Seeds of Dale Warland’s musical success sown in Badger church, FDSH
Before conducting choral groups around the world…before fostering the careers of generations of conductors and composers…before the honorary doctorates and Grammy nomination and numerous industry awards – the seeds of a life in music were planted for Dale Warland in the Badger Lutheran Church and on the performance stage at Fort Dodge Senior High School.
Some eight decades later, those seeds continue to blossom.
“I turned 89 on April 14. I’ll never retire,” Warland said from his home in Mendota Heights, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb, where he’s immersed in a host of projects including: a choral series for E.C. Schirmer Publishing Group, a book on choral music, mentoring composers and their music, teaching Zoom master classes on conducting, and continuing a series of recordings with Gothic Records of performances by the ensemble he created, the Dale Warland Singers.
The stage of the renowned Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where his Dale Warland Singers made their home for 32 years is three hours – and light years – away from the farmhouse three miles south of Badger where Warland was born. His doctorate degree in musical arts from the University of Southern California capped a journey in education that started in a one-room schoolhouse.
Those Iowa roots shaped his life.
“I think the nurturing atmosphere and respect for hard work,” he said. “That support and nurturing came from family and the community…the work ethic, partly from growing up on a farm.”
Warland was born in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, son of farmers who operated a dairy operation, along with hogs, chicken, sheep and geese and worked 160 acres of corn, oats and soybeans. His work ethic was forged there: cows to be milked, hogs to be fed, eggs to be collected – by hand.
His parents, Gertrude and Joseph Warland, had strong Norwegian roots: Gertrude’s grandparents and Joseph’s parents were Norwegian immigrants. Music was engrained in the family: his mother played piano, and both his father and grandfather sang in the choir at Badger Lutheran Church. His grandfather Gerhard “Guy” Warland held the attendance record in that choir: 50 years straight, never a weeknight rehearsal or a Sunday morning missed. His father played trombone in a band. (His father was a cousin of Thomas Heggen, a Fort Dodge native and author of the novel “Mr. Roberts” that became a famed Broadway play and then movie starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon.)
Neither of his parents completed high school, he recalled in an interview, “but my sensitivity to beauty–both visual and in sound–was instilled by them. They would just point out with awe the everyday things around us: a sunset, a beautiful rain pattering on the house, the way moonlight fell on the fields.” As he grew, he became increasingly interested in sound. The way the train whistle moved through the countryside, that beautiful chord. Or bells in our church–things that you don’t hear constantly around you. Unique sounds. Even then, I remember trying to distinguish between the ugly and what struck the soul. The first time I heard our little church choir when I was a kid, I remember being terribly moved. Again, those sounds and those chords. That was my first inspiration.”
He learned at an early stage what it meant to work behind the scenes. On Sunday before church services, he’d wedge himself into the dusty passageway behind the organ. There he’d grab the long wooden handle and, on cue from the organist, begin to pump it up and down providing wind for the pipes. Every Sunday, until electrical pumps came to his rescue, he’d pump.
“I started taking piano lessons from the church choir director, Anne Siverson, when I was 5 years old,” said Warland, who describes her as an innately brilliant musician. “I sang in the church choir and she was the first one to let me conduct the children’s choir at her congregation.”
He and his younger (by two years) brother Bob, who joined the church choir at 4, found another musical outlet in a one-room schoolhouse, with 13 students in eight grades. The students sang every day – “folk songs, canons, everything. Whenever we did two-part canons, because I was so loud, they put me on one side of the room and the rest of the kids on the other.”
At FDSH, Clayton Hathaway was conductor of the chorus in which Warland sang, and Walter Lake was in charge of the concert and marching bands in which Warland played trombone. Warland’s first conducting experience came when he directed an offstage choir for a school play.
“That was one of the most important conducting performances I had, and it planted the seed,” he said. “I could have been conducting at Carnegie Hall. It was the most exciting thing I had ever done – and I really didn’t know what I was doing.”
When he graduated from FDSH in 1950, he wanted to attend St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., founded by Norwegian Lutheran immigrants and the school where his father had a cousin who took part in its choir and where Anne Siverson graduated.
“I never made the choir,” Warland said, “but I conducted the Viking male chorus. So at the age of 20, I was a conductor.”
After graduating in 1954, he served in the U.S. Air Force for two years and led a choir at Scott Air Force Base consisting of officers and enlisted men. After discharge, Warland earned his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota in 1960 and his Doctorate at the University of Southern California in 1965. Warland taught at Humboldt State College (Eureka, California), Keuka College (New York State), and eventually settled at Macalester College in St. Paul, where he was choral conductor and taught music history and choral conducting from 1967 to 1986.
While at the University of Minnesota, Warland conducted the choir at University Lutheran Church and at a Sunday morning rehearsal, in 1957, the regular accompanist was absent so he asked for a volunteer from the choir. The volunteer, Ruth Seim, turned out to be the woman he would marry two years later.
It was in 1972 when Warland got a call from the Walker Art Center asking if he would put together a concert of new music. He had long expressed interest in conducting a professional choir in which the membership was more stable than a college choir. The result: the Dale Warland Singers (DWS), an all-professional ensemble lauded for its exquisite sound, technical finesse and stylistic range. Its first concert took place on June 12, 1972, and was a success.
Professional choirs were uncommon at the time. Warland decided that to achieve the choir’s unique sound, 40 singers would be needed, rather than the standard 16-20 for most chamber choirs.
Brian Newhouse, former long-time host of Minnesota Orchestra concert broadcasts on Minnesota Public Radio and now the orchestra’s associate vice president of individual giving, sang with DWS from 1990-2000.
“We auditioned every year,” he said. “No one got to rest on the accomplishment of being in the DWS the previous year. The ‘season’ usually ran congruent with the school year. Auditions were in the late summer, and the final concert was often in May or June.
“The audition process for Dale was multi-phase. The first consisted of singing several selections to him face-to-face, though he would often be seated, say, halfway back of the church where we sang. But when this first pass was done, there’d be ‘call-backs,’ usually a few days later; that was when he’d turn his back to the group of hopefuls up front, and call out your assigned number and ask you to sing with others. So, you’d sing a phrase with one other voice; then, a moment later, sing that same phrase with another voice; then with maybe 3 other voices, then 5; each voice called out by its assigned number. So you’d hear him say, “Number 3 plus 6, please.” Then, “Number 3 plus 8 please.” Etc. This way he had to rely solely on what he was hearing, and not be distracted by someone’s physical appearance or by his calling out a name of someone who’d perhaps been in the group the previous year. This was a rigorous process every year. But once you were in the DWS, and rose to his standards, there was a pretty good chance you’d make it in the next year too.”
The DWS began regularly performing at the Walker Art Center in 1975 and made many tours across the country and to Europe. It collaborated with many notable ensembles and musicians including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Chanticleer and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. It also made many radio appearances, including Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and annual broadcasts of “Echoes of Christmas” and “Cathedral Classics” which reached audiences of 1.5 million across the United States. The DWS appeared in feature film soundtracks, most notably those of My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Garden of Redemption.
In the 1980-81 season, the DWS offered its first subscription series and hired a full-time executive director. In 1982, the DWS began to pay its singers, which set a new precedent for professional choirs nationally.
One of its board members was Boake Sells, a Fort Dodge native who was president of Dayton-Hudson Corp. in Minneapolis from 1984-87.
“I had heard of Dale in Fort Dodge but we had not met,” Sells said. “When I got to Minneapolis, he had formed this professional choir. Everyone in the choir was a great singer and every one of them loved him. A ‘music man’ with management and marketing savvy. I was proud to be on his board.”
The DWS presented its final concert, “I Have Had Singing: A Choral Celebration,” on May 30, 2004, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. “It seemed to be the right time to complete the mission we had set out to accomplish in developing a professional choir,” Warland said. Among its many honors was a Grammy nomination for Best Choral Performance for its 2003 CD, “Walden Pond.” Over the years, 355 singers participated in the organization.
The archives for the DWS are located at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and comprise the score library (including more than 1,100 copies of all 270 commissioned works), all organizational and artistic records, and more than 300 audio and video recordings of the ensemble’s performances.
Since 2008, the Dale Warland Singers Commission Award has been presented by Chorus America in partnership with the American Composers Forum. It recognizes a chorus entering into an artistically meaningful and mutually beneficial partnership with a composer of their choice to contribute a new work to the choral repertoire. The Chicago Children’s Choir won the award in 2021.
After disbanding the DWS in 2004, Warland served as music director of former Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Chorale and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival Chorale–both positions created for him. Warland has received honorary doctorates from Augustana College, Macalester College, University of Minnesota and University of Cincinnati. Among his many honors: induction into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Warland and his wife Ruth, are parents of two children – David, who lives in California with his wife Patricia and their daughter Bay, and Kari, who lives in St. Paul with her husband Dave Mink and their children, Karsten and Sonja. Ruth’s career was in education where she worked primarily with adults with learning and reading skills disabilities. David, who has a doctorate in biophysics and has been co-owner of two major startup companies, owns a small ranch in Davis, Calif., and now freelances as a consultant. Kari earned degrees in Anthropology and Forensic Science and has worked in those two fields in her career.
Warland’s brother Bob sang in church choirs through almost all of his life. In their Badger years, the brothers performed together and were known as The Warland Warblers. Bob and his wife Bev lived in Badger and in Fort Dodge until his death in 2017 at 83 and had three sons – Gregg and Mark of Fort Dodge and Joel of Eagle Grove. Bev owns the Warland Farm where Dale and Bob grew up. It is officially classified a Century Farm for being in the same family for more than 100 years.
Warland’s legacy remains alive among the many whose lives he touched – including Marie Spar Dymit, who was a member of DWS from 1985 to 2004 and was choral director at White Bear Lake High School for 34 years.
“As a teacher, I learned from Dale the importance of promoting new/newer music to my young singers,” she said. “I learned to not only challenge my students with this newer music, but also to challenge the audiences that got to hear them perform. I learned things about rehearsal technique, concert programming, the importance of balancing the voices when there was more than the standard four-part divisi in a piece of choral music…and so much more.”
Newhouse said he is one of several Warland Couples, “in that I met my wife (Angela) of now nearly 30 years through the DWS.” Among the things that made Warland stand out was his humanity, Newhouse said.
“Despite his fame and enormous talent, he was never NOT an Iowa farm boy. That meant a fierce work ethic, a care for neighbor and friend, an earthiness and sense of humor that was always ready to lighten the moment of a tense rehearsal or recording session. His ego was in service of beauty, not to shine his own star.”