The First Festival
Pastor Olof Olsson and his wife Anna, together with nearly 200 settlers from the Sunnemo Parish in Värmland, arrived in the Smoky Valley of central Kansas in June 1869. They settled on land purchased from the Union Pacific Railroad, and set about founding Bethany Lutheran Church and the community of Lindsborg.
Dr. Carl Aaron Swensson succeeded Olsson as pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in 1879. Bethany College was founded in the sacristy of the church on October 15, 1881, when ten children of the immigrant families began their higher education. The founding of Bethany College brought remarkable energetic people and ideas to this part of the Great Plains instilling both college and community with deep appreciation for music and art.
The Bethany Oratorio Society was founded in December 1881, when 40 parishioners were welcomed to the parsonage of Pastor Swensson and his wife Alma to learn the words and music of Messiah. Almost all of them were immigrants from Sweden who still lived in a pioneer world of sod houses. Alma Swensson, an accomplished musician, worked with the singers throughout the winter and spring in helping them learn the music as well as the English words. The first performance by the Bethany Oratorio Society was on March 28, 1882, in Bethany Lutheran Church. Every Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday since, the College and the people of Lindsborg have come together to perform Handel’s great oratorio. The annual tradition continues today as the oldest continuous annual performance of the Messiah in the United States.
The first performance by the Oratorio Society of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was on Good Friday, March 29, 1929—the 200th anniversary of the very first performance at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig with Bach himself conducting. Dr. Hagbard Brase, a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm, instituted the tradition which carries on to this day.
In addition to the music of Handel and Bach during Holy Week, the Midwest Art Exhibition is hosted by the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery. The exhibition features works by regional artists as well as works from the permanent collection. The founders of this exhibition in 1899 were Carl Gustafson Lotave, G.N. Malm, and Sandzén. Lotave studied at the Royal Academy of Art. Both Lotave and Sandzén studied with Anders Zorn and Richard Berg.
The unique text of the “Messiah” makes it new every year because it brings back the same Christian message that Easter stands for: life after death; Christ is Risen. It’s new in our hearts every year.
—Elmer Copley, Messiah Festival director 1960-1988
The Swedish settlers who founded the community of Lindsborg and Bethany College displayed tremendous foresight in choosing Handel’s Messiah as the foundation of this festival, as it is probably the best-known and loved piece of art music in western culture. Messiah is a wonderful marriage of text and music that has been described as a “moral autobiography of a man.” The story of the nativity, Christ’s passion and resurrection, and the promise of redemption unfolds in a masterful intertwining of solo voices, chorus and orchestra.
Messiah (1741) is an oratorio by George Frideric Handel. The name of the oratorio is taken from Judaism and Christianity’s concept of the Messiah (‘the anointed one’). In Christianity, the Messiah is Jesus. Handel himself was a devout Christian, and the work is a presentation of Jesus’ life and its significance according to Christian doctrine, with the text of the oratorio taken from the Bible. Messiah is Handel’s most famous work and it remains immensely popular among concert-goers. The most famous movement is the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, which concludes the second of the three parts. The text is drawn from three passages in the New Testament book of Revelation. In many parts of the world, it is the accepted practice for the audience to stand for the section during a performance. Tradition has it that on first hearing the chorus, King George II rose to his feet, but the reason for this is still open to debate (some even doubting that the King was ever there). With him, the entire audience stood up.
St. Matthew Passion
While Messiah encompasses the entire spectrum of the Christian experience, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is a literal account of the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In Messiah all the events are implied. The St. Matthew Passion is ripe with drama, as the listener experiences the events leading to Christ’s crucifixion through the words of the people who were there. Performed annually by the Bethany Oratorio Society since 1929, this masterpiece and its message has become, to many of the musicians and concert-goers, the essence of the Messiah Festival of the Arts.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote St. Matthew Passion in the 1720s. The passion is a retelling of the story of Christ’s crucifixion set to music. St. Matthew Passion is a remarkable piece of music for many reasons. It is not only rich in music, but in drama as well. The music’s complexity ranges from difficult arias and recitatives to simple chorales, not to mention the double choir and orchestra.
The text of St. Mathew Passion is taken from three different sources. The main text is from the book of Matthew in the Bible and the others from German poetry and hymns, which Bach entwines into the score. Together, with the texts and Bach’s somber meditative music, St. Matthew Passion is an appropriate work to be performed on Good Friday.