Oliver Seth Beltz
1887 - 1978
Oliver Seth Beltz was one of the most influential musicians in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the twentieth century. His commitment to the best in sacred music led to significant achievement and national recognition during his lifetime.
He was born in La Crosse, Kansas, on November 26, 1887, the first of twelve children of Alexander and Eva Catherine Simon Beltz. Music was an important activity in their home and the family often sang German lieder for entertainment.
Oliver Seth Beltz
Helen Foreman Little
The following detailed biography was published in the Spring 1991 issue of Adventist Heritage. Updated in 2003, it is reprinted with permission from La Sierra University. Helen Foreman Little taught English at Walla Walla College, now University, Union College, and La Sierra University.
From the environs of Leipzig, a German city in Saxony - important in the lives of Martin Luther, J. S. Bach, and Felix Mendelssohn (who founded the Leipzig Conservatory, one of the world's best-known music academies) - came the forebears of Oliver Seth Beltz. They migrated by way of southern Russian to one of the new German settlements in western Kansas, a route taken by other refugees seeking a place where they could enjoy freedom of conscience.
At La Crosse, Kansas, Oliver Seth, the first of the twelve children of Alexander and Eva Beltz, was bom in an authentic sod house on November 26, 1887. Young Seth, as he was known during his youth, was immersed in music from childhood. Father Beltz would lead his little son to the local singing school. In those days, when people had to furnish their own entertainment, in the Beltz family, it was hearty, joyous singing of German lieder, an activity at family reunions which continued as long as there were members left to sing together.
After finishing high school, Oliver Seth, hoping to become a schoolmaster, passed certifying examinations for teaching. A state director of education told him, however, that he was too young to meet Kansas' statutory requirements.
To keep his son out of mischief, Oliver's father sent him off to Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. After three months, though, the father, finding that sending a son to college could be (then as now) an impossible strain on the family resources, sent for Oliver to return home.
But in those three months at college, the Kansas farm boy had glimpsed for the first time the fascinating world of learning and had recognized that his own talent was for music. He and his roommate, Dwight Pettis (father of Congressman Jerry Pettis), who also was on his own, found work in a dairy and pursued their careers in college.
The person who awakened Oliver to his potential and urged him to develop it was head of the music department, Buren Roscoe Shryock. He himself had found his inspiration at Battle Creek College under Edwin Barnes, head of the music department, hymn writer, and co-editor of Hymns and Tunes. Professor Shryock one day cornered young Oliver and charged him to commit himself to the serious study of church music and to dedicate his life to that "demanding stewardship."
Thus began a career dedicated to sacred music hymnody and development of choirs - with an overruling objective to acquaint oncoming generations with the great heritage of sacred music, especially from Reformation times and on, and to develop in them an appreciation of it. Where could this best be done? In the Adventist schools and colleges. How? By two means: developing choirs to sing great music as it should be sung and setting up a college major in church music.
His first venture in teaching began when he received a call to be on the faculty of Lodi Normal Training College in its opening year, 1908. (He had to borrow money to wire his acceptance and to pay his fare to California!) As head of the music department, he had the privilege of directing congregational singing for preaching services of J. N. Loughborough, S. N. Haskell, J. O. Corliss, and Ellen G. White.
In 1910 Beltz accepted an invitation to teach in the German Seminary in Clinton, Missouri. Then in 1915 H. A. Morrison called him to head the music department at Union College. Seven years later, he asked for a one-year leave for advanced study. In those days such a request was unheard of, and, of course, he would have to finance it himself. He was granted the leave, but it was made permanent!
He enrolled in Northwestern University and earned a Bachelor of Music degree in 1923. Promptly his alma mater hired him as a full-time member of the music faculty. There he stayed for twenty-three years. (Subsequently at Northwestern he earned his master's and doctoral degrees.)
During his long stay at Northwestern, various responsibilities devolved upon him: associate professor of history and theory of music; registrar for the School of Music; chairman of the admissions committee; director of graduate studies in music; the university's representative at the founding of the National Association of Schools of Music and the formulation of curriculum development for such schools; and secretary and treasurer-general and a charter founder of the national Association of Choir Directors.
After the death of the renowned Peter Christian Lutkin, Beltz succeeded him as chairman of the Department of Church and Choral Music, a position he filled for the next fourteen years.
Dr. Beltz's doctoral dissertation was German Religious Radicalism: 1525 to 1535, a topic related to his interest in both church history and music. He and Dr. Ziegleschmidt, head of the German department at Northwestern, began visiting Hutterite colonies in the United States and Canada. The Hutterites were Moravian Anabaptists who were part of the migration from Germany to the new world by way of Russia.
Realizing that Hutterite hymns were in danger of being lost,the two men developed a research project cosponsored by the Library of Congress: recording in music notation the religious music of these colonies, notation which had never been made since the sect's rise in the sixteenth century.
The hymn books of the Hutterites, like those of the early Adventists, contained only the words of the hymns. The tunes were taught the people line by line ("lining"), the leader singing one line at a time and the people repeating it until it was learned.
The leader of the church in the colony they visited was wary of having the hymn tunes written out. When Beltz convinced him, however, that the hymns were in danger of being lost, the leader finally consented and in time became enthusiastic about the venture.
Beltz, with his sensitive ear for music, made notations of the music as the congregation sang the hymns. That he could make the notations on paper as they sang and immediately sing them back amazed them, and their faces lighted up as he sang. One hundred hymns were so retrieved. Later the Library of Congress furnished recording equipment in order to preserve the singing of the congregations. These recordings are available at the Library of Congress.
Beltz found certain somewhat informal methods effective in furthering the cause of good sacred music: seminars, workshops, summer camps, choir retreats, conferences and junior choirs. Throughout the years of his active career, he held many such gatherings, attracted people from across the country and from many denominations.
At Northwestern he founded the Mid-Winter Church Music Conference and the Summer Church Music Institute. He was also a co-founder, with Albert Mayes, Jr., of the Seventh-day Adventist Church Musicians' Guild, in 1970.
Beltz retained his consuming hope for Adventist education. During ten of his years at Northwestern, he drove between Evanston and Broadview to help the Broadview College and Swedish Seminary with its music departnent - at no salary - until the college reverted to academy status.
What he wanted most was to establish a church music major in Adventist colleges. During ten of his years at Northwestern, he declined calls to Emmanuel Missionary College (now Andrews University), Walla Walla College, and Union College, but not because he was unconcerned about Adventist education. In fact, he would have accepted any one of these. He refused for one reason: the colleges had not yet come to see the education of young people in church music as important enough to have a major in church music (although they had other kinds of music majors.)
In 1946, this ambition was partially realized. Washington Missionary College (now Columbia Union College) asked him to join the music department as professor of voice and church music and to set up a major in church music, a new department in Adventist education. He accepted the call even though he had some years to go before retirement at Northwestern. The major survived for five years, until his departure from the school. It was, however, a short step forward.
A large step for church music did come in 1963. At last, Andrews University established such a degree under the leadership of Richard Hammill, president, and Paul Hamel, chair of the music department. Beltz, now retired, had no part in the creation of the degree, but he heartily welcomed it and offered financial scholarship assistance. The scholarship fund, to which former students were inspired to contribute generously, became the Sacred Music Endowment Fund. After Dr. Beltz's death, it was renamed the Oliver S. Beltz Chair of Sacred Music. The endowment now exceeds $180,000.
The other fulfilled ambition of Beltz was the development of many choirs. Through the years, he responded to calls from Adventist churches across the country to build choirs for them: Boston Temple, Chicago North Shore, New York City, Detroit (at the invitation of M. Webster Prince), Toledo, Washington, D.C., and Santa Ana and Ontario, California.
His major choirs in the East were traveling choirs which brought oratorios and motets as well as other great church music to many audiences and congregations, singing in such places as Constitution Hall, Yale University, the Union Theological Seminary, Smithsonian, Washington National Cathedral, Carnegie Hall - and even a Christmas concert at New York's Grand Central Station. His choirs were invited to sing in of other Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches also. At one time he served as minister of music at Grace Methodist Church in the District of Columbia.
Beltz's work became recognized as significant. The following excerpt is from one of the critical reviews in a Washington, D.C. newspaper:
Rarely in a season of concert going does a reviewer collect as many genuine musical rewards as this one did last night. The Motet Choir of Washington, under the direction of Oliver S.Beltz, making what was probably its professional debut at The National Gallery of At, offered the rewards . . . .
The Motet Choir, of about thirty voices, has everything. Rich tonal variety, fine balance, intonation that is flawless, and a sense of rhythmic vitality were everywhere evident last night. Even more pleasant was their ability to communicate a musical message to the audience.
Mr. Beltz is to be congratulated for the results he has obtained with his group of laymen in a relatively short time. He is obviously a musician of taste and imagination.
Oliver Beltz was also a hymnist. A German hymnal of 1916, Sions Lieder, has nine hymns of his composition. The 1985 Seventh-Day Adventist Hymnal has one.
The capstone of Oliver Beltz's career was his Te Decet Laus [To Thee Belongeth Praise]: A Hymnal For The Church Musician (1970, 1982). For it Dr. Beltz chose great hymns dating from the fifth century to the sixth decade of the twentieth. A review of the work in the periodical The Hymn credited it to "America's foremost hymnologist."
Beltz's undeviating yet sometimes stubborn and nonpolitical devotion to his ideals inspired not only the fierce devotion of his students and some peers, but also fierce antagonism from others. That he had detractors and was also often at the center of controversy is not surprising.
The last six years of his life he was hard at work on what he called his "Opus." This is a monumental work for which he collected and organized church music by century from the first through the eighteenth. (The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were incomplete because of his final illness.)
The pattern of organization for each century included a significant historical orientation of the period; its religious, intellectual, musical, and hymnology leaders; the commentaries, dictionaries, and encyclopedias; developments and innovations; the liturgies and rituals; hymn writers and their hymns, anonymous hymns (and some facsimile copies of rare finds); and the notable hymns. This project called for research in the libraries of the great universities and other repositories of the East: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Notre Dame, Catholic University of America, the University of North Carolina, the Union Theological Seminary and other leading seminaries, and the Newberry Library in Chicago. He was assisted in this by his wife, Dorothy.
Before this research could be completed, Dr. Beltz died in Loma Linda, California, on December 16, 1978, at the age of 91, and was buried in Skokie, Illinois. His voluminous research notes are now in the library at Andrews University.