Weston Noble ’43 died Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016, in Decorah at the age of 94. He had joined Luther’s music faculty in 1948, serving as conductor of Concert Band from 1948 to 1973 and Nordic Choir from 1948 until his retirement in 2005. But Noble went beyond his role as an educator and conductor for the thousands of students he encountered at Luther. He was also an adviser, a mentor, a supporter, a role model, and, perhaps most of all, a friend. During his 57-year tenure at Luther, Noble became, for many, the face of this college—the man most closely identified with its storied music tradition, the man who, through his long and acclaimed leadership of Nordic Choir and his tireless devotion to the entire music community, put Luther College on the global vocal music map.
Luther president Paula Carlson said: “It’s hard to overstate Weston’s contributions to American choral music and to the rich tradition of music at Luther. He had a deep love for Luther College, and he leaves behind a legacy of musical excellence and service to the college that’s an inspiration to us all.”
At a gala concert held on campus in his honor in 1998 Noble remarked: “Luther College is the best, and only, place I can imagine being. I was led to this place by my father years ago, and I was kept here by God.”
Noble was born November 30, 1922—the second of seven children of Ruth (Lappin) and Merwin Noble—and raised on a 160-acre farm just west of Riceville, Iowa. There he spent days learning the “3Rs” at Pleasant Hill School, a quaint one-room schoolhouse, and early mornings helping his father milk cows on the family’s farm. His prodigious musical talent surfaced early (age five) after his mother inquired, seemingly out of the blue, if he was interested in learning how to play the piano.
“I remember my mother was trying to get me to take a nap,” Noble told MPR’s Lorna Benson ’90 in 2005. “She leaned over and said, ‘Weston, would you like to take piano lessons?’” The nap never came to pass—“I was too excited,” Noble would later recall—but the piano lessons did. The slightly built youth was quick to embrace the practice and repetition that mastery of any instrument demands, rising before dawn to complete his chores outside so he could hustle back inside to practice the piano before school began. (When his enthusiasm waned in junior high, he received a little push from his Aunt Ruby and Uncle Aldy Dunton, who, noticing his talent, paid him 10 cents for each hour he practiced.)
At Riceville High School, Noble expanded his musical repertoire—he sang in the choir and played clarinet in the band—while keeping his studies front and center. He graduated in 1939 as class valedictorian and a few months later packed his bags for the hour-long drive to Decorah, where he entered the Luther class of 1943 at just 16 years of age. He had planned to attend the University of Iowa, but his father was persuaded by a Luther admissions counselor that the college would be a better fit for the musical youth, according to Warmly Weston: A Luther College Life (Luther College Press, 1998) by Wilfred Bunge ’53, Luther professor emeritus of religion and classics. At Luther, Noble continued to take his studies seriously (ultimately graduating magna cum laude); played clarinet in Concert Band under the direction of Carlo Sperati, Luther class of 1888; and sang in the all-male chorus Schola Cantorum under the direction of Theodore Hoelty-Nickel.
It was Hoelty-Nickel who first spotted (and nurtured) Noble’s potential as a teacher and conductor. One day during Noble’s sophomore year, he approached his student with a simple request: Will you lead a rehearsal of the chorus in my absence? Noble never looked back. “I remember going back to my room and saying, ‘Well, that piano is done—there is nothing like waving my hands in front of a group of singers,’” he recalled during Benson’s 2005 interview.
Noble eventually earned the role of student conductor under another faculty member, Sigvart Hofland, as well as the attention of his classmates. “Our class of 1943 was small in numbers but high in quality,” recalled the late John Victor Halvorson ’43 in a letter published in Warmly Weston. “By the time Weston was a senior, we all knew the Lord had selected him for special responsibilities.”
But first Noble would have to answer a different call. In February 1943, the U.S. Army notified him that he had just two weeks to report for service at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa. (With the college’s help, Noble quickly completed his degree requirements and graduated early with a major in history.) After more than a year spent training stateside, he landed in Normandy, France, with the 750th Tank Battalion in September 1944. Frequent correspondence with family and friends kept his beloved Luther College, and his future plans, in his thoughts throughout the long and emotionally exhausting months he spent overseas. “When you come back to Luther, we shall talk things over and discuss what you ought to do in order to achieve success in your chosen field,” wrote one such friend, his former teacher Sigvart Hofland, in September 1945. “In music your future is promising.”
Noble apparently agreed. Upon discharge from the U.S. Army in early 1946, he returned home to Iowa and once again immersed himself in local music circles, teaching music lessons at Luther (up to 60 each week) and in Riceville, Iowa (his pupils included three of his younger siblings). That same year he also applied—and was accepted—to study music at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. But the closer the move to the Big Apple came, the more Noble doubted it was the path he should take. Noble trusted his gut and stayed in northeast Iowa, where he scoured the help-wanted ads in the Des Moines Register for an entry-level teaching job.
As luck would have it, Lu Verne High School had a vacancy for a music and social studies teacher—and Noble fit the bill. He spent the next two years honing his teaching and conducting skills in the tiny Iowa town. By 1948, however, he was ready to move on, and the graduate program at the University of Michigan seemed like the logical next step. It was there, in the summer of 1948, that he received a fateful phone call from Orlando “Pip” Qualley ’18, Luther’s academic dean, that would change the course of his life. Sigvart Steen, director of Concert Band and founder of Nordic Cathedral Choir, had resigned abruptly to move with his wife, an opera singer, to New York, Qualley told him. Would Noble return to his alma mater to conduct band and choir for just a year while the college searched for a permanent replacement conductor?
It was a remarkable offer, especially given that Noble was just 25 years old, held no advanced degrees (yet), and possessed scant teaching experience. But Qualley knew teaching talent when he saw it, and that “temporary” appointment became permanent in 1950. Noble would go on to earn his master’s degree in music from the University of Michigan in 1951, conduct Concert Band for the next 25 years (1948–73), direct Nordic Choir for the next 57 (1948–2005), and lead the college’s annual (until 2004) performance of Handel’s Messiah for more than 50 years. He once called the oratorio—which united hundreds in the college community on stage each December—“Luther’s greatest tradition.”
“Weston was popular with students from the beginning,” wrote Bunge in Warmly Weston. “And from the beginning, he engaged student hearts toward high performance goals.” Former student Michael Hovland ’72 shed even more light on the well-liked instructor’s teaching style in a tribute published in Bunge’s book: “It was all psychology,” he wrote. “When starting to work on a new piece, Weston would almost always begin with the biggest, fullest ensemble sections—the sections that sounded great from first playing. He would never start with the beginning of a piece or the difficult passages.”
During his nearly six-decade tenure at Luther, Noble became, as Paul Torkelson, director of choral activities at the University of Nevada–Reno, put it to the Quad Cities Times in 2004, “the most respected choral conductor in the United States.” James Ripley, chair of the Carthage College Music Department, echoed those sentiments in 2007. “No one is more well respected and loved in the choral music world than Weston,” he said. “His legacy as a musician is almost beyond compare.”
In November 2015, Noble received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Iowa High School Music Association for his more than 50 years of service as a conductor and music educator. The award was also presented on behalf of the Iowa Music Educators Association, the Iowa Choral Directors Association, the Iowa Bandmasters Association, and the Iowa String Teachers Association.
What exactly was it that set this man apart from other choral conductors of his time? There were myriad “firsts”—Noble conducted Nordic Choir for its first European Tour (1967), its first performance at Lincoln Center in New York (1969), and its first appearance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (1976). He founded and served as first director of the Dorian Music Festival at Luther, which, since 1950, has expanded from a one-day band festival to festivals for choral, instrumental, and orchestral members as well as summer music camps.
Also in constant demand to, in the words of one former colleague, “teach here and lecture there,” Noble became the first (and only) director to lead all-state choruses and bands in all 50 states. He was the first person to be named Outstanding Music Educator of the United States by the National Federation of State High School Associations (1989), the first recipient of the North Central Division of the American Choral Directors Association’s Weston H. Noble Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Choral Art (1994), and the first non-Mormon to receive the Distinguished Service Award from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (2006). Other notable awards, though not “firsts,” include receiving the St. Olav’s Medal from King Harald V of Norway and the Robert Lawson Shaw Award from the American Choral Directors Association.
Noble also held honorary degrees from five institutions of higher learning—Augustana College (S.D.), St. Olaf College, Westminster Choir College of Rider University, Carthage College, and Wartburg College. He was even the first Luther faculty member to get some ink in the newspaper USA Today for his campus cleanup efforts, frequently conducted at dawn during leisurely strolls across campus that called to mind his signature slow walks to the conductor’s podium. “When you have a beautiful campus, you want to keep it that way,” Noble once said of those efforts. “Knowing that our beautiful campus is clean, even where you can’t see it, is the same as hearing my choir strive for perfection.”
“His choir.” That is unquestionably what the 72-voice Nordic Choir was during Noble’s 57 years behind the conductor’s stand—years during which he built the ensemble into one of the most respected and recognized touring college choral groups in the nation, thanks in large measure to the expertise he displayed to captivate, unite, and command the respect of its members. “From the moment Weston walked on stage, the singers were instantly engaged,” wrote Hovland in Warmly Weston. “His baton-free hands were everywhere compelling, cajoling, pointing.”
In 2002 Luther formally recognized the lasting impact Noble made on the college when it renamed Jenson Hall of Music, the building where he nurtured the talent of so many young students, Jenson-Noble Hall of Music in his honor. That same year, the college opened an expansion of the building, the 325-seat Weston H. Noble Recital Hall. And in 2004 it established the Weston Noble Choral Award, which recognizes distinguished achievement in the field of voice and opera.
Noble officially “retired” from Luther the following year, but retirement didn’t mean for him what it means for most octogenarians. His retirement years, in fact, proved every bit as active as the 83 years that preceded them as he continued to share his energy, enthusiasm, and conducting expertise with choirs, bands, and orchestras worldwide, whether composed of junior-high students or seasoned professionals. His career includes conducting 900 all-state bands, orchestras, choirs, and festivals across four continents.
He served as artist-in-residence at Carthage College, interim conductor of the Wartburg College Choir, and guest conductor of the Augustana (S.D.) College Choir. He also served as conductor of the Weston Noble Alumni Choir each summer from 2006 through 2015. In 2009 he conducted the International Schools Festival in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, and the following year he traveled to South Korea to conduct a performance of Handel’s Messiah for the Camarata Music Company. He returned to Korea in 2013 to conduct the Korea National Choir.
When not guest conducting or teaching, Noble was a frequent presence in Luther’s Development Office, where he continued his long tradition of making telephone calls and handwriting letters in support of his alma mater. Noble also worked with Admissions, recruiting students through thousands of phone calls and handwritten notes.
In an interview he gave at age 90 to KLDT-TV in Sioux Falls, S.D., Noble hinted that the spiritual inspiration he drew from directing is what kept him going year in and year out, decade after decade. “After a great rehearsal day, I stop and say, ‘Can you see why I can never stop? What could top this?’” he said. “Music is one of the greatest ways to feed our spirits.”
Luther will host a celebration of Weston Noble's life on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at 1 p.m. The event will be live streamed at luther.edu/weston.