Hymn singing at Chautauqua: A dance between world wars

George Cooper | Staff Writer

History comes in many voicings, and today at 3:30 p.m. in Hurlbut Memorial Community United Methodist Church, as part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series, Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, and Marlie Bendiksen, Archives research assistant, will do just that — provide history in voice and song. And they’ll add in something of a dance component, as the title of their presentation indicates: “The Dance That We Do: Hymns We Were Singing In 1931.”

It was a curious time. The country was in Depression, tempered with the memory of World War I, the war that was to end all war, but aware of unsettling political rumblings in Europe inviting outside intervention. Chautauqua was playing it close to the vest.

“As near as we can tell from the research into the printed page, we were not very adventurous at the time,” Jacobsen said.

Chautauqua Institution had been relatively stable.

“There was a confidence here that was not indicative of the rest of the country,” Bendiksen said.

By 1931, Augustine Smith had been music director for 10 years. Albert Stoessel made his first appearance as conductor in 1921, and beginning with his first full season in 1923, he brought sustained musical distinction to the Institution through 1943.

Leadership of Chautauqua — President Arthur E. Bestor and Shailer Mathews in the Department of Religious Work — “held Chautauqua on a centrist course,” Bendiksen said.

Bendiksen said Mathews “kept religion on a straight and narrow path. John Vincent wanted a middle road, and that has maintained — always open to new things without being in your face.”

But within that, “trying to pull together the stability and change required quite a dance amid wars and depression,” Bendiksen said.

In 1929, and then in 1931, Norton Hall and Hurlbut Church, respectively, were built — both emblematic of Art Deco architecture and of the dance between stability and change. The buildings’ appearance on Pratt Avenue created a kind of stability row, adding to the solid brick buildings around the Plaza but adding a creative, Art Deco flow.

“We tried to find hymns that were representative of the Institution,” Jacobsen said.

The hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” was sung at the very first Chautauqua, and it is still sung at Old First Night, Jacobsen said.

“It is something of a quaint ritual,” he said. “But it was also sung at the dedication of Hurlbut Church.”

Jacobsen knew of the church as a youngster growing up at Chautauqua. He said he thought Hurlbut Church was interesting. But when he later studied architecture, he said, “I realized this is a really interesting building.”

He made special mention of the windows.

“I’m happy to be in Hurlbut,” Jacobsen said.

While Chautauqua had been on the cutting edge of religious hymn education and promotion, by the 1930s, “there was a lot of inertia. Nobody in that era wanted to be adventurous in singing hymns,” Jacobsen said.

But there are curiosities. Jacobsen said there are a few versions of the “Star Spangled Banner.” He said, “People forget it is a hymn. The second and third verses have more to do with starting and ending a war, and this was before war could mean annihilating a people.”

And there will be some Gershwin.

“The dance is the way Chatuauqaua did the middle road,” Bendiksen said, and hymns reflected how Chautauqua reacted to the time between wars.