The featured image for this post is an early watercolor by Samuel Reinke, dated June 15, 1809, displayed in the Lititz Archives and Museum. Photo by Tom Wentzel.
On Thursday, December 14, 2017, I delivered a presentation to the Rotary Club of Lancaster Sunrise at the Lancaster Country Club. Special thanks to Steve Bell for the invitation to speak and for his help with the talk. It went something like this…
Good morning, everyone, and welcome to this brief history lesson about Lititz Pennsylvania, the Lititz Moravian Congregation, early American Moravian music, and the significance of it all to our country’s music history.
First, you might be asking: “So what’s it mean to be a Moravian?” To most people, if it ever comes up in polite conversation, the typical question is: “Oh, aren’t y’all related to the Mormons?” To which I immediately respond: “Oh, no, definitely not!” Or, especially in Lancaster County, I often get: “Did you say you’re a Mennonite?” And again, I have to quickly respond: “Oh, no, definitely, not…we’re not the same.” And, while Moravian, Mormon, and Mennonite all begin with “M’s” . . . and we are all Christian…that’s about as related we get!! And, of course, …
…most people are familiar with Moravian stars, or Moravian sugar cookies, or maybe even Moravian sugar cake, . . . but there’s definitely more to being a Moravian than these things.
To make this talk regarding Moravian music more meaningful, I’d like to offer a brief history of the Moravian Church and its beliefs. With this context, you’ll understand the spiritual foundation that provided the inspiration and motivation that has resulted in such a long and rich tradition of music.
More than 100 years before Martin Luther published the 1517 reforms that launched the Lutheran Reformation, an earlier church reformer, Czech priest Jan Hus (anglicized, John Hus) was burned at the stake at the Council of Constance in July 1415. His crime: Hus had failed to recant his controversial teachings of the time, most notably, that the authority of the Bible was higher than the Church or the Pope, and that the Bible – and worship services – should be in the language of the people.
Forty-two years later, in 1457, the Czech followers of Jan Hus formed an organization known as the Unitas Fratrum (or Unity of the Brethren). During the 30 Years War, . . .
. . . the church went “underground” under the leadership of Bishop John Amos Comenius, who is considered “the Father of Modern Education.”
The church was reborn in 1722 as refugees from Moravia and Bohemia found a home on the estate of Count Nicholas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf – a Lutheran – living in Herrnhut, Saxony. Zinzendorf was captivated by the Moravians and eventually became a Bishop of this renewed Moravian church. In 1732, the remarkable history of global Moravian missionary work was established with the first two Protestant missionaries traveling to St. Thomas in the eastern West Indies to preach to the slaves there. In 1735, Moravians sent colonists to America, where an initial settlement in Georgia was unsuccessful, and in 1741, permanent settlements were established in Nazareth and Bethlehem, PA. The primary goal of these early settlements was to minister to the Native American Indians. Other 18th-century settlements followed, including Lititz, PA, and a “southern province,” was established in Salem, now Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Throughout the world, especially in these formative years, Moravian settlements were remarkably similar. A quick look at Lititz provides a clear example.
The Lititz Moravian Congregation was organized in 1749 and included local farmers “awakened” by the preaching of itinerant Moravian ministers. The Moravian motto, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love” was appealing to settlers in Lancaster County. Inspired by the Moravian settlements in Bethlehem and Nazareth, a 491-acre farm was offered for settlement in Warwick Township in 1753.
In 1756, the village was laid out with streets and lots, and the name “Litiz” was given to the new community. For nearly a hundred years, until 1855, Lititz was a closed community where church members built their homes on land leased from the church. Church fathers directed the religious, cultural, social, and economic life, intending to provide a religious environment free from “worldly influences.” Music has always been a central activity of the Moravians. It is said that in colonial America, the best place to hear Bach, Mozart and Haydn was not in New York or Philadelphia, but in a Moravian church. The tradition of music as central to worship continues today at Lititz Moravian.
A tremendous variety of musical styles and genres is performed regularly through our congregational singing and the work of several choirs, including a Senior Choir, Junior Choir, Handbell Choir, a brass ensemble called the Trombone Choir, a contemporary praise band known as Glory Be Good, and a resident orchestra composed primarily of church members.
Let’s begin our immersion into early American Moravian Music by listening to an anthem by the composer I’d like to introduce to you today, Johannes Herbst. This performance takes place in the Lititz Moravian Church Fellowship Hall, which is where our original David Tannenberg organ now resides.
This instrument was originally built in 1787, authentically restored in the 1970s, and occasionally used now for special services, concerts and recitals. David Tannenberg was a member of the congregation from 1765 until his death and 1804 and is recognized as one of the finest organ builders of the Colonial Period. Only nine of his organs still exist, yet we are fortunate to have two of them in Lititz. A simple look at this lovely instrument reflects the care, refinement, craftsmanship, and artistry that early American Moravians contributed to every activity they undertook. Everyday life for these spiritually-minded people blurred boundaries between sacred and secular, hence every endeavor was approached with a desire to please God, rejoice in his handiwork, contribute to the community, and live according to solid Christian principles. The beautiful appearance of this instrument is equaled only in the “sweetness” of its sound!
Aside from this impressive pipe organ, you’re about to hear other features typical of a Herbst anthem, including: a four-part choir of mixed voices, a string orchestra, and the singing of the text in the original German. Something else you’ll notice in the video is a fellow pulling ropes to the side of the organ. Since organs in the 18th century were completely mechanical – referred to as “tracker” instruments to describe their playing mechanism – it is necessary for bellows to be operated manually to generate the air and air pressure necessary for the pipes to sound. This performance of “Lasset uns lobsingen” is sung by the Millersville University Chorale and accompanied by members of our church orchestra.
As Steve Bell mentioned in my introduction, I’ve recently completed a book that features 32 such anthems composed in Lititz by Johannes Herbst, who served as our congregation’s pastor from 1791-1811.
These works – largely neglected for the past two hundred years – represent the distinctive compositional voice of an early American immigrant. Herbst was born in Germany, educated in Herrnhut, and served various Moravian communities on the European continent and in England before being called to America in 1786, where he originally served the Lancaster Moravian Congregation. In 1787, he had become sufficiently prominent to be nominated as a trustee in the founding charter of Franklin College (now Franklin and Marshall College). This “intelligent and distinguished body” of trustees consisted of four signers of the Declaration of Independence, numerous officers from the Revolutionary War, three future Governors of Pennsylvania, and two future Senators of the United States. Herbst performed a central and significant role in the Formal Opening Ceremony of the college, when, on June 6, 1787, he delivered a “well adapted” closing prayer “to the great satisfaction and entertainment of a very crowded audience.”
Herbst’s compositional style, like other Moravian composers of the time, is reminiscent of the early classicism of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn . . . but not quite. While more European sounding when compared to, for instance, his contemporary, Boston-born William Billings, Herbst’s eloquent and expressive choral works are early American gems that deserve wider exposure through study and performance. Herbst’s writing style exhibits a uniqueness that reflects his own life’s journey. While he received some instruction in music and played the organ, he initially trained as watchmaker before beginning his work for the Moravian Church. He went on to become a pastor (eventually Bishop), teacher, and headmaster of the country’s first boarding school for girls – now known as Linden Hall in Lititz.
Herbst was also a prodigious copyist. His personal manuscript collection of other composers’ music, for example, includes over one thousand anthems and many larger works, and is considered one of the most notable collections of this type in the 18th century. His process of copying the high-quality works of others provided a direct means for him to learn how to compose himself. Herbst composed his own music as time allowed, and with boundless energy, spirit, and assiduousness, he became one of the most prolific of the early American composers.
The Lititz anthems of Johannes Herbst reflect his effort to write accessible church works primarily as a means to employ music as worship. One of the first anthems Herbst composed for Lititz Moravian was written in 1787 to dedicate the new sanctuary. A church diary describes the event:
“At three o’clock was the Lovefeast; the church not being able to contain all the guests, although twelve hundred took part in this service within; while to those outside cakes, wine and water were also given. . . . Brother Hirbst [sic], pastor of the church at Lancaster accompanied the singers from Bethlehem and Nazareth with delightful music on our new organ.”
In this performance of Lobet den Herrn alle seine Heerschaaren, you’ll hear the Millersville University Chorale, though this time joined by the Lititz Moravian Senior Choir and our church orchestra, performed at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, PA during a conference on Moravian music and history.
In Lititz, Herbst wrote 30 of his approximately one hundred and twenty-five anthems. His move to America seems to have inspired changes in his compositional style, both in the writing of new anthems and in the adjustments he made to older pieces. The quality of the music he composed in Lititz, even given his busy life as pastor and educator, displays an obvious surge of expertise and artistry; the notoriety he achieved as a composer, not only in the other Moravian settlements in Pennsylvania, but far beyond, is noteworthy. Undoubtedly, Herbst composed his most fluent and accomplished music in his last years at Lititz.
Since we’re currently in the midst of preparing for our Christmas Vigil services, it seems appropriate to share a piece Herbst composed for Christmas Eve, 1789, just two years before he arrived in Lititz as assistant pastor.
Here he sleeps. Oh, how sweet! And the dear child smiles in his sleep. Here sleeps the child of the house of King David. Here he sleeps in a stable, swaddled in poverty, God of the world. Yes! Yes! Our love of sin calls him from the arms of his Father. He comes to have mercy on us, rich with grace and gifts. Now may no sinner be afraid and veil himself before the Godhead; now can the languishing trust in the flood of mercy. In the Holy Spirit I see already from the blessed heights, where he will bleed, the stream of life gush forth; and thousands of sick go and drink themselves healthy, and their mouths speak full of amazement: that is the result of his blood!
Our final Lititz anthem to be heard today is a piece intended to be used for the Great Sabbath or Holy Saturday service. This is the day before Easter where one reflects on the events of Good Friday and the death of Jesus. This video of the Lititz Moravian Senior Choir and orchestra features the modern premiere of the piece performed in the church for which it was intended and for very same Great Sabbath service for which it was sung hundreds of years ago. The text for “Sie flochten Ihm eine Dornenkrone” reads:
They made a crown of thorns for him, and placed it upon his head; and laid a purple robe on him, and bowed their knees before him. They led him bound: and he carried his cross. See him! This is the Lamb of God, my friend most beautiful among the children of mankind.
The music of Johannes Herbst is performed most authentically with the realization of and reflection on the composer’s unpretentious effort to write music not for his own self-aggrandizement, but to the glory of a higher power. Musicians are called upon to refine their artistic expression through subtle phrasing and dynamics – using the text as a guide – to ensure that the meaning, spirit, and feeling of the words are conveyed. Performed in this way, the goal of music as worship can be accomplished so that all within earshot might feel a closer presence to God, and a more spiritual connection to the world around them. Such efforts contributed by this important early American Moravian composer – and others like him – deserve wider recognition, performance, and exposure in our schools, churches, and concert halls. Hopefully, you agree and have enjoyed this introduction to some very special music produced in America’s “coolest small town.”