135 years ago, the communities of Rock Island, Moline, and Augustana College would have been preparing to witness a groundbreaking performance of sacred music on a scale larger than anyone could have dreamed. The music, the masterpiece, and the vision came to concert halls at Augustana and throughout the Quad Cities with the return of a favored theology professor, Dr. Olof Olsson.
C-F236, A group photo of the 1915 Oratorio Society on stage in the Old Main chapel. Augustana College Photograph Collection.
While on leave from his professorship during the late 1870s Olsson made a last minute decision to sit in on a performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah in London. With the “cheapest tickets” in hand, according to the “Century of Oratorio 1881-1981” program, Olsson took his seat in the London theater and took in the spectacle of the piece. Olsson was so inspired by the music and meaning of the piece that he made it a goal to bring a performance of similar awe back to his Rock Island, IL home. From a 1906 Souvenir Program for the Handel Oratorio Society, located in Special Collections’ vertical files, a student author reminds audiences during the anniversary performances that it was the “grand, majestic oratorio [that] moved his music-loving soul as nothing has ever done before.” In less than a decade after his return from Europe, Olsson had established an annual performance of Handel’s oratorios and been unanimously elected the 3rd president of Augustana College and Theological Seminary.
In 1879 the group of musicians debuted as the Augustana Oratorio Society, but after Olsson rallied stronger community support for the group, the society was renamed after Handel himself. The Handel Oratorio Society was formed for the purpose of studying and singing oratorio works of Handel on campus an in the Quad Cities community. Building a dedicated choral and orchestral group from the ground up proved to be a challenging task, but with support from the Congregational Church in Moline and the First Methodist Church in Rock Island, the Handel Oratorio Society performed two memorable first concerts. On the evening of April 12 1881, the musicians of the local combined choirs and the Augustana Symphony Orchestra began a tune that would last into generations of celebration and ceremony on campus. Despite the first performance being described as “crude” by one of the original chorus members in a 1906 Souvenir Program, the following evening, the “attendance was so great…that 500 persons were turned away.”
Since the 1880s, Augustana College Christmas time celebrations have not been complete without the resounding musical stylings of combined choirs and symphony orchestra to produce the Messiah each season. 135 years ago this April, the group came together for their first performances which have lasted into the subsequent centuries. Former reference librarian, Margi Rogal, described in the 150th Anniversary webpage how the Handel Oratorio Society was one of the reasons Augustana College built and sustained such strong community relations with the people of the Quad Cities. In 1906, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary concert of the Society, the Observer reported, “An appreciative audience which taxed the chapel to its utmost… was not disappointed. The members of the chorus… sang as they had never sung before.” The legacy of Olof Olsson’s dream of musical worship in the form of 17th century oratorios has created a lasting imprint on Augustana college holy celebrations. From the Rock Island Argus June 7th 1935, a contributing reported adds that “what Augustana College and the Handel Oratorio Society have been contributing musically to the cultural life of the greater Tri-Cities” was demonstrated again and again in the renderings of the Handel Oratorio society’s works.
C-F6168,The Augustana Symphony Orchestra and the Handel Oratorio Society preform Messiah in Centennial Hall, 1992. Augustana Photograph Collection.