Moravian Church Music

Moravian Church Music

The Moravian musical tradition in America began with the earliest Moravian settlers in the first half of the 18th century.

These Moravians were members of a well-established church – officially called Unitas Fratrum or Unity of Brethren – that by had already seen almost three centuries of rich experience of religious life. They were spiritual descendants of the Czech priest Jan Hus, who for his attempts at reform was martyred in 1415. Forty-two years later in 1457, some of his followers founded a church body consecrated to following Christ in simplicity and dedicated living.

This newly constituted church developed a rich and orderly ecclesiastical life in the 15th and 16th centuries, but in the Thirty Years War of 1618-48 it was virtually wiped out. In the 1720s a few exiles of this religious heritage, along with various other seekers after truth, found refuge on an estate of a Saxon nobleman named Nicholaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. There in their village of Herrnhut the ancient church experienced a rebirth culminating in a spiritual blessing on August 13, 1727, in which their former diversity of purpose was welded into one.

In a brief five years, by 1732, that first little village of the Renewed Moravian Church began sending missionaries to all corners of the world. After establishing work in England, the Moravians sent colonists to America in 1735. The initial settlement in Georgia proved unsuccessful, partly because of war between Protestant England and Catholic Spain to the south in Florida. More permanent work was established in Pennsylvania in 1741, with the town of Bethlehem as their chief center. Other settlements in Pennsylvania followed. The Moravians purchased 100,000 acres (400 km²) in North Carolina and settled at Bethabara in 1753 with the central town of Salem being founded in 1766.”

From its very beginning the Unitas Fratrum, or Moravian Church, kept and preserved careful and meticulous records of church, community, and commercial life. Along with this emphasis on record-keeping, the Moravians maintained active communication with other Moravian centers in Europe and throughout the world. This dedication to sharing and receiving information continues today through the worldwide Moravian Unity, including Africa and the Caribbean.

Along with their rich devotional life and their missionary fervor, the Moravians maintained their high regard for education and their love of music as an essential part of life. Moravian composers – also serving as teachers, pastors, and church administrators – were well versed in the European Classical tradition of music, and wrote thousands of anthems, solo arias, duets, and the like for their worship services, for voices accompanied not only by organ but also by string orchestras supplemented by woodwinds and brasses. In addition, these musicians copied thousands of works by the best-known and loved European composers of their day – Carl Stamitz, Haydn, Carl Friedrich Abel, Adalbert Gyrowetz, Mozart, the Bach family, and many whose names have descended into relative obscurity. This rich collection of music manuscripts and early imprints comprises nearly 10,000 manuscripts and printed works, with some works appearing in several individual collections. The collections originating in North Carolina are housed in the Moravian Music Foundation headquarters in Winston-Salem, NC; those originating in Moravian centers in Pennsylvania and Ohio are housed in the Moravian Archives, Northern Province in Bethlehem, PA.

The musical life in the Moravian settlements was rich and became respected by many in the young country. This musical life included sacred vocal music for worship services, including, of course, hymns; brass ensembles, especially trombones, serving specific sociological and liturgical functions; and instrumental ensemble music for recreation, ranging from works for unaccompanied solo instrument to symphonies and large oratorios.

Read more about Moravian Church Music:  Moravian Church Music, Categories of Moravian Music, Characteristics of Moravian Vocal Music, The American Moravian Music Collections, The Moravian Music Foundation, Conclusion, Recordings

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