The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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February 21, 2013

St. Peter couple preserves, promotes works of forgotten composer

Theodora Cormontan may be no Johann Sebastian Bach — but the two composers have at least one thing in common:

They weren’t fully appreciated in their lifetimes.

Bach, of course, was recognized as a church organist while still alive. But it wasn’t until a hundred years after his death that critics and musicians began to recognize the genius of the man who is called by some the “master of masters.”

In her own lifetime, Cormontan, a Norwegian immigrant to Renville County in 1887 (and later Hanska, Madelia and St. James), was likewise little known outside of a few published works in Norway. After relocating to Minnesota with family who had arrived years earlier, Cormontan taught lessons and gave recitals across the region. Her musicianship was widely praised, but her original compositions were largely ignored.

That is, until St. Peter musicians Michael and Bonnie Jorgensen rediscovered them.

Michael, a Gustavus Adolphus College music instructor, and Bonnie, a pianist who performs frequently with the Mankato Symphony Orchestra, were given a few boxes of old music two years ago by friends Barb and Roger Nelson. Within that box, they found more than 150 handwritten scores written in “beautiful calligraphy” and signed by a name neither recognized.

“We’d never heard of her,” said Michael, who is hosting with Bonnie a presentation and recital of Cormontan’s music on Sunday at Gustavus.

“She was very obscure.”

Further examination, however, proved her work had merit.

Jorgensen said Cormontan’s music clearly reflects an educated mind and a “broad study” of composers of her time. Her works range from parlor music and pop music to more classical compositions and others that indicate exploration of Norwegian nationalism.

Jorgensen further noted that Cormontan’s scores require a high degree of skill to play on the piano.

“I think she was impressive,” Michael said, speculating that her works might have been too difficult for the market she was writing for, which seemed to prefer music that was more easily replicated. “Most of her pieces are pretty challenging.”

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