Strother Harlyn Abel
Harlyn Abel, a basso profundo and choir director, taught music at two Seventh-day Adventist colleges and in several academies. Additionally, he founded and directed a number of choral groups in Portland, Oregon, and Southern California.
Harlyn was born in Enid, Oklahoma, the son of denominational workers Strother Winfield and Abbie Lois White Abel, a fourth generation descendant of Ellen White. He attended Southwestern Junior College, now Southwestern Adventist University, and graduated from Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, in 1930 with a music diploma. At this time he married Florence Standish. They would have three children, Doris, Jerene (Murrey), and Norman.
He completed a B.Mus. degree the following year at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and later a master's degree there, while teaching at Union College. During his study, he worked with Lippe, a vocal coach who had been associated with the Metropolitan Opera, and John Finley Williamson, legendary teacher at Westminster Choir College. Although he was encouraged to sing professionally on the concert stage and in opera, he declined. He also took seminars from Fred Waring, F. Melius Christiansen, and Rober Shaw, always looking for new insights and ideas that he could incorporate into his directing and teaching.
In 1932 Southern California Junior College, later La Sierra College and now La Sierra University, hired Abel to teach voice and direct the choir. For the next fifteen years he became noted for his rigorous rehearsals and insistence on high performance standards. Also, beginning in his first year and continuing annually until he left, he directed a performance of the Messiah.
During his years at LSC, the curriculum changed from an unaccredited two-year program offering diplomas to a four-year accredited program offering degrees. He played an important role in developing the choral program as these changes happened, the school's enrollment grew, and a new auditorium and music building were constructed.
Abel also served on the committee that produced The Church Hymnal in 1941, the first attempt on the part of the church to create a collection of hymns since 1886. Although it was not an immediate success because some felt the hymns were too "high" church and others felt there were too many "cheap" gospel songs, within a decade it was accepted and was part of worship until 1985, when today’s hymnal was released.
In 1947 he accepted a position as chairman of the music department and choir director at Union College, where he taught until 1951. Abel arrived at a time when the school's music program, housed in a just-completed music building, had over 500 students. Returning veterans as well as the music program's reputation for excellence helped swell the enrollment. It was an exciting time with music majors such as Wayne Hooper (who had studied with Abel at LSC and may have come to UC because of that experience), Harold Lickey, Melvin West (who attended from 1948 to 1950), and others who would later make significant contributions in Adventist music.
At both colleges he ran an active program, touring widely with his choirs and involving them in professional experiences that helped them improve. While at UC he took several members from the choir to attend a summer session at Westminster College in New Jersey. Persons who took that trip recalled it as a wonderful mix of instruction, sightseeing, and inspiring musical experiences. He enjoyed studio teaching and at both colleges ran what he called an "open studio," where music majors and other voice students could sit in on his lessons.
While at UC Abel founded the Golden Cords Chorale, named after the tradition on that campus of hanging a golden cord for each graduate serving as a missionary. It was later renamed the Golden Chords Chorale and has continued for many years as a popular group on campus. Abel's wife, Florence, also taught piano and organ at the college.
In 1951 Abel was invited by the Oregon Conference to oversee voice training and choral work in its churches and two of its schools, Portland Union and Columbia academies, now Portland Adventist and Columbia Adventist academies. It was a conference level appointment and, in retrospect, might be viewed as an early attempt to create a minister of music position in the Adventist church.
Abel aggressively pursued his assignments and by December, according to the 17 December 1951 North Pacific Union Gleaner, had organized a choir school to assist in training "adult directors and singers of the Seventh-day Adventist churches in the Portland area." Its report continued,
Its purpose is to train section leaders and choir directors in voice methods, conducting, and model choir procedure. Forty-two people, representing all the churches in the Portland area, have been faithfully attending the classes two and three times a week since September. In concert appearances the choir [the group of forty-two] will be known as the Portland Rose Chorale. . . . As well as being instructor of the choir school and conductor of the Portland Rose Chorale, Professor Abel is director of the Portland Union Academy choir of over seventy voices and the Columbia Academy choir of about sixty voices.
In the following month, the chorale and combined choirs from the academies participated in a youth congress, providing music hailed by a writer in the NPUG as "a small foretaste of heaven." Five years later, D. E. Rebok, Field Secretary of the General Conference of the SDA church, wrote in a 15 November 1956 Review and Herald article about the music he had witnessed that summer at the Oregon Conference camp meeting in Gladstone:
… the music was superb and there was a lot of it. How our hearts thrilled to the sounds of celestial music that came from the choir directed by Harlyn Abel! Oregon is blazing a new trail in having on the conference staff a general director of all the church choirs in the conference.
Through the end of the decade, Abel continued to teach, organize, and conduct choral festivals and present performances of the Messiah, Elijah, and other major choral works. His wife assisted as an accompanist for the group.
In 1958 Revista, the Portland Union Academy yearbook, honored Abel with the following dedication:
We honor a man who has lived among us for the past seven years. Known as the Minister of Music for the Oregon Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, he has spent himself toward the advancement of the appreciation of fine music. He has worked with us in our academy choir for the past six years. Here we have learned to know him as a trusted counselor and true friend. He has organized and combined our choral groups with those of our sister academies in grand music festivals, featuring hundreds of voices.
In the 1960s, Abel moved to California, where he continued to organize and direct choirs. In 1968 he conducted a performance of the Brahms Requiem by the Lodi Choral Union, a seventy-voice chorus made up of the choirs from the Lodi Central SDA and First Methodist churches and singers from other choirs in the area.
Four years later, in 1972, he conducted a performance of the Messiah in Grass Valley, given by a group of over 100 drawn from choir members in area churches and other persons in the community. Abel was serving as minister of music at the Adventist church in Grass Valley at that time and his second wife, Margaret (Peggy) D. Kirschwing Miller, was a soloist in the performance.
In 1974, the 50-member Golden Chain Chorale, a group organized and conducted by Abel, presented Haydn's Creation under guest conductors Dorla Menmuir and Norman Skeels, since Abel was recovering from a heart attack. The group, nearing the end of its third season, would give over 25 concerts in those three years. A year later, Abel had recovered enough to conduct five performances of the chorale's annual Christmas concert.
Throughout his career Abel was active in many professional organizations and achieved recognition for his work. He was a charter member of the Southern California Choral Guild; an affiliated director of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey; and a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. He was listed in Who's Who in Music in America and Who's Who in America.
Abel was living in Grass Valley, California, at the time of his death at age 73.
Sources: Interview with Jerene Able Murrey, 2014; Numerous issues, La Sierra College Criterion, school paper, 1932-1947; The Meteor, LSC yearbook, 1933-1947 (1939 ACM bachelor's degree and Lippe information); Lake Union Herald, 18 September 1945, 3 (ACM master's degree); Northern Union Outlook, 20 January 1948, 3,4; Golden Cords, Union College yearbooks, 1948-51; North Pacific Union Gleaner, 20 August 1951, 3 and 17 December 1951, 28 January 1952, 18 February 1952, 15 November 1956, advertisements for choral concerts in 1950s, 17 December 1979 (obituary); California Marriage Index, 1960-1985: Portland Adventist Academy 1958 yearbook, Revista; Pacific Union Recorder, 8 April 1968, 11 December 1972, 29 April 1974, 24 November 1975.