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A History of Moravian Music

History of Moravian MusicWhen the Moravians settled in Bethlehem in 1742, Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf carefully chose the inhabitants of this new community according to their skills so they could contribute to the mission work of this new village. Therefore, it was not accidental that many of the leaders, artisans and workers were also musicians. The first pipe organ of Bethlehem was installed in 1746, small orchestra was already founded in 1748, and in 1754, a complete choir of trombones (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) was sent to the new colony, and the Moravian Trombone Choir was created. This unique ensemble still performs regularly and can be seen at least once every month playing hymn chorales from the belfry of Central Moravian Church.

Christian Gregor (1723-1801) is known as the “Father of Moravian Church music” and was responsible for the first Moravian hymnal, the Choralbuch of 1784. Many of the early American Moravian clergy were also composers, and created many favorite Moravian hymns that are still sung today including “Sing Hallelujah, Praise the Lord,” composed by Bishop John Christian Bechler (1784-1857).

One of the traditions that began with Count Zinzendorf was that of the Singstunde or a song service, where the pastor would begin singing various hymns, and the sermon was presented through the texts of the hymns. For the organist, it meant that 400 hymns had to be memorized and readily transposed into whatever key the pastor began singing.

Although most Moravian music was religious in nature, there were lighter moments as evidenced by the presence of the early 19th century Moravian Water Music. Although no longer continued, for many years, on Whit Monday, a large flat-bottomed boat would sail down the then-peaceful Lehigh River. On this boat would be a group of five or six musicians (generally two clarinets, two French horns, and two bassoons) who would serenade the hundreds of listeners on the banks of the Lehigh with water music composed by the Moravian composer and virtuosi violinist, David Moritz Michael.

Because of the close connection of early American Moravians to their European roots, the Moravians had access to contemporary music being composed in Europe. Haydn’s “The Creation” was performed for the first time in the United States in the Sanctuary of Central Moravian Church in 1811, and the first complete performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor was presented at Central in 1900, thus giving Central Moravian Church status as a National Landmark of Music.

If you are interested in more information about Moravian Music, please contact the Moravian Music Foundation at www.moravianmusic.org.