Hagbard Brase was born in Råda parish, Västergötland province, Sweden, on September 25, 1877 to a Lutheran pastor and his wife. As a young boy and adolescent in Skara, he taught himself to play organ and guitar, and even composed songs with piano accompaniment.
It was not until 1895, however, that his serious music study began. This study with Johan Frederick Janson, a music teacher at Skara Läroverk and organist at Skara Cathedral, led to his application to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm. Brase successfully passed his entrance exams and matriculated in January 1897. At the Royal Conservatory his professors included August Lagergren, organist in the chapel of the royal castle, in organ; Oscar Bolander in piano; Hjalmar Håkansson, cantor at Storkyra in Stockholm, in voice; and Conrad Nordqvist, a conductor at the Royal Opera. Brase completed his studies at the Royal Conservatory with high honors.
Birger Sandzén, art professor at Bethany College and a graduate of Skara Läroverk who had been a friend of Brase since boyhood, had heard of Brase’s graduation from Royal Conservatory. Sandzén also knew Bethany President Carl Aaron Swensson was looking for a talented organist and music teacher to succeed Hugo Bedinger, who had left Bethany to become the organist at Västerås Cathedral in Sweden. In the summer of 1900, Sandzén wrote to his brother, a pastor in Västergötland, and asked him to make inquiries regarding Brase’s availability and interest. An official invitation from Swensson soon followed.
Accepting the challenge, Brase departed from Göteborg at the beginning of October 1900, arriving in Lindsborg at the end of the month.
His fiancé Minna Hernwall arrived in September 1901. The two had met while Brase was at home in Skara during the summer of 1898 while still a student. They were married the day of Minna’s arrival in Lindsborg in a ceremony that took place at the Sandzén home and was officiated by the Rev. Dr. Swensson. The couple eventually moved into a house across the street from the college campus and would have five children.
His first teaching assignment consisted of organ and music theory courses. Additionally, he served as organist for the Bethany Oratorio Society, accompanying its performances for the 1901 through the 1914 season. Beginning with the 1915 Messiah Festival, Brase moved from the organ bench to the podium, where he served as conductor of the Oratorio Society until 1946.
Those thirty-one years brought tremendous growth and prestige to the Oratorio Society and the music department of the College. In 1923 after the Society had been performing for forty years, a New York Times reporter wrote, “The singing of Messiah at Lindsborg at Eastertide every year is becoming somewhat of a national institution. Messiah will go on and one can safely predict that when another forty years has gone by, Messiah will still be sung—sung until it is what the people of Lindsborg think it is—the American Oberammergau.”
By the early 1920s, Brase knew that “A chorus that sings only one oratorio regularly needs variety and the challenge to greater achievement.” Variety and challenge was found in the music of Bach, introduced to the chorus by way of Cantata 140. The Society performed the work as part of the Messiah Festival in 1920 and 1921.
Brase’s choice of Bach was influenced by several other factors. The College was in the process of raising funds for a new auditorium that would serve as the Oratorio Society’s home. Brase also knew that the 200th anniversary of the presumed-first performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and centennial of Mendelssohn’s subsequent revival, were approaching in 1929. With the dedication of the new auditorium planned for that same year, Brase began rehearsals for Bach’s monumental Passion setting.
Those first rehearsals took place in September 1925. In November, the Society performed twenty-one selections, including ten choruses and chorales. More rehearsals led to another performance of selected movements around Thanksgiving 1926. Two more seasons of rehearsals and partial performances led to first more complete performance on March 29, Good Friday, 1929.
As English was his second language, Brase made a practice of writing out and editing the instructions he would give his choirs, even to the point of practicing his verbal delivery of those instructions. As a result throughout his conducting career, Brase was consistently praised by critics and choristers alike for his attention to detail, the clarity of his conducting and instruction, and his quiet yet forceful communication.
Because of his devotion to conducting, performance and private teaching—and to beloved colleagues Birger Sandzén and pianist Oscar Thorsen—he turned down several offers of administrative and lecturing positions at the Universities of Kansas and Wisconsin and Gustavus Adolphus College.
Before his conducting and teaching became his primary focus, he was able to devote a considerable amount of time to composition. His own works frequently found places on Bethany concert programs, including: cantatas (many for the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Bethany College); organ works; Körsånger (a cycle of seventy anthems for church year); piano works; violin works; vocal solos in Swedish, English and German; short orchestral works; a large-scale setting of Psalm 42 for chorus, orchestra and soprano soloist; and numerous unaccompanied choral works (“After Holiday,” et al.).
His work with choruses was not limited to the Oratorio Society during these years. In 1935, to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach’s birth, he founded what is now known as the Bethany Choir. He also served as organist and choir director at Bethany Lutheran Church in Lindsborg from 1921 to 1943.
In the late 1940s following his retirement from the College and Bethany Lutheran Church, his health began to weaken. He died quietly on March 18, 1953.
Brase was awarded the Doctor of Music (Hon.) by Augustana College and Seminary (Ill.) in 1932. The King of Sweden bestowed on him the Royal Order of Vasa in 1947.
[compiled D. Mahraun, August 2009]