A Tradition of Swedish SongAugust 25, 2016
Marta Schee loves to sing “En gang jag seglar I hamn,” a schmaltzy early-20th century song about a lonely sailor at sea.
Thanks to the American Union of Swedish Singers, an organization that promotes chorus singing and knowledge of Swedish songs with more than 100 years of history, she gets the opportunity to perform her favorite song – and many others – regularly.
“I just love what we do,” said Schee, the current president of AUSS. “There’s nothing more exhilarating than to get together with other people and sing.”
The American Union of Swedish Singers (AUSS) has a rich legacy of celebrating and honoring Swedish heritage and culture within the United States. The choir had its first big concert at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. Since then, the group has performed all over the country, including Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco Opera House and the White House.
“The organization started in 1892, and choruses formed all over the U.S. with Swedish immigrants who were homesick,” said Alana Mapes, past president of AUSS. “They wanted to gather and sing songs from the old country. As they grew in numbers, it was the birth of the American Union of Swedish Singers.”
Schee added, “Think of it as a weekly activity. It was like bowling night. Every Monday or Tuesday, they would get together and have these singing clubs.”
AUSS was all male until the late 1950s, when the Seattle chapter created the first women’s group.
“I remember my father going to chorus,” Mapes said. “The men would sing, and the ladies would be in the auxiliary room. They would break and have their schnapps and treats prepared by the ladies. The kids would run amuck.”
Today there are 22 AUSS chapter across the United States including Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Some groups, like Portland’s choir, sing songs exclusively in the major Nordic languages:
Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Danish and Icelandic.
Every three years, the groups join together for a national convention, which includes individual choir performances, special guests from Sweden and a mass choir that involves all 22 chapters. A 2008 mass choir at the Portland Convention Center included 350 singers with more than 1,000 people on hand to enjoy the performance.
Along with the formal practices and performances during the day, groups often will enjoy schnapps and do impromptu renditions of their favorite songs in the evenings.
“You find people doing music from dawn until dusk,” Schee said.
The convention is made possible by the AUSS Cultural Heritage Foundation, which helps pay for the event’s venue. Dedicated to preserving, promoting and cultivating the Swedish language through the arts, the Foundation was created by a gift from the late John O. Werner and supports many of the AUSS choirs.
AUSS choirs have grown in membership over the past decade, bringing in younger singers. Schee and Mapes credit this to creating mixed gender choirs and chapters that only sing Nordic songs.
“People are clearly interested in exploring their roots; they’re very curious,” Schee said. “There is this longing for understanding where your people came from.”
Many of the choir members do not speak Swedish or other Nordic languages.
Schee explained that members aren’t just learning the language – they’re learning music. Participants learn the rhythm and notes, then put it together with the language. A full one-and-half hour concert typically is put together in three to four months.
More than 50 AUSS members will embark on a singing tour of Sweden and Norway in 2017 that is being organized by the Portland choir. The travelers will connect with choruses in both countries and exchange music and ideas.
As AUSS choirs grow across the United States, Schee and Mapes are excited for the future – as well as the organization’s past.
“It’s a very special experience,” Schee said. “Once you get it in your blood, you never want to not have it.”