A Find in Grinnell Resonates Across Oceans & Eras: Rediscovering Iowa Composer Edward Scheve

Oct 28, 2018

In a dusty box in the archives of Grinnell College, John Rommereim found a long-missing manuscript.  It was the only copy of a massive score by Edward Scheve, the composer who "made Grinnell musical."  Scheve conducted it in a 1910 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, but all that survived was a piano reduction - or so things appeared until Rommereim opened that box.  Below, he explains how his discovery set in motion an enthusiastic response thousands of miles away.  He also discusses Scheve's relationship to ideas that shaped Grinnell and American history more broadly.  Rommereim is the Blanche Johnson Professor of Music at Grinnell, where he teaches composition and conducts the Grinnell Singers and Grinnell Oratorio Society.  His own compositions have been performed around the world.  He wrote the following personal essay for IPR's new Choral Iowa initiative:

The 2016 concert in Moscow of the Russian premiere of Edward Scheve's oratorio
Credit John Rommereim

In the spring of 2016, I flew to Moscow to participate in a special concert that linked Iowa and Russia in the most improbable ways.  On Tuesday, May 24, at the splendidly appointed Rachmaninov Concert Hall, I sang with a 200-voice choir, with singers drawn from Moscow and other cities scattered across Russia, in a performance of the two-hour oratorio, The Death and Resurrection of Christ.  We were accompanied by a large professional orchestra and with distinguished soloists, under the direction of Oleg Romanenko.  Why had I traveled all that way to be the lone American singing in the choir?  As the current choral director at Grinnell College, I felt I just had to be there to witness the event:  this concert marked the Russian premiere of the orchestral version of a monumental work that was written by the German-born composer Edward Scheve (1865-1924), who taught for many years at Grinnell.  

Edward Scheve, 1865-1924
Credit Grinnell College Archives

How did Edward Scheve end up in Iowa, and how did his music migrate halfway around the world?  As a devout Baptist from a prominent family of missionaries, Scheve found his way to Grinnell from his native Germany through his acquaintance with Walter Rauschenbusch, a leader in the Social Gospel movement.  Grinnell in the early twentieth century was strongly identified with this movement, which saw a social imperative in the phrase in the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:10), “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Rauschenbusch and others in the Social Gospel movement insisted that Christianity must make a practical difference in society, and that Christians must push to realize the Kingdom of God on earth.  Rauschenbusch wrote, “Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus.  Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master."  The Social Gospel's wider influence can be traced in the New Deal of the 1930s, the Great Society reforms of the 1960s, and the work and thought of Martin Luther King Jr.  Its ideal of Christianity as a transformative social force continues to this day to shape the character of Grinnell College. 

Grinnell at the time included a music conservatory, which selected Scheve to serve as its dean partly because of his Social Gospel connections.  At Grinnell, Scheve founded the Grinnell Oratorio Society, which still thrives, and organized numerous ambitious concerts.  Among them was a choral-orchestral collaboration with the Minneapolis Orchestra, now the Minnesota Orchestra, which traveled to Grinnell to perform Scheve's music.  

Through some strange quirks of fate, and due as well to the expressivity and beauty of the music, Edward Scheve’s oratorio became popular in Russia and Ukraine among members of the Baptist church – a minority denomination that has at times experienced great oppression in Russia.  It’s an improbable development, but musicians in the Baptist church in Russia sustained a passionate devotion to Scheve’s music throughout the many decades of the Soviet Union and afterward.  Performances were limited to piano accompaniment, however, because they did not have access to the orchestral score.  For all those decades, from the years of the Russian Revolution to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union, the only copy of the full orchestral score of Scheve’s oratorio was sitting unnoticed in the Grinnell College archives.

A page from Scheve's manuscript
Credit John Rommereim

My encounter with the music of Edward Scheve started about ten years ago, when out of the blue I received an email from a fellow who lived in a Russian Baptist community in California, asking about Scheve’s music.  I hadn’t known of Scheve’s existence, but I went to the college archives and found that we had several large boxes of his music manuscripts.  When I told him that we had Scheve’s music, this enthusiastic twenty-something Scheve fan ended up driving all the way from California to Grinnell with his friend to take photographs of the scores.  He even brought along a hand-made wooden rack he had built especially for holding the delicate manuscripts as he photographed them.  It took them two days to finish taking the photographs.  It was through this visit that I first came to know that Scheve had composed the oratorio Der Tod und Auferstehung Christi (The Death and Resurrection of Christ), and I made my own photocopy of the manuscript score --  two large volumes, for full orchestra, choir, and soloists, with text in English and German, written in a clean and precise script.

Oleg Romanenko (l) and Grinnells' John Rommereim (r) in Moscow, 2016
Credit Helen Stuhr-Rommereim

In 2011, I received another email inquiry from an enterprising young Russian conductor named Oleg Romanenko.  (In yet another accident of fate, I happen to speak Russian, so we were able to communicate.)  I sent Romanenko a digital copy of the archival materials, and he undertook the huge task of creating a modern, digitized version of the score and parts, with the original German text translated into Russian.  In 2016, after much diligent work, and a great deal of energetic fundraising and promotion, Romanenko succeeded in producing a fittingly grand presentation of the complete work with the professional-quality orchestral parts.   The oratorio had been performed many times across Russia and Ukraine, but never with the full orchestration, because up to that time, the orchestral score had been unavailable.   But I later discovered that it had received its European debut in Berlin in 1910, in an ambitious concert that received notice even across the Atlantic.  The April 10, 1910 edition of The New York Times described a concert in which Scheve, “Dean of the Music Faculty at Grinnell,” conducted it in a performance with Arthur Nikisch's Berlin Philharmonic, plus a chorus of 300 and a solo quartet.

In addition to The Death and Resurrection of Christ, while at Grinnell Scheve wrote another major choral work.  In Grinnell’s Herrick Chapel, a plaque commemorates the students from Grinnell who were killed in the Civil War.  Scheve chose to pay tribute to the individuals memorialized on the plaque by composing a concert-length Requiem, for choir, orchestra, and soloists in their honor.  The vocal score of the Requiem was published both in the US and in England.  I was amazed to discover that it was performed in Herrick Chapel in 1915 by the Grinnell Oratorio Society and the New York Symphony Orchestra, a precursor of the New York Philharmonic, which was presumably on tour in Iowa.  We have copies of the Requiem choral score (choir and piano), but I haven’t yet been able to locate the full score.  I’ve arranged a few movements for strings based on the vocal score, and we have performed them at Grinnell.  I’ve grown accustomed to having random people email me on occasion with strange discoveries, so I remain hopeful that one day that full score of the Requiem will show up. 

Scheve memorial in the Grinnell Herald, 1924
Credit John Rommereim

Scheve’s obituary in the Grinnell Herald in 1924 spoke of him with warm reverence: “The magnitude of his genius is greater than any of us who were associated with him yet realize.  He was a great teacher, a great organist, and a great composer.  He made Grinnell musical, and any future history of the college and the town will number him among the real founders of Grinnell.” 

I hope to organize a proper performance of The Death and Resurrection of Christ in Iowa.  The project will require considerable funding to assemble the large orchestra and soloists that are necessary.  I also hope that I can interest one of Iowa’s professional orchestras in the project.  If you are interested in obtaining the score, or finding out more about Edward Scheve – or if you have an idea where we can find that missing Requiem full score -- please don’t hesitate to contact me.