- Making Messiah Swedish: Localities of Music and Identity in Ethnotourist America
It is important that our Swedish heritage is emphasized in every way possible. One way you can take part in that preservation is to sing in the Messiah chorus.—Lindsborg News-Record, January 20, 2005
Rehearsals were under way for the 123rd annual performance of Messiah in the small town of Lindsborg, Kansas. Not only is the community of 3,500 home to one of the oldest continuous traditions of performing Handel’s famous oratorio, it is also known nationally for branding itself as an ethnotourism center—as “Little Sweden U.S.A.”—in recognition of its founding during the mid-1800s by Swedish immigrants. When local journalist Marty Hardy published the above statement on the front page of the town’s newspaper in 2005, she was keeping to a pattern. A year earlier she described singing Messiah as “probably the most significant event in keeping the Swedish heritage alive in Lindsborg.”1 Two months later, she would again use her column to urge fellow community members to celebrate upcoming performances by flying Swedish flags outside their homes. And so it continued in her writings and communications until her retirement as a journalist in 2006 and passing in 2016.
I first read these columns in 2004 when I was an undergraduate student at Bethany College in Lindsborg, the institution hosting the annual oratorio performances. I found the commentary provocative: I had come to Lindsborg and Bethany as an eighteen-year-old because of its Swedish [End Page 327] affiliations and was at the time devoting myself to genealogical research of my grandmother’s Swedish ancestors (themselves immigrants to the region) and study of Swedish language and music. Lindsborg had been a disappointment. The town felt to me profoundly midwestern and uninterested in connecting with Swedish culture in any way I, at the time, considered serious or authentic. And when I encountered public assertions that the town was celebrating Swedish identity by performing Messiah, my disillusion felt total.
At first glance, nothing about Messiah appears Swedish. German-born George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) composed the work in what became his new home, Great Britain, where it was also premiered.2 However, the work’s predominate association today, if not British or German, is cosmopolitan. As Calvin Stapert remarked, “No work of music has survived, let alone thrived, on so many performances, good, bad, and indifferent, by and for so many people, year after year, for such a long time.”3 Straining for a link with Sweden, we might mention the legacy of Swedish Baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman, who played violin in Handel’s orchestras; Jenny Lind’s noteworthy performance of Messiah in 1857 in Handel’s hometown of Halle; or nineteenth-century Swedish cultural icon Erik Gustaf Geijer’s famed love of Messiah. Historical tidbits like these, however, seem insufficient to label the oratorio Swedish.4
As strange as I found the characterizations in Lindsborg, however, I was equally struck that nobody else in town seemed to react as I did. The newspaper commentary seemed unremarkable to those in my immediate circles at the college. Further, though I did not find comparable public statements, there were indications that other locals, even organizers of the Messiah performances, were acting based on a similar understanding. This was particularly striking in April 2006—the spring of my final year at Bethany—when renowned Swedish baritone Håkan Hagegård opened the 124th celebration performance of Messiah by reading a letter from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, thanking the college for its commitment to the preservation of Swedish heritage.
I was baffled but also curious. I returned to Lindsborg on multiple occasions throughout the early 2010s as an ethnomusicology graduate student to conduct ethnographic fieldwork exploring conceptions of Swedish identity in the small town and their relationship with the Messiah performances. This work involved interviews with musicians and nonmusicians in Lindsborg, as well as with those working in the town’s tourism and event industry. I also undertook a review of archival material related to the subject, especially media commentary and program notes preserved in Lindsborg from the early...