Born August 4, 1925, Elmer Copley grew up in Davenport, Iowa. After serving in the Army at the end of WWII, he entered Augustana College across the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Illinois. He began as a business major, intending eventually to work at his father’s car dealership, but by his junior year he changed to a major in voice. While at Augustana, he met Ruth Anderson. The two began dating during a choir tour. A native of Moline, Illinois, Ruth’s father was serving as Registrar and Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Augustana Seminary at that time.
After graduating from Augustana in 1950, he was called back to the Army for 13 months. He served at Fort Sheridan outside Chicago, where he directed a soldier’s chorus. During this service he and Ruth married on March 18, 1951 – Palm Sunday that year.
Following his discharge, the couple moved to New York City where Copley attended Juilliard School of Music from 1952 to 1953. There, he studied with famed voice instructor Bernard Taylor.
Copley returned to the Midwest when he accepted an invitation to fill a temporary position at his alma mater. In this “temporary” position at Augustana, he served as assistant to Henry Veld, conductor of the Augustana Choir, from 1953 to 1960. Copley also conducted the Seminary Chorus during these years.
In addition to his other responsibilities, he maintained an active performing career as well, having served many times as soloist in both Messiah and St. Matthew Passion. He would soon be forced to cancel an engagement to perform Bach’s B minor Mass in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall when a surprise invitation came.
Copley found himself in San Antonio, January 1, 1960, appearing on the program of the international youth convention of the Augustana Lutheran church. On that same day, a funeral was held for Alvin Reimer, who had only very recently been appointed music director of the Bethany Oratorio Society.
This crisis for the Oratorio Society – as well as the Bethany Choir – was met by Bethany president Dale Lund. He responded with a swift invitation to Elmer Copley. Copley immediately accepted the call and arrived in Lindsborg mere weeks before Oratorio Society rehearsals were to begin. Describing this quick decision on Copley’s part, an author for the Bethany Magazine would write, “No one had time to think that the talented, lanky tenor from Iowa would become such a likable legend.”
Even before those Holy Week 1960 performances took place, praise for Copley’s work spread. A reporter for the Kansas City Star described him on March 18, 1960: “A man of gigantic proportions claps his hands to bring silence and leans over the conductor’s desk.” The Salina Advertiser-Sun, on March 26, 1960, went so far as to say, ” …Dr. Hagbard Brase, who conducted the Messiah from 1915 through 1946, is one of the festival’s legendary figures. A feeling is beginning to grow that the big man rehearsing the chorus this year is the making of a new legend.”
In the academic realm at Bethany, Copley also assumed the position of director of the A Cappella Choir, which he renamed the Bethany Choir. In his first fall semester with the Choir, he founded the Bethany music department’s annual holiday concert, An Hour of Christmas (now called, Jultide at Bethany). Also marking his significant work with the Bethany Choir are the institution of periodic European tours and the Choir’s debut at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 1973.
During these initial years, Copley continued work toward his Master of Music degree through the University of Colorado. He received the degree in 1962. A future sabbatical leave allowed him to earn the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from the University of Iowa in 1976. His degree thesis, Messiah on the Plains, traced the story of the Bethany Oratorio Society – its history, its conductors, its repertoire and guest artists.
Copley retired from his roles at Bethany College in 1988 after 29 years of service. He and Ruth, who served as the Choir’s accompanist all those years, finished their time at Bethany by taking the Bethany Choir on a tour of Sweden.
Their daughter, internationally-known soprano Rebecca Copley, studied with her father and graduated from Bethany College in 1974, and has since sung in opera houses and on concert stages around the world.
Copley’s conducting work also included many years of parish music ministry. He directed the church choirs of Bethany Lutheran Church in Lindsborg from 1960-1974, St. John Lutheran Church in Salina, Kan., from 1974-1985, and Messiah Lutheran Church in Lindsborg from 1985 to his death. While serving at St. John and Messiah churches, his wife Ruth also served as organist.
Equally involved in Lindsborg community music, Copley was active in Broadway RFD community musical theatre productions beginning 1963. He also founded his own community choir, Kammarkör, in 1985.
Copley was named Kansas Music Educator of the Year in 1982 by the Federated Women’s Club of Kansas. In 1988, he received the Distinguished Alumni Award from his alma mater, Augustana College. Additionally, the Kansas Choral Directors Association awarded him its highest honor – the Harry Robert Wilson Award – in 1989.
[compiled D. Mahraun, August 2009]