In 2009, a restoration in St. Anne, Illinois, took an unexpected turn when manuscripts composed by Florence Price turned up in one of the few rooms that hadn’t been ransacked by vandals or crushed by falling trees. Turns out the house had once been Price’s summer home. Remarkably, two violin concertos discovered in that fateful renovation have since been recorded.
It’s uncomfortable to think of important musical history being forgotten in attics. But it has certainly, silently happened. In fact, an eerily similar fate nearly befell works by another trailblazing composer named Theodora Cormontan.
Throughout the course of her decades-long life in music, Theodora Cormontan dealt with challenges presented by sexism (of course), emigration, geographic isolation, economic insecurity, and disability. Despite those challenges, she never stopped composing. Her persistence is awe-inspiring. But it’s only due to a series of coincidences – and some passionate advocacy – that much of her work survives today.
Theodora Nicoline Meldal Cormontan was born 9 June 1840 in Beitstad, Norway, the second-youngest child of Lutheran minister Even Cormontan and his wife Louise. When Theodora was seven, she and her family moved to the coastal city of Arendal, where Even began working at the landmark Trinity Church and serving as provst at the Lutheran State Church of Norway. Around this time, Theodora began studying music. An early teacher was likely Trinity’s organist, who was also the head of a music lending library.
In the mid-1800s, Norwegian women often finished their education by their mid-teens. (Stunningly, the University of Oslo’s first female student wasn’t admitted until 1882.) Theodora must have been uniquely musically gifted, and with access to the financial resources that advanced studies require, because at the age of 18, she left Norway to study music both in Germany and in Denmark. Her studies lasted for seven years. Her sojourn only ended in 1865, the year her mother Louise died. Theodora returned home, likely to help support her father, who needed a homemaker wife or daughter to help fulfill his own professional obligations.
Despite her new responsibilities, Theodora continued to make good on her musical promise. She concertized as both vocalist and pianist, even going on tour to several Norwegian cities in 1869.
She also began proving her mettle as an entrepreneur, following in her former teacher’s footsteps and founding a music rental library in 1877. Musicians could pay for subscriptions lasting as short as a day or as long as a year. In return, they’d gain access to over eight thousand scores, from parlor songs to the complete works of Mozart and Beethoven.
She also composed regularly. Most of her works were for piano or voice and piano, but in 1868 she wrote a one-act singspiel called “Lark,” suggesting an interest in composing larger scale works.
Valse Brillante, Op. 33, by Theodora Cormontan
Eventually her compositions began to be noticed. In 1875, the prestigious Warmuth publishing house, the best-known publisher in Scandinavia, printed her piano piece Blandt Fjeldene, or Among the Mountains. But from that point on, Warmuth only published her songs. Perhaps they thought that women-written songs – ideal for domestic consumption – were more marketable than women-written piano works or (God forbid) women-written singspiels.
Whatever the reasons for Warmuth’s hesitance to print her other pieces, Theodora took matters into her own hands. In 1879 she started her own publishing company to disseminate her works. Her clients included two other remarkable women composers, Sophie Dedekam and Caroline Schytte Jensen. This venture made Theodora the first female music publisher in Norway.
Theodora’s pathbreaking professional success seemed assured. But in 1886 it all came crashing down. The local banks failed and the family home burned.
Theodora had never married, and neither had her housemate and sister Eivinda, so there were no children to help support their household’s rally. Their surviving siblings, however, lived in Minnesota, and were willing to extend a helping hand. So early in the summer of 1887, eighty-nine-year old Even and his two daughters crossed the Atlantic Ocean via steamship and emigrated to America. They initially settled in Sacred Heart, Minnesota, a tiny town 120 miles west of Minneapolis.
Here in rural Minnesota, Theodora immediately began working as a musician. She gave well-received performances as both singer and pianist, and also began advertising her services as teacher, not just in Sacred Heart, but in the surrounding towns, as well.
On 3 December 1887, after a day of teaching, she was set to commute from Granite Falls, Minnesota, back home to Sacred Heart. By accident, she began boarding the smoking car, which was reserved for men. A brakeman told her to board the next car, the ladies’ car, instead. Apparently the baggage man and expressman were unaware of this exchange, because they gave the all-clear to the conductor before Theodora was safely aboard. The train began to move and she lost her balance. The brakeman, at the top of the steps leading into the ladies’ car, hadn’t understood what was happening until it was too late. Ostensibly to keep her – and her skirts – free of the wheels of the accelerating train, he grabbed her and threw her back onto the depot platform. The train disappeared, and Theodora was forced to hitch a ride home on a freight train later that night.
At first the injury seemed relatively mild. But by the time the shock had worn off and Theodora got back to the family home, it became increasingly clear that something terrible had happened.
Her sister Marie Lyders, who she was living with at the time, later recalled in a deposition:
She went to bed early, not long after coming home. She did not sleep in the night from pains, and from that day she grew worse and worse, she could not walk without a cane around the house and could not go out. She was confined to her bed two or three days as far as I remember at first, and from that time on she was confined to her bed a part of nearly every day, not coming from her bed until noon and some days not being able to at all. She was not able to go out of the house from this time on as long as she was with me.
Theodora stayed with Lyders until March of the following year, when she moved with Eivinda and her father to her brother’s house in Franklin, Minnesota, 40 miles southeast of Sacred Heart. Once a fit and energetic woman who had walked miles every day, Theodora now had to be transported via sled and propped up with pillows.
The effects of the injury were chronic and catastrophic, and partial paralysis resulted. For the rest of her life she couldn’t walk without a cane. The injury had devastating professional consequences, as well. She had to quit giving vocal recitals because she could no longer stand for the length of time required. She also had to give up teaching, after years of providing financially for herself and her family.
But Theodora was not about to go down without a fight. In 1888, she hired a lawyer and sued the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company. The defense claimed that Theodora had been “guilty of gross carelessness and negligence” and that the brakeman had actually saved her life by tossing her clear of the train. But the members of the jury – consisting of twelve men, of course – weren’t buying it. On 7 October 1889 she was awarded $5000 in damages (the rough equivalent to $125k today). With a portion of the money she received, she bought a Packard organ for the Fort Ridgely & Dale Church near Franklin, where she worshiped, directed the choir, and served as organist.
Aftendæmring, by Theodora Cormontan
It is possible that in the decade following, Theodora recovered somewhat, because references to her public music-making appear in newspapers during the 1890s and 1900s. She conducted vocal ensembles (including a “male quartette”), played the organ at church, performed as accompanist and solo pianist, and even wrote music. In fact, as late as 1911, when she was 71, she was still composing and copyrighting her works.
Despite her age and her disability, she was forced to be a breadwinner; her three surviving unmarried siblings were even older than her. But she couldn’t support them all. Together the elderly Cormontans began sinking into poverty. The St. James Journal Gazette of 19 February 1909 revealed that the family was being subsidized by the County Poor Fund.
The death of their pharmacist brother in 1917 appears to have been a decisive economic blow. Two months later, Theodora and Eivinda moved to the Aase Haugen Home in Decorah, Iowa, an institution especially for Norwegian immigrants. The Home consisted of a large, elegant brick building set in the middle of a fully functioning farm. Residents were encouraged to contribute what talents and abilities they could. Of course, Theodora rapidly found a seat at the chapel organ.
The administrator of the Home was a man named Otto Schmidt, and his wife Mollie was a pianist. Mollie would often come and play piano for the residents, and, understandably, she and Theodora became fast friends. In 1918 Mollie lost her son Waldemar to the influenza epidemic. Family lore says that Theodora comforted Mollie as she grieved, and the two women grew close.
Theodora had no children, and no institutions were interested in preserving her work. So she gave her papers to Mollie Schmidt, trusting her to preserve them, with no idea if the music in them would ever be heard again.
Theodora died on 26 October 1922 of heart trouble. She was 82 years old. She was buried in the Home’s cemetery. Her headstone has the wrong birth year on it.
Despite her many noteworthy achievements, Theodora Cormontan came terrifyingly close to tumbling into total obscurity. Mollie Schmidt passed Theodora’s papers down to her daughter Carola. Then when Carola died in 1975, her brother Orval and her niece Barb were tasked with the overwhelming task of emptying her house. It was then that they discovered Theodora’s papers. Luckily, Barb saved them, tucking the boxes into her own attic for safekeeping.
Not much else was done with them until a chance encounter in a grocery store in 2011. Barb Schmidt Nelson ran into her friend Bonnie Jorgensen and mentioned the old music she’d re-discovered while downsizing. This chance encounter was fortuitous. Bonnie is a professional pianist and her husband Michael a vocal professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. They were both in a unique position to study, evaluate, and even disseminate Theodora’s work. Since 2011 they’ve performed her music, crafted lecture recitals, and even created a website that dives into great detail about Theodora and her world. The story of unrecognized work waiting ninety years in attics has a happy, deeply moving ending: in May 2015, Theodora’s papers were donated to the National Museum of Norway in Oslo.
A lecture recital on Theodora presented by the Jorgensens
Hopefully, Theodora’s story and work will continue to garner the attention it so richly deserves. But in the meantime, it makes one uneasy to wonder:
What other priceless history have we lost, without even knowing it? And how might the vacuum of those unconscious losses be affecting how we think about music today?
A huge shout-out to the patrons who make this series of articles on forgotten musical women possible! It wouldn’t happen without you. These articles come out every other Wednesday. (Last week I took off because of Easter… Expect the next entry on April 25th!) If you want to support the series for as little as a dollar a month, click here.
If you want to learn more about Theodora, here is a list of sources: