A Purposeful Direction

Dennis Marzolf at choir performance, choral fest, Bethany Magazine

Photo by David Norris (’91)

Dennis Marzolf has served at Bethany since 1984.

By Lance Schwartz (’86) – Chief Communication Officer 

For the hundreds of Bethany alumni and friends gathered in Trinity Chapel on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, the moment was poignant. The Bethany Concert Choir had just joined en masse with over one hundred alumni, representing seven decades, for the final notes of an emotional version of the beloved Bethany anthem “On My Heart Imprint Thine Image.” As the audience applauded enthusiastically, Choir Director Dennis Marzolf walked out of the full Chapel and into the lobby. The crowd kept on applauding, but Marzolf didn’t return for a curtain call. He could have, but anyone that knows him well wouldn’t be surprised he that chose not to.

The May concert was at the end of the eleven-day Spring 2023 Choir Tour, and to be certain it was much more than the normal end of the year concert—it was the conclusion of Marzolf’s thirty-nine years as the Choir Director and music professor at Bethany. His was the longest tenure of any Bethany choir director, and his time on campus is among the lengthiest in terms of service for those who’ve taught at the College. It was indeed the end of an era, and the event’s significance was profound.

Very few people know that it took an unusual circumstance for Marzolf to even be at Bethany in the first place. It was the spring of 1984, and after three years of study at Concordia Theological Seminary-Fort Wayne and a year of vicar training in Portland, Oregon, Marzolf was ready to receive a divine call into the ministry. Part of the preparation for the call included an interview with seminary and synod officials. At the meeting, the pastoral candidates are able to express a few preferences about their forthcoming placements. Marzolf had two requests.

“It was my last year and we were graduating. I say we, because I’m including my wife, Beth, and we went in for the placement interview. They ask some questions about where you might want to be and so on, and I say there are two churches in specific that we should not be sent to. One was my home congregation, they were requesting a candidate from the Seminary, and there was another one out in Oregon that Beth had strong ties to,” explained Marzolf.

He continued, “We thought it might be best to start fresh, in a new place, and they were fine with it. So then call night comes, and low and behold, where did we get the call—to one of those two churches. I chose to decline the placement, and finish out the semester and graduate.”

It was an unusual and slightly uncomfortable situation for sure. And for the peculiarity of the situation, it was also perhaps a serendipitous occurrence for the future of the long time Bethany choir director. 

Marzolf recalls visiting the seminary library shortly after the placement day and picking up a copy of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s magazine called The Lutheran Sentinel.

“I would frequently read the publications from the various Lutheran Synods; it was a way to stay in touch with Lutheranism in America. On the back page of the issue I picked up, there was an advertisement for Choral Director at Bethany Lutheran College. I went home, called the number, and was encouraged to send my résumé. I did that, and then came to Mankato for an interview,” said Marzolf.

While the interview seemed to go well, but certainly not knowing how it might play out, Marzolf also interviewed for other positions primarily in Minnesota; however, the opening at Bethany was the most intriguing for him. As it turned out, he received several job offers including the opportunity to join the Bethany faculty, direct the choir, and teach music classes.

“The choral director position made the most sense, and it was not a lane change for me, and it was where my interests were at,” he explained.

One might be led to believe, since he was studying to be a minister of the Gospel, that this was going to be a major shift in plans for Marzolf, but it wasn’t as drastic as one might think. While at the seminary, he directed choirs in Fort Wayne, Indiana, congregations that were large—over fifty voices in these parish choirs. And Marzolf had attended what many consider to be a musical and choral powerhouse of a college—St. Olaf in Northfield, Minnesota, for his undergraduate studies.

Newlyweds Dennis and Beth Marzolf in August 1983.

Marzolf with his first BLC choir in 1985—during rehearsal (left) and group photo  (below).

Bethany Archives photos

“My whole educational process was conflicted between doing the theology and doing the music. If there had been a place that trained both theologians and musicians in a conservative Lutheran setting, I most likely would have gone that route, but that didn’t exist at the graduate level,” he said.

And while attending seminary, Marzolf also began to study organ with serious focus. The lessons were perhaps the motivation he needed as the Lord led him down the path to Bethany and an eventual career in music. 

Marzolf described the situation, “There was a fellow who was the chapel organist at the seminary, and one semester he suggested to me to take a lighter course load and take some lessons with him. He said, ‘we’ll pretend you’re in school for organ performance—we we’ll see if you’ve got the chops to do it.’ It forced me to think through all of this very carefully.”

So through all of the uncertainty, the picture was becoming clearer, and the encouragement he received from family and friends, along with the Lord’s guidance, Marzolf did accept the position at Bethany. But not without some ‘what-ifs.’

“It was natural to think of taking another call and perhaps do graduate work in music—that wasn’t out of the picture. But the situation perhaps nudged me a little bit, and Beth was so supportive—she said ‘you have to do this.’”

It proved to be the right decision, for both Marzolf and Bethany Lutheran College.

“So then we moved to Mankato, and it has been a wonderful gig for me, I have just loved my time at Bethany tremendously. And, of course, when we came here to Bethany we were so welcomed by the people. The transition was so easy because of the welcoming atmosphere,” he said. 

Bethany Choir group practicing, Bethany Magazine

Photo by David Norris (’91)

Dennis Marzolf during choir rehearsal in 2019.

After a year of getting acclimated to Bethany and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), Marzolf joined the clergy roster of the ELS through colloquy—a certification process for professional church workers. It assures that the individual has been properly educated in the doctrines and practices of the Synod, and commits to serve the church in a specific role.

Marzolf spoke of what he found to be a very rich heritage of Lutheran music at Bethany. It wasn’t unexpected, but it was even stronger than what he envisioned.

“Before I arrived on campus, I had discovered there had been some pretty significant individuals involved with Bethany choir. Walter Buszin was a big name in the Lutheran musical and liturgical community. I thought, this is something he started! And, you didn’t have to go on too many choir tours, even in the early days, to know that Alfred Fremder was regarded as a living saint at Bethany. So, there was an impetus to learn more about him. The Bethany choir was doing things that no other college in the state was doing in those days.”

This knowledge of Bethany’s rich, Lutheran musical traditions helped to solidify the direction, or better said, the continuation of the College’s musical heritage under Marzolf. And perhaps the most important aspect of his work with the choirs centered on the opportunity to conduct the choral experience for the students in a way that respected those long standing traditions, but through his own lens.

Marzolf said, “Bethany is a place that has high standards, and I was able to teach with a large opportunity for autonomy. I’m really thankful I was afforded that freedom.”

He continued, “Tradition can be viewed as a dirty word! So, instead of turning our back on it, you have to build on what you have. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes doing things the way we always have makes the process so much more meaningful.”

And the students understood and appreciated the traditions as well. Elisabeth Urtel (’13) explained the approach that Marzolf brings to teaching the choir the significance of the pieces they perform.

“The most important thing I learned from him was the connection between good theology and music. He has a way of explaining concepts with humor, or a witty phrase that get the point across,” she said. 

But for as much as he’s enjoyed the four-decades as the choral leader at Bethany, Marzolf is not second guessing his decision to retire. And he’s also hoping for a continuation of the strong program that’s not only been a Bethany tradition throughout his 39 years, but really since the earliest days of the College. He sees a bright future ahead with the new Choir director, David Paulson.

“I’m sure there will be things I will miss very much, but I’ve already told the students there will be a great new beginning, and it’s not going to be me. I want this thing to fly, and I hope he has a wonderful time here, he seems to be a person that enjoys the time with the students.”

And those, too, are the memories that Marzolf will carry with him—the time with the students and coworkers. He said simply, “The students were so easy to teach and work with, they have been amazing. And by and large, it has been so wonderful to work with the colleagues I’ve had here. The memories are great, and we’ve made a lot of friends along the way. 

Dennis Marzolf final walk out at choir performance, choral fest, Bethany Magazine

Photo by David Norris (’91)

A final exit after conducting ‘On My Heart Imprint Thine Image.’