Theodora Cormontan, forgotten composer

A Minnesota couple discovered this little-known Norwegian composer in a box of discarded music, but they’re bringing her works to life

Roy Jorgensen
Hopewell Junction, N.Y.

In May of 2011 Bonnie Jorgensen, a professional pianist, ran into some friends in a grocery store in St. Peter, Minnesota. They offered Bonnie some boxes of music that had been in their family several generations, since they were moving and downsizing. A few days later Bonnie and her husband Michael, a music professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, were looking through one of the boxes and discovered about 150 original music manuscripts by a composer named Theodora Cormontan. Impressed by the sophistication of her writing, the Jorgensens decided to do some research.

Photo: courtesy of Nancy Clasen, great-great-granddaughter of Theodora's younger sister, Marie Cormontan Lyders Theodora Cormontan, c. late 1850's-early 1860's Theodora Cormontan c. 1865

Photo: courtesy of Nancy Clasen, great-great-granddaughter of Theodora’s younger sister, Marie Cormontan Lyders
Theodora Cormontan, c. late 1850’s-early 1860’s

They discovered that Theodora Cormontan was born in Norway in 1840 and grew up in the southern seacoast town of Arendal, where her father, Reverend Even Cormontan, was an influential clergyman in the (Lutheran) State Church of Norway. Her economically advantaged position allowed Theodora to study music for seven years in Germany and Denmark. After her mother died in 1865, Theodora returned to Arendal to live with her father and older sister Eivinda.

Photo: courtesy of Aust-Agder kulturhistoriske senter Left: Theodora Cormontan (standing) with older sister Eivinda and her father, Provst Even Cormontan, c. 1865.

Photo: courtesy of Aust-Agder kulturhistoriske senter
Left: Theodora Cormontan (standing) with older sister Eivinda and her father, Provst Even Cormontan, c. 1865.

Theodora sang and played the piano in concerts throughout the region, including some of her own compositions. She became one of the first Norwegian women to have her music published in 1875. Probably frustrated with the reticence of publishers to accept anything but vocal music by women, Theodora became the first woman in Norway to start her own music publishing company in 1879.

The failure of the Arendal banks and the loss of the Cormontan home to fire in 1886 likely prompted Theodora to quit her successful business and to join her father (at the age of 89) and sister in immigrating to Minnesota in 1887, where they eventually joined her brother Hans, a carpenter, and her brother C. G. V. (Gottfred Christian Vogelsang), a pharmacist.

Reverend Cormontan died in 1893. The remaining four siblings never married and lived together in southeastern and south central Minnesota for most of the next thirty years. Theodora taught music lessons, played the organ in several churches, conducted choirs, gave public piano performances, and continued composing. In 1917, with their two brothers deceased, Theodora and Eivinda moved to the Aase Haugen Home a few miles west of Decorah, Iowa. Theodora and her sister died there in 1922 and 1924, respectively.

Theodora found publishers in the United States for a few of her works, but most remained unpublished despite their overall quality. Challenges related to gender discrimination, her immigrant status, economic struggles, not living in a metropolitan area, and dealing with a significant physical disability (the result of a train accident about six months after arriving in Minnesota) likely mitigated her success at disseminating her music despite her best efforts.

Bonnie and Michael are dedicated to sharing the life and music of Theodora Cormontan, believing that she deserves to be heard, appreciated, and remembered. They have performed Cormontan’s music for St. Olaf College, Luther College, and numerous Norwegian-American organizations. This summer they will be presenting at the Daughters of Norway national convention in Minneapolis.

Photo: Scott Means Bonnie and Michael Jorgensen perform Theodora Cormontan's "Ungbirken" ("Young Birch," poetry by Jørgen Moe) at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota on February 24, 2013

Photo: Scott Means
Bonnie and Michael Jorgensen perform Theodora Cormontan’s “Ungbirken” (“Young Birch,” poetry by Jørgen Moe) at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota on February 24, 2013

More information regarding Theodora Cormontan may be found on their website, JorgensenNotes.com. They can be heard performing some of Cormontan’s music on YouTube.

This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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