“Kenneth was an incredibly sensitive human being, musician….he was able to capture the hearts and minds of the singers who performed with him and there was always a humbleness about his music making,” Dr. Anton Armstrong told Minnesota Public Radio, speaking about his former teacher and friend, Kenneth Jennings. Jennings, the third conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, died August 20 at the age of 90. His memorial service was this past Friday, September 18, at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield.
Kenneth Jennings was born in 1925 in Fairfield, Connecticut. Upon graduating from high school in 1943, he was drafted into the army, and was sent to Fort Benning in Georgia for training. It was there that Kenneth met Luther Onerheim, a St. Olaf alum, who introduced him to the small college in Minnesota.
After finishing in the military, Jennings applied to St. Olaf, only to be told that because of the number of veterans applying for admission, there was no room for him. So he set off on a train to Colorado College. By the time Jennings made it to Chicago, he had decided St. Olaf was where he wanted to be, and headed North to Northfield, despite not having a spot in the freshman class.
Jennings met with a dean of the college, telling him that he would like to enroll at St. Olaf. The dean, after seeing that Jennings had performed well in high school, replied, “I guess you’ll be a good enough risk,” and accepted him.
After graduating from St. Olaf magna cum laude in 1950, Jennings pursued a Master’s in Music before joining the music faculty at St. Olaf in 1953.
At St. Olaf, Jennings was the director of the Chapel Choir for 15 years. It was Jennings who suggested to Olaf Christiansen, the director of the St. Olaf Choir, that the campus choirs provide music for the student congregation, which was formed in 1952. This is a tradition that continues to this day, with choirs and other musical ensembles participating in Sunday morning services at Boe Chapel.
In 1968, when Olaf Christiansen was planning to retire, Jennings was asked to take his place. He said yes.
Jennings accepted a position that had been held by father and son for 56 years: F. Melius Christiansen from 1912 to 1943 and Olaf from 1943-1968. Needless to say, expectations were high, but Kenneth Jennings rose to the challenge. Alice Larsen, professor emerita of music and conductor of Manitou Singers from 1955 to 1989 said of the St. Olaf Choir under Jennings: “Under Kenneth they suddenly just started to soar.”
Jennings was the first to bring musical accompaniment to the choir, having previously been an exclusively a capella group. In 1970, Jennings began a collaboration between the St. Olaf Choir and the Minnesota Orchestra. Under Jennings the choir performed internationally, and in 1988, the St. Olaf Choir was one of five choirs in the world to be invited to perform at the Olympic Arts Festival in Seoul, Korea.
Dr. Armstrong told MPR, “Jennings created a sound with young college students which had a suppleness, had a rich, but lyrical quality. And I would say that he took an instrument which could have gone into a museum place and he rejuvenated it for another century of singing.” Whereas Jennings’ predecessors, F. Melius and Olaf Christiansen, performed only church pieces, Jennings branched out, choosing more contemporary and secular pieces.
Howard Swan, the late choral director and author, said of Jennings: “Because the St. Olaf Choir, particularly with F. Melius, but to a certain extent with Olaf, sang so many pieces that were alike, this helped to make a sound which didn’t vary much. This is not Dr. Jennings at all. His choirs have life, vitality.”
The contributions Kenneth Jennings made to the St. Olaf Choir, choral music, and St. Olaf College cannot be overemphasized. He leaves a legacy that lives on in St. Olaf’s singers. A current member of the St. Olaf Choir said this: “I didn’t know Kenneth Jennings personally, but after experiencing his memorial service, I have a huge amount of respect for him. He seems to have led his life with a quiet but profound awareness of God’s purpose for himself, his family, and his choir. This spirit lives on in the St. Olaf Choir.”