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Campus stunned by loss of Alice Hanson: Beloved music history professor dies unexpectedly

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For some in the St. Olaf community, a pair of loud shoes scurrying through the music department hallways has been sorely missed this past week. For others, a particularly intimidating professor has been absent from the front of the classroom. And for many, a revered source of knowledge of all things music history has disappeared from the campus community.

Alice Hanson, professor of music and music history at St. Olaf College for 31 years, died unexpectedly on Friday, Oct. 11. Students reported her absence from class that morning to the department office, and the police later found Hanson during a well-being check at her house.

Hanson’s teaching at St. Olaf focused on early 19th century music, and her classes were made up mainly of music majors. She was both loved and feared by her students, as evidenced by exit surveys completed by graduates of the department.

“Please tell me Dr. Hanson is immortal,” one survey said.

“Alice Hanson provides thorough, intensive, high-caliber music history classes, and the department would be bereft of academic fervor without her,” another commented.

The job of reviewing these exit surveys belonged to Kent McWilliams, professor of music and department vice chair, at the beginning of his time at St. Olaf.

“I remember very clearly thinking, ‘Oh, Dr. Hanson, she’s a really tough professor, and I bet a lot of people are going to say she’s too tough,'” McWilliams said. “Not a single person said that. It resonated throughout all those exit surveys that they all held her in very high esteem, that her passion shone through and gave them a deeper understanding of the material.”

Hanson’s love for teaching stood out in her relationships with her colleagues as well. Professor of music history Gerald Hoekstra worked closely with Hanson as St. Olaf’s only other music history faculty. He cited Hanson’s high-energy instructional style and high standards as her defining academic characteristics.

“She put a great deal of attention on knowing… the characteristics and forms of a piece of music,” he said. “She insisted that students reach [her standards], and they did. She was very blunt, she said what she thought, and she said it in no ambiguous terms, but students knew that her high demands and her intensity were ultimately for their good.”

Hanson’s academic expertise focused on 19th century music, particularly the music of Vienna from the 18th to 20th centuries. She published a book, “Musical Life in Biedermeier Vienna,” as well as articles in several journals. Her students, though, remained her first priority.

“Her real passion was not so much in doing musicological research, it was more the teaching aspect,” Hoekstra said. “The teaching was ultimately more important to her than writing one more article for an academic journal.”

A memorial service for Hanson will be held Friday, Nov. 1, at 6:30 p.m. in Boe Chapel. As the music department copes with the loss, Robin Gehl ’83 has stepped in to teach Hanson’s courses. Gehl earned her doctorate in musicology from the University of Cincinnati.

In the wake of Hanson’s death, reflections on her impact as a professor and a scholar have emerged from the St. Olaf music community. McWilliams passed along this summation of Hanson’s legacy:

“As somebody put, and I think this really typifies it: ‘I hope for his sake that Beethoven knows what his music is about, because if he doesn’t, Alice is telling him right now.'”