Peter C. Lutkin, 1858-1931. George Grantham Bain Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Peter Christian Lutkin was born on March 27, 1858, in Thompsonville, Wisconsin. His parents, Peter Christian and Hannah (Olivarius) Lutkin, emigrated to the U.S. from Denmark in 1844. He attended Chicago public schools and was a chorister and organist at St. Peter and St. Paul's Episcopal Church. At age thirteen he began formal music training, studying organ with Clarence Eddy, piano with Regina Watson, and theory with Frederick Grant Gleason.
At age twenty-one, he became a piano instructor in the Conservatory of Music at Northwestern University. In 1881 he traveled to Berlin to study with Oscar Ralf, August Haupt, and Waldemar Bargiel. After a year he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts in Berlin. He returned to Chicago to serve as organist and choirmaster, first at St. Clement's Protestant Episcopal Church and later at St. James Episcopal Church. He also served a three-year appointment on the faculty of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. He was a widely respected organist and helped found the American Guild of Organists in 1896. He married Nancy Lelah Carmen on October 27, 1885.
In 1891, he returned to Northwestern University, where he contributed to significant improvements in the Conservatory of Music. In 1892, the Conservatory became a department in the College of Liberal Arts. In 1895, a separate School of Music was formed and Lutkin was appointed its first dean. He remained in that position until he was named Dean Emeritus in 1928. While at Northwestern, he founded the Women's Cecilian Choir, the Men's Glee Club, and the A Cappella Choir (1906), the first a cappella choir in the U.S. The group was organized to illustrate a university lecture on the music of Renaissance composers. Shortly thereafter, F. Melius Christiansen established the St. Olaf Choir (1912), and John Finley Williamson organized the Westminster Choir (1920). By the middle of the 1930s, a cappella choirs had become a staple in choral programs in high schools, colleges, and universities across the U.S. Lutkin's Northwestern A Cappella Choir was widely recognized for its pure tone and exceptional balance—a result achieved by using no accompaniment, even during rehearsals.
Lutkin became a national spokesperson for a cappella singing. He appeared on programs of the Music Teachers National Association in 1909 (when his choir performed), 1916, 1917, 1923 and 1928. He directed the Music Supervisors Chorus of five hundred voices at their national convention in 1920, and the Northwestern University Choir sang for the Music Supervisors Convention in Chicago in 1928. In most of these appearances, he focused on the merits of unaccompanied singing and a cappella choral repertoire.
As a composer, Lutkin specialized in writing unaccompanied choral music, primarily for his choir. He wrote at least thirty hymn tunes, numerous songs for children, and sixty-five choral anthems, some of which remain in print today. He co-edited a Methodist hymnal and was musical editor of the Methodist Sunday-School Hymnal. Generations of choristers likely were first introduced to his choral music through his benediction setting, The Lord Bless You and Keep You, with its famous concluding sevenfold amen.
In addition to his position as Dean and Director of Choirs at Northwestern University, he also served as Professor of Theory, Piano, Organ, and Composition in the School of Music, 1895-1931; Director of the School's Department of Church and Choral Music, 1926-28; and Lecturer in Church Music at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in music from Syracuse University. He wrote several books including a history of the Northwestern School of Music. Lutkin died on December 27, 1931, after suffering a heart attack.