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Beautiful Women, Beautiful Song

By Lew Linde

Melius Christiansen, founder and director of the world famous St. Olaf College Choir, once described the Tangen sisters as beautiful young women who "sing with pure intonation and with musical understanding."

This story will trace their remarkable humble beginnings from the wind-swept prairies of West Central Minnesota to triumphal concert tours across the U.S. and Canada during the American depression years from 1934 to 1936.

The Sisters

Evelyn, the oldest was born May 19, 1912; Mildred, born June 15, 1914; Naomi, born Sept. 2, 1916; and Victoria born Sept. 5, 1918. They were the four youngest children and daughters of pioneers Maria Antonia Hippe and Carl G. Tangen. They joined a family of two older sisters Anna and Klara and five older brothers Oscar, Arthur, Edwin, Norman and Claremont.

Grade School Years

The sisters spent the first eight years (1918 to 1924) of their education attending school at District 74, a country school in the rural Cyrus/Starbuck area. The school was located about one mile from their family farm. There were no school buses in those days - rain, snow, sleet, cold or warm-they walked.

District 74 in those years was typical of the thousands of rural schools that dotted America's landscape. There were eight grades in one room with one teacher. A teacher had to be a master at time management. Often the older children helped the younger ones.

The folklore of country schools held that only the 3 R's (reading, writing and arithmetic) were taught. Besides those basic subjects, the girls were taught geography and history. For the arts, there were watercolor painting and embroidery. Even without a piano the students loved to sing various folk, patriotic and holiday songs.

The strength of the country school was the continuous exposure, day in and day out, to classes for all eight grades, which meant constant repetition of knowledge, information and ideas. The sisters tutored among themselves.

The school year lasted only seven months, from mid-October through the end of May. The last six weeks of the term were devoted to parochial school. While all of the country school classes were in English, the language of the parochial school was Norwegian, which fit the main language spoken at home.

Egg Money

When one speaks about the origin of the Tangen sisters musical talent, sometimes it can be traced to a certain generation or family. Mother Maria loved music and made it a point to lovingly sing to her children from infancy. Maria's siblings were also musically talented. In spite of a meager family income, Mother Maria made it a point to set aside egg money to purchase song books from the International Library of Music. The Tangen brothers and sisters sang and played from these books. Their pastor, Rev. Gerhard Forde, St. John's Lutheran Church, brought about a significant influence by advocating and encouraging the performance of classical religious music at church functions. Their older sister Klara was a talented piano player and reed organist, and she provided a strong impetus in cultivating the sisters' musical ability. Over the years Klara had many piano students and she was the St. John's church organist for 37 years. Along with their brothers, the sisters combined to make up the St. John's choir. Though the choir was small, they performed a high standard of music, including the "Messiah."

Before they went on tour as the Tangen Sisters they performed crowd-pleasing Christmas concerts. Victoria recalls that as teenagers she and Naomi sang at the wedding of their brother Arthur and Ruth Hanse. It was common for them to sing at church services and Luther League youth meetings. They were formally organized as the Tangen Sisters in 1932.

The St.Olaf Connection

Evelyn was the oldest and a natural leader. She was the valedictorian of her 1929 senior class at Cyrus. Upon graduation, she attended the following institutions of higher learning: Park Region College at Fergus Falls, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She graduated from St. Olaf College in 1934.

As a child, she heard the St. Olaf Choir which made a deep impression on her. It was then that she decided she was going to sing with them some day. That dream did come true. Besides singing in the choir she took two years of choral conducting from F. Melius Christiansen.

Singing in the St. Olaf Choir inspired Evelyn to organize the Tangen Sisters. Prior to then, Evelyn and her sisters sang together at church functions, ice cream socials, and community events. This gave them confidence and experience. Evelyn made arrangements for the sisters to audition with Christiansen in Northfield. It should be noted that their singing was always a cappella and in four parts. Needless to say, Professor Christiansen had high praise for their blended voices. He cautioned them that the planned trips would be difficult and physically exhausting. He was pleased that they would be bringing a rich blend of classical and sacred music to their audiences. In a humorous vein, he said that out in North Dakota, the "plough jockeys" -- farmers -- may not always appreciate their music. At their audition, he called them the four altos.

The Tour Plan

Under Evelyn's leadership and organization, they planned their trip with all of the details which were involved. They purchased a new four-door 1934 Model A Ford. Naomi had the important task of contacting the clergy about booking concerts in geographical sequence. Evelyn would work out other administrative details. Mildred served as treasurer. Victoria assisted with clothing and luggage handling.

Summer of 1934

The summer of 1934 was tragic for the Tangen family. Carl and Maria lost the ownership of their farm by foreclosure. Fortunately, their sons were able to build a home for them a few miles away at New Prairie, Minn. Because of the wide-spread drought, plus the Great American Depression, farming success was almost non-existent. Lack of rainfall and above-normal hot temperatures dominated the summer months. Through it all, the family maintained the same toughness and courage of their Norwegian ancestors.

On the Road

Formal tours started in the summer of 1934. A full tour took place in the summer of 1935. Their journeys ended in 1936 with only a limited number of concerts which included calls in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, only the records of the nine week 1935 tour were available. However, the oral history of Vicki confirmed the full trip of 1934 and the partial trip of 1936. You will note that in seeing the 1935 itinerary the places visited were extensive and time consuming.

1935 Tangen Quartet Concert Itinerary

June 16-Devils Lake, N.D.; June 17-Churchs Ferry, N.D.; June 18-19-Deering, N.D.; June 20-Berthold, N.D.; June 21-23-Landa, N.D.; June 24-Mohall, N.D.; June 25-Grenora, N.D.; June 26-27-Culbertson, Mont.; June 28-Baker, Mont.; June 30-Wolf Point, Mont.

July 3 Scobey, Mont.; July 5-Big Sandy, Mont.; July 6-Chinook, Mont.; July 7-Joplin, Mont.; July 8-10-Hingham, Mont.; July 12-Conrad, Mont.; July 14-15-Dutton, Mont.; July 17-19-Sandpoint, Idaho; July 16-Claresholm, Alberta, Canada; July 21- St. Maries, Idaho; July 22-23-Deary, Idaho; July 24-25-Clarkston, Wash.; July 28-Spokane, Wash.; July 29-Bothell, Wash.; July 30-Anacortes, Wash.; July 31-Seattle, Wash.

August 1-2-South Bend, Wash.; August 4-Astoria, Oregon; August 6-La Center, Wash.; August 7-Kennewick, Wash.; August 8-Bend, Oregon; August 11-Sacramento, Calif.; August 12-Oakland, Calif.; August 16-Longmont, Colo.; August 18-Colorado Springs, Colo.

Naomi served as the schedule master, and at each stop she and Evelyn always stayed with the host Lutheran pastor. Millie and Vicki were guests of a host family from the congregation. According to Vicki, their hosts were always friendly, warm and hospitable. They never had to deal with outdoor plumbing. Air conditioning in homes, churches and cars was virtually absent in those days. Their meals were always delicious. At each concert, they wore white choir gowns, which saved on different clothing ensembles. Laundry services were provided by their hosts.

The Concerts

Evelyn selected the musical numbers in consultation with her sisters. The audiences were treated to four part a capella musical arrangements. Their musical program included the following:

Psalm 150; Selections from the Elijah and Messiah; Norwegian folk songs; Beautiful Savior; My God How Wonderful Thou Art; Agnes Dei; Lamb of God; The Lord Bless You and Keep You; Behold a Host Arrayed in White

At each concert Naomi played violin solos with Vicki as her accompanist. A common piece performed at every concert was Valse Trieste. It should be noted that Naomi was a talented young teenager and played regularly with the Glenwood Pope County Symphony Orchestra. Always crowd pleasing was any composition by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

Halfway through the concert, Evelyn would give a talk on the history and interpretation of the various musical numbers. The three other sisters would retreat to the sacristy for a rest during Evelyn's presentation.

Vicki told the story that sometimes people in the crowd would start to whisper and make noises that interrupted the performance. One of the sisters would handle this interference with a cold stare at the offending persons. This usually stopped the noise.

For better or worse, they did not charge any admission to their concerts. They depended solely on free-will offerings to pay for their traveling and personal expenses. Due to the Depression, their collections were always on the lean side. After one concert the collection was only $2. Once in a while, Millie, as treasurer, would say that they could afford to splurge on an ice cream cone as they were traveling. One can only speculate that they sang out of their love for God, the love for their audience, the love of classical music and finally the love of travel and adventure.

The Tangen Sisters represented the best of womanhood and classical musical talents. They were wonderful role models for young girls and women. Most of all, their many sides of beauty gave hundreds of listeners much joy and pleasure.

Lew Linde is a former resident of the Cyrus area who now resides in Hastings.