35 years.

"When I was in high school, I couldn't wait to begin because of tradition," said Anderson, now retired from being the choral director at Lindsborg High School.

"It was about being part of something and knowing that it was part of our community," she said. "All my life I had heard about the "Messiah." I wanted to be part of the tradition. Then, as I got older, I realized the emotional and spiritual feeding, the food that you get from this experience."

Like Anderson, many participants in the Messiah believe participation is an extension and expression of their faith.

"There is a feeling you get when the first strains of the overture begins that this is where you are supposed to be," Ruble said. "It is like a calling. It is a story that is new every year."

Dan Masterson, Bethany's music chairman, likens the feeling to exhilaration.

"I feel it toward the end of the piece, as we are getting to the end of the Hallelujah Chorus, you turn that last page and the hair on the back of your neck stands up like, 'We are here, Lord.' "

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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