By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
— 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.”
Michael and Bonnie have spent the last two years researching Cormontan’s life. They found that before coming to America, she had apparently become a music publisher and collected an extensive rental library. From several dates that appear on Cormontan’s compositions, Michael believes she crafted the majority after moving to Minnesota.
So far, the couple has translated and digitized less than 30 of the compositions. Along the way, Michael said he’s gained a level of respect for the composer.
“I think she was strong, determined, very bright and very hard-working,” he said.
Stories of artists who gained their fame posthumously are abundant. So, too, are the stories of those who recognized the value of their art.
Franz Kafka demanded that all his unpublished manuscripts be burned upon his death. Thankfully, his best friend and literary executor, Max Brod, refused the wish. John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” was not published until several years after his suicide when author Walker Percy recognized its merit.
Augustus Caeser ignored Virgil’s wish to destroy “Aeneid.” So did Vladimir Nabakov’s son, who allowed his father’s final manuscript, “The Original of Laura,” to be published in 2009 despite a demand that the unfinished work be burned.
Though there might be a certain philosophical argument to be made against ignoring an author’s libricidal last wishes, those who strive to promote forgotten and forsaken works of art deserve thanks from those of us on the viewing end.
That includes Michael and Bonnie Jorgensen, who have given Cormontan what she was never able to achieve in her lifetime.
“I think she is a really fine composer,” Michael said. “I hope now she can have a full appraisal of her music.”
For more information about Cormontan, visit www.jorgensennotes.com.