Preserving, Sharing and Celebrating Moravian Musical Culture

Following is a list of frequently asked questions [FAQ] about Moravian music and the Foundation. To read the answer, just click on + and it will be revealed.

The Moravian Church traces its origins back to the followers of Jan Hus (1369-1415), a Czech priest and reformer who was executed as a heretic in 1415. One of his contentions, that worship should be in the language of the people, has remained a hallmark of the Moravian Church.

Hus’s followers organized a society called the “Unity of the Brethren” (Unitas Fratrum) in 1457, devoted to piety and congregational participation in worship. For about 200 years this group led a precarious life, mainly in Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland. They made significant contributions in hymnody, theology, and education, but the Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War nearly destroyed the small church, forcing its remnants underground.

In 1722 some of the descendants of these “Bohemian Brethren” settled on the estate of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in Saxony, and under his protection they re-established their church. Almost from that day the Moravian Church, as it came to be known, was highly evangelical, sending out missionaries to places such as Greenland; the West Indies (in 1732, to minister to the slaves); Africa; and the British colonies, coming first to Georgia in 1735. The first permanent Moravian settlement in North America was established in Pennsylvania in 1741 and named Bethlehem. Other settlements were founded soon after, in Nazareth and Lititz, PA; and Bethabara, Bethania, and Salem in North Carolina.

Always essential to the Moravians has been the emphasis on a “heart religion” of piety and joy; on the role of music in worship and in life; and on education for all. For some fifty to seventy years the American Moravian settlements were primarily closed communities, serving both as places where the Moravians could live the life they chose, and places from which many missionaries were sent out — to the Native Americans, whose languages the Moravians learned, in order to preach in the language of the people.

The Moravian Church has continued to spread, albeit slowly in comparison to other denominations. A reason for its relatively small size is that in evangelizing, the Moravians were not focusing on making more Moravians, but rather simply of winning people to Jesus Christ — who were then encouraged to become a member of whatever denomination they wished! Today, as an extremely rough figure, there are some 58,000 Moravians in the United States, some 100,000 in Central America, and over 350,000 in Africa… as well as very many in Europe, England, Canada, and so on.

The 18th and 19th century Moravians considered music as a necessity of life. Many Moravian clergy and lay people were well trained in music, and thus came to the New World fully conversant with the taste and practice of European classicism. In Moravian life there was no distinction between what we now call “sacred” and “secular”, nor between what part of life is musical and what is not. Each person’s gifts were used for the benefit of the entire community. While there was little emphasis given to music as a distinct profession — many of the composers were also teachers and pastors — music was an essential part of everyone’s education and daily life.

Of the music which was written by Moravian composers, by far the greater portion is what today is called “sacred” — anthems and solos for liturgical use. These all share one primary characteristic: the text is of overmastering importance. This does not mean that the music is insignificant, but rather only that the music serves to carry the text.

Throughout the history of the Moravian Church, instruments have been used consistently in worship. The Moravian settlers brought with them the concept of the Collegium musicum, the German tradition of amateur musical organizations which played both “sacred” and “secular” music. Instruments came to America early with the Moravians; by 1742 Bethlehem had flutes, violins, violas da braccio, violas da gamba, and horns. By 1788 the Salem Collegium musicum was proud to have at least three violins, a viola, a ‘cello, flute, two horns, and two trumpets! These instruments were played not by “professionals” but by accomplished amateurs, who enjoyed orchestral and chamber music as well as accompanying vocal solos and anthems for worship.

There are a number of instrumental pieces by Moravian composers, but the far greater portion of the instrumental works in Moravian collections were not written by Moravians. The sheer volume of instrumental music in the collections, however, gives the lie to any thought that the Moravians disliked instrumental music. The Bethlehem Collegium musicum was formed in 1744, for the twofold purpose of the edification of the players and the improvement of the community’s church music. This group finally began to thrive after the arrival in 1761 of Jeremias Dencke and Immanuel Nitschmann from Germany. By the time they left Germany, orchestrally-accompanied church music was being used extensively in Europe and gaining in popularity among the Moravian congregations there. It is likely that these two men brought this greater emphasis with them to America.

The Moravians made specific use of wind instruments to perform on a number of outdoor occasions. Wind music in the Moravian tradition has consisted of two basic types: the trombone choir, which Harry Hall refers to as “the ecclesiastical ensemble”, and “secular” ensembles — chamber groups and bands. Brass (or trombone) choirs were often used, especially outdoors, to announce special services and events; to welcome visitors; and to accompany singing at outdoor services such as the Easter Dawn service and at funerals.

The trombone choir name itself is sometimes misleading. Although there remain several groups which consist only of trombones (in Winston-Salem, NC, Bethlehem, PA, Madison, WI, and Downey, CA, among others), this name is sometimes also used for ensembles which contain other brass instruments as well. This “ecclesiastical ensemble” plays still today for outdoor services, including funerals. Most memorable is the participation of these groups at Easter for the dawn service. In Winston-Salem the Easter Band numbers up to 500 musicians. Many of these “church bands” consist now not only of brass instruments, but of nearly all woodwind instruments as well. Men and women play together, of all ages, from the very young to the very old.

“Secular” groups — chamber ensembles and concert bands — developed from the Collegia musica along a parallel stream to the “trombone choirs”. While the trombone choirs and church bands focus their attention primarily on chorales, the community bands and chamber ensembles play primarily what we would now call “secular” music — chamber music, marches, dances, arrangements of popular music of various sorts. These groups provide not only entertainment for player and audience alike but also enable the players to improve through playing more challenging music.

By the 1780’s the Bethlehem Collegium musicum was playing the music of the best composers of the day — Bach’s sons, Hasse, Stamitz, Haydn, and many others, now lesser known. Other Collegia musica were founded — Lititz (c.1765), Nazareth (c. 1780), and Salem (c.1786) — the latter continuing on until about 1835. The increasing demand for music by these groups stimulated the American Moravians to a veritable frenzy of copying and transcribing from European masterworks as well as composing their own works. The Salem Collegium musicum collection holds about 500 compositions, of which about 150 are in manuscript form! String music is prevalent in all of the instrumental music collections, with genres ranging from works for unaccompanied violin through classical symphonies.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Moravians in America fostered musical activities of high quality and rich diversity, both instrumental and vocal, both in organized worship services and in recreational pursuits. The early Moravian settlers in America enjoyed a rich musical culture, which has been preserved to a remarkable degree; their musical life thus represents a significant contribution to the American musical scene, though they had little appreciable influence upon it. No examination of the music of early America can be complete without taking the Moravians into account.

The Moravian musical heritage is an important piece of musical and cultural history for several reasons: First, because of its craftsmanship, musicality, and sincere portrayal of spiritual values. As written for capable amateurs, it avoids virtuosic display, but it is far from simplistic or condescending. Second, this music represents the finest body of music written or performed in America during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. During the eighty years from about 1760 to 1840, American Moravians wrote hundreds of anthems, duets, solo sacred songs, and instrumental pieces, and collected hundreds of others — both printed and hand copied. Visitors to the Moravian communities were consistently high in their praise of Moravian musical activities. Third, the Moravians performed the best of European music, often prior to performances of the same works in larger American cities. The question of “firsts” is difficult to establish in any historical discipline, but there is no doubt that the Moravians were aficionados of the finest in contemporary music from Europe and America.

By the middle and later nineteenth century, the Moravian settlements were not as isolated as in earlier years. As more music became more readily available, and with the increasing use of English in place of German-language works, the Moravian-written music was less and less used. As the music was less used, it was not thrown out, but rather stored in boxes, crates, cabinets, attics, basements, and so on.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s some of this music was uncovered, and as research began it became apparent that this was a treasure store. The first “Early American Moravian Music Festival” was held in Bethlehem, PA, in 1950, conducted by Dr. Thor Johnson (who went on to conduct the first eleven Moravian Music Festivals). Other festivals and seminars followed, and in 1956 the Moravian Music Foundation, an independent 501 (c) (3) nonprofit institution, was chartered for the purpose of preserving the music, preparing modern editions for publication and performance, and generally making it available for performers, churches, researchers, and scholars worldwide, as well as to encourage contemporary composition.

Moravian music is alive and vibrant today!
Moravians are creating new anthems, new hymns, new songs for camp, new arrangements for various instruments in worship, new organ preludes, new handbell pieces, and new descants for hymns. Hymnals of English-, Danish-, Dutch, and German-speaking congregations are translated and shared with the world through missions and Unity efforts; at the same time, North, Central, and South American, West Indian, British, and European congregations are absorbing and utilizing music and hymns from each other, but also from (or influenced by) a variety of musical cultures in the world-wide Unity, like South Africa, Tanzania, Nepal.  As the world gets smaller, Moravians find that “different” and “unusual” makes worship interesting, and that all music brings us closer together in Christian community with each other and with the Savior.

In the preface to Sing to the Lord a New Song: a New Moravian Songbook, published by Moravian Music Foundation in 2013, it says:
The Christian church has been blessed with a marvelous flowering of creativity in song… each generation is called to find new expressions of faith, love, and hope. A constantly changing world calls for different images for God, expressions of Christian community, and challenges for Christian ministry and service.

These are NEW songs by Moravians, available from MMF.

Also NEW are anthems in the Moravian Star Anthem Series. Those with blue covers are new editions of works from the archives; those with red covers are newly-written original works by living Moravian composers.
See our Catalog or call 336-725-0651 for more information about how to order anthems.

The Moravian Music Foundation was founded and chartered in North Carolina in 1956, to preserve, study, edit and publish the music retained in the Archives of the Moravian Church in America, Northern and Southern Provinces.

The Moravian Music Foundation preserves, shares and celebrates Moravian musical culture.

Since its establishment, the Foundation has acquired many additional items, including the Irving Lowens Collection of early American tunebooks; the band books of the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band (from the Civil War); and a reference library of over 6,000 volumes, specializing in Protestant church music and American music history.

More detailed organizational overview

The Moravian Music Foundation is responsible for many first modern-day performances of music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Foundation serves as a resource for scholars, performers, and students worldwide as well as for church musicians. Over 40 orchestral works from the Foundation’s holdings have been edited and placed in the Fleisher Collection of the Philadelphia (PA) Free Library.

The collections of the Moravian Music Foundation contain some 10,000 manuscripts and early imprints of vocal and instrumental music, sacred and secular, from the sixteenth through twentieth centuries. Not all of this was written by Moravian composers, but it is all music which the Moravians used and enjoyed. Included in the collections of the Moravian Music Foundation are works by Haydn and Mozart, J. C. Bach, Abel, Johann Stamitz, and a host of lesser-known composers. A number of these are the only known copies in the world.

The Moravian collections, then, provide a cross-section of classical musical culture, placing the masters in their proper historical perspective.

The MMF has 6 staff members: Nola Reed Knouse, Director; Gwyneth Michel, Assistant Director (in Bethlehem, PA); Sarah Durham, Office Manager; Erik J Salzwedel, Business Manager; David Blum, Research Librarian; Barbara Strauss, Catalog Project Manager; a select roster of contractors and vendors; a constituency of unpaid consultants; and more than two dozen volunteers. Governance and Leadership is provided by a nationwide board of up to 28 Trustees and 2 Ex Officio Trustees.

The MMF annual income is acquired from the following categories:

  • 43% of the annual income comes from individual contributors (Moravian and non-Moravian)
  • 26% from investments
  • 11% from sales and royalties
  • 10% from annual and special grants
  • 10% from yearly allotment of support from the Moravian Church in America Southern and Northern Provinces
As the early Christians met and broke bread together in token of their fellowship and love, so the members of the Moravian Church family have made it their custom to celebrate special occasions by sharing with friends a simple meal, a “lovefeast.” The name of the service is a literal translation of the New Testament word “agape.” A Lovefeast (not to be confused with Holy Communion) seeks to remove social barriers and strengthen the spirit of unity and goodwill among all people. A Lovefeast, in fact, is a Singstunde which incorporates a simple meal.

The first Lovefeast was served in Germany on August 13th, 1727, following the Renewal of the Moravian Church. Moravians (officially called Unitas Fratrum or Unity of the Brethren) are spiritual descendants of the Czech reformer Jan Hus, who was martyred in 1415. Their orderly and rich ecclesiastical life was very nearly smothered by the Counter-reformation and the Thirty Years War (1618-48). But within five years of the Renewal, Moravians were sending missionaries around the world – including North America in 1735. Permanent settlements were established in Pennsylvania (Bethlehem 1741), North Carolina (Bethabara 1753 and Salem 1766) and elsewhere.

The Lovefeast is a simple meal shared in a spirit of reverence and joy that Christ is present in our lives. The actual food and drink may vary considerably; in the Caribbean you may drink tea, in Africa you may eat peanuts. In America the traditional Lovefeast consists of a sweetened bun and coffee – but it could be a cookie and juice as well. Those who serve the meal are called Dieners, which is German for “server.” The manner of serving may also vary – except that all wait until all have been served and the Pastor has asked the Blessing. Some congregations listen to the choir sign hymns and anthems while they enjoy the Lovefeast meal; in other congregations, people speak quietly with their neighbors about their spiritual journey. For 270 years the Lovefeast has maintained its dignity and grace, and is used by quite a few other demoninations to celebrate appropriate events.

Moravians have long been renowned for their love of congregational singing and their practice of letting hymns and liturgies reveal their theology. This heritage is carried on in the Singstunde. Literally translated as “hour of song,” the Singstunde is a service consisting almost entirely of hymns — more specifically, of hymn stanzas, carefully chosen to develop a theme.

Most Moravians in the 18th and early 19th century had several hundred hymn stanzas committed to memory. Thus executing a Singstunde was simple. The pastor would select stanzas from many different hymns, place them in order, and the service would proceed without printed program or announcement. The pastor would simply begin singing a stanza, and the congregation joined in, by memory. Upon conclusion of that verse, the pastor began another, then another; the theme of the service was thus revealed through the selected texts.

Holding a Singstunde today is necessarily different, as the participants do not all have the same hymn stanzas memorized. Often now the specific hymn stanzas are printed in a bulletin, so that we still avoid the “page-flipping” from one hymn to another; and still often just one or two stanzas of a hymn are used. Hymns are also often interspersed with Scripture readings and anthems. The purpose remains the same: the revelation of a theme or concept, through carefully-chosen and ordered texts, sung by the entire assembly. Each person becomes part of the message, and messenger to his/her neighbors, as well as recipient.

In fact, the musical structure of two beloved Moravian services are outgrowths of the Singstunde: our lovefeasts, and our way of celebrating Holy Communion. For both, the purpose remains the same; the revelation of a theme or concept, through carefully-chosen and ordered texts, sung by the entire assembly.