The musical history of the Moravian Church includes one of the most fascinating chapters in early American musical history. Originating in Moravia and Bohemia in the 15th century, the Moravian Church was forced into hiding during the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648) and later reborn on the estate of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf in Saxony in the 1720s .
Eighteenth-century German-speaking Moravians established a peaceful communal society in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1741, the town where I took music lessons as a teenager. The cultural achievements of the American Moravians included some of the earliest dictionaries and grammars of several Native American languages as well as some of the earliest chamber music composed by an American. They performed music by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven at a time when most other European settlers lacked the ability and resources to do so, and their musical life continues to be exceptional to this day.
Although I had been to Bethlehem many times when I was younger, it wasn’t until I discovered the Moravians in David Hildebrand’s American Music class at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore that I started to m interested in their musical life. In another of Hildebrand’s courses, Music in Maryland, I began a research project involving Moravian musical life in Graceham, just east of Thurmont.
This project will conclude with a concert of vocal pieces significant to Graceham’s musical history performed by Peabody musicians at 7 p.m. on July 22 at Graceham Moravian Church.
Graceham is one of three surviving Moravian Church communities in Maryland. Like other Moravian congregations of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Graceham community often performed vocal pieces to celebrate important feasts and feast days. These pieces ranged from elaborate choral hymns accompanied by instruments to simple strophic chants for voice and organ.
Diaries, letters, and council minutes from Graceham make frequent mention of the music, and a catalog from 1831 lists more than 250 pieces that belonged to the congregation. Several of these plays have been edited and published, and many more exist in manuscript copies in the archives of Bethlehem and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Having visited these two archives, I have assembled a program which gives an insight into what musical life was like at Graceham from 1790 to 1835. About half of these pieces were newly issued for the concert, and several of between them will probably be heard for the first time since their performance in Moravian communities in the 19th century.
In addition to its historical significance, I believe that much Moravian music possesses a special expressive quality not often found in other music of its time. Moravian music is generally simple and straightforward, but by no means simple-minded or lacking in subtlety. It communicates a sincere devotion to the ideals on which it is based. In this way it is perhaps analogous to the later Masonic works of Mozart, whose Die Zauberflöte’s “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” was frequently performed at Graceham. This duet will be heard at the concert alongside a duet from an opera by composer Johann Gottlieb Naumann, who also wrote music for Masonic rituals. Both duets were performed at Graceham as parodies, that is, they were sung with new text that had been “written over” the lyrics of the original, in both cases. by anonymous Moravian authors.
Among the Moravian composers whose works are on the program are Peter Ricksecker, Johannes Herbst, Johann Christian Bechler, Christian Gregor, Johan Ludwig Freydt and Christian Gottfried Geisler. The musical sophistication required to perform these pieces was rare among European settlers in early America. Musical education was an important part of life at Graceham, and it served to raise the standard of worship as well as strengthen social bonds between members of the congregation. Adults and children learned to read music, sing, and play the organ, violin, and other instruments. Many people outside the congregation often came to hear these skills exhibited at special holiday services at Graceham.
The concert will take place in the exact building of Graceham Church where many of the program pieces were performed in the 19th century. A play, “Preise Jerusalem den Herrn” (Praise Jerusalem to the Lord) by Christian Gottfried Geisler was performed at the inauguration ceremony of this building 200 years ago, on October 28, 1822. Other plays were used to mark similar festive occasions. In addition to the musical performance, I will be there to share information and short anecdotes from the parish registers illustrating the importance of each room in Graceham’s history.
The concert is free and will feature sopranos Mira Fu-En Huang, Marie Herrington and Nicole Stover, bassist John TK Scherch and organist Jordan Prescott, all alumni and graduate students of the Peabody Conservatory. Graceham Moravian Church is located at 8231 Rocky Ridge Road, Thurmont. For details, see jacobwilkinsoncomposer.com/a-concert-of-moravian-vocal-music.