Weston Noble: The legacy of an American choral giant
Update, December 21, 2016: Weston Noble, renowned choral director best known for his 57-year tenure at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, passed away on December 21 after complications from a fall. His leadership and towering genius leave an amazing legacy in the choral world, and in this feature from 2015, you can hear about Noble's legacy in his own words. (Audio courtesy Luther College.)
If one thinks of American choral legends, Weston Noble surely has to be fairly high up on the list. Born in 1922 in Riceville, Iowa, Noble discovered a passion for music at age 5 when he began piano lessons. He continued to expand his musical horizons in school, playing clarinet in band and singing in the choir. Whilst an undergraduate at Luther College in nearby Decorah, Iowa, he combined his music studies with history — there was no music major at the time — and discovered his life's calling in the choir room. In his junior year, he gave up everything to learn the art of conducting after he was given the opportunity to take the choir when the director was away. A deep believer in divine guidance, he knew that that was what God meant for him.
A brief respite from music study came after Noble graduated early in 1943, in order to serve in World War II. Assigned to a tank division in the army, he saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and was part of the occupying army in Berlin in 1945. Whilst in Berlin, his love of geography led him to find Hitler's abandoned headquarters near the Brandenburg Gate. He sat himself at Hitler's desk — with his boots on the table top — "and played the role for a while" in the room where Hitler made war plans. Noble took a wrench and hammered off a hunk of that marble table and mailed it to his address back home, but he reckons that it was too heavy because it never arrived.
Noble's tenure at Luther College began when, as a recent recipient of a Masters in Music degree from the University of Michigan, he was asked to fill as an interim choir director for a year. That year turned into 57, with Noble conducting the Concert Band from 1948-1973 and the Nordic Choir 1948-2005. Over that time he guided the Nordic Choir to become one of the most elite a capella choirs in the United States, renowned for their particular sound. A strong Norwegian tradition is present in the round vowel sound and straight tone that brings out the best pitch and blended sound, reflective of Noble's fondness for programming Scandinavian and Russian pieces. Vibrato amongst individual voices blurs the harmonies, whilst straight tone is an essential foundation of good choral singing. Healthy, full straight tone need not be strident though, bringing a lush quality to the tone takes a lot of dexterity in vocal technique. A vital sense of choral community within the ensemble (all the singers hold hands) also contributes to the strength of their sound. Everyone singing together means more than sixty individuals; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Noble didn't just confine his talents and gifts to Luther however. Over the years, he has guest-directed over 900 all-state bands, orchestras, and choirs all over the country, as well as festivals over four continents. Indeed, he expanded his resources outside of the Jensen-Noble music building to the development hall, where he has called thousands of prospective students (Classical MPR's Brian Newhouse, a graduate of Luther College and Nordic Choir alumnus, remembers getting that call in high school). After his retirement in 2005, Noble did not cease conducting, and continued with guest residencies at Carthage College, Wartburg College, Augustana College in Sioux Falls.
The Weston Noble Alumni Choir was inaugurated in 2007, out of the desire by Noble and Nordic Choir alumni to gather together annually to recreate that special Nordic sound. They have since met each summer on the Luther Campus for a week of rehearsals and social activities culminating in a performance. Alumni singers from across seven generations have returned from all over the U.S. and internationally to sing once again under Noble's baton. Noble was the sole conductor until the 2014 year, when some of the duties were taken up by Dr. Andrew Last, the current conductor of Luther's Norsemen and Collegiate choirs.
This week will see the last gathering of the Weston Noble Alumni Choir. At 92 years old, after a lifetime filled with time in front of hundreds of ensembles and thousands of students, well-deserved prestigious choral and music education awards, five honorary doctorates, and even the St. Olav's Medal from Norwegian King Harald V, Noble has finally decided that it is time to slow down (or as he puts it "Weston is getting a little little bit older"). His goal for the last Alumni Choir is "to make it as rich as possible for me and for the alums" with a program filled with Nordic favourites.
His love for Luther — which seems to exceed even the typical Norse alumni passion — has seen him continue "working" in the development office and occasionally he still pays Nordic Choir a visit during their rehearsals. No doubt there will be music in his life until the very last moment.
Back in May 2015, Weston Noble sat down in his Decorah condo with Classical MPR's managing director Brian Newhouse and officers from the Weston Noble Alumni Choir for an interview that spanned his discovery of a love for music from age five to his present life. Here are some quotes from that interview on various topics.
Noble's introduction to music...
"I remember vividly my mother trying to get me to get me to take a nap. I was five years old and I wouldn't settle down. And so she leaned over and she said, 'Weston, would you like to take piano lessons?' and something inside of me just exploded. And I couldn't go to sleep and I couldn't wait to get to my first lesson, my feet didn't touch the floor and course I really enjoyed my piano lessons. But something wonderful happened inside me."
Noble deciding that conducting was going to be 'it' for him...
"When I was a junior, the director was gonna be gone so he asked if I would take choir that day: 'oh yes, man I would be glad to do that!' I don't know if I'd had conducting class yet and I went back to my room and I can see myself sitting down on my bed and deciding nothing else but conducting, nothing else. Gave up piano, everything. Couldn't describe this feeling that I had, you know. And those are the significant mileage points that God gives us, you know, to have. Why I wouldn't change for anything."
Noble served in a tank division in World War II. At training camp at Fort Knox he met a fellow soldier called Jesse who became a great friend of his until Jesse's death about 20 years ago...
"Back in the States, there was a Mississippi hillbilly that bunked right next to mine. He loved his beer and he would go down the PX and drink beer. And he'd come back every night and sing quietly to himself 'Have I stayed away too long?', you know. But he'd always reach over with his hand and say 'Weston, are you alright?' I said, 'I'm fine, Jesse'. 'Well fine'. So he would go to bed. Alright, so Jesse's over in the driver's seat on the first day we were in combat. And Jesse looked at me and said, 'Are you scared?' 'Oh, I am so scared'. 'Well, shall I sing to ya?' And he sang hillbilly songs for about an hour. Wonderful feeling, even yet..."
There are a few key elements to a good choral sound and to building the specific Nordic sound. Noble talked about the importance of the upbeat as well as straight tone — to get the best pitch and blended sound. However he insisted that an ensemble will never achieve the most transcendent sound without every singer using their imagination accordingly...
"We had a chord that like would be A, C, D, F, a tight chord you know. And so there was this wonderful chord and I said, 'what does that remind you of?' and this one soprano raised her hand, she said 'Monet, Monet'. And I said 'that's right' and I said, 'why is that right?' Because Monet is just, the subtleties of the [light]... well you know. And so everybody visualized — after we'd explained Monet to the physics major. For the rest of the year, I'd say 'It's gotta be more Monet-ish, it's gotta be Monet-ish', you know."
The power of music brings the mind, body and soul together. Noble's most significant example of this comes from a football captain who experienced that life-changing feeling whilst singing in Luther's then annual performance of The Messiah.
"The captain of the football team dared to sing in The Messiah because he'd had enough experience somehow felt he could stand up in the risers. I can see him yet just coming down as fast as he could and grabbing a hold of me and yelling in my ear and saying 'what happened to me!, you just have to tell me, what happened to me! I've never felt like this before, ever! Now tell me, when I was on the right risers, I don't even know if I was standing there or what it was' but that's the epitome of the power [of music]."
Vulnerability is the secret to life and also the music. Being vulnerable in music helps you open up even more as a person...
"Vulnerability really is the secret to life itself. Openness right? Honesty. And music allows vulnerability to come so beautifully. Because when you share musically and get this goose bump and so forth, it's much easier to start to talk with a greater depth, right? And then you go a greater depth than that. And when you reach a certain point of vulnerability and so forth — and this is what I think is so beautiful — that's when you enter the garden of trust. Isn't that a gorgeous thing to say? You've entered the garden of trust."