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A Moravian Christmas from the Old Post Road


Every Christmas brings a horde of concerts replete with thrice-familiar favorites, while neglecting a huge body of Christmas music that rarely gets performed. It therefore delighted us to hear the Musicians of the Boston Post Road out music mostly created in America in the 18th century or at least collected here, performed here, and preserved here. Last Sunday at Emmanuel Church in Boston (and on several other concerts) the Musicians offered works composed or gathered in the Moravian communities that found a haven for their religion in Pennsylvania and North Carolina after years of mistreatment in Europe. I attended via the livestream which continues to be available by subscription HERE.

The Moravians followed the Czech religious reformer Jan Hus (c. 1370-1415), who suffered burning at the stake for his opposition to many practices of the Catholic Church, including the sale of indulgences, in which matter he preceded Martin Luther. His followers organized a fellowship called Unitas Fratrem (Unity of the Brethren), which had a precarious existence until its members found protection in 1722 at the court of Count Nicholas Zinzendorf in Saxony. From then the church began to grow, sending missionaries out in many directions—including to the British colonies in North America. The first such Moravian enclave was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; other centers arose in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. These became central locations for the culture that these German-speaking Moravians brought with them, chief among which was music.

Almost everyone undertook musical training and practice, with hymn-singing universal in church. Gifted members became composers, like John Antes (1740-1811), one of the first native-born American composers in the classical tradition. Other Moravian composers, born in Germany or here, developed the musical traditions they had learned from late Baroque and early Classical music making, which became part and parcel of the lives.

Hannah Shields photo

In preparation for this concert, the Co-directors of the group—cellist Daniel Ryan and flutist Suzanne Stumpf—undertook research in the Moravian archives, which contain literally tens of thousands of pieces in manuscript, large and small, sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental, locally composed and imported from Europe. From this amazing body of work, they selected just over a dozen for this program, mostly (to fit the size of the ensemble) chamber music with one or two voices, and a few instrumental pieces. Since German was the mother tongue of many of the immigrant Moravians, most of the vocal pieces on the program were in German, with text drawn usually from Biblical passages.

The Musicians of the Boston Post Road is an instrumental quartet in its basic form: Cellist Daniel Ryan and flutist Suzanne Stumpf as co-directors, with violinist and violist Sarah Darling and violist Marcia Cassidy. Additional instrumentalists on this occasion included Wendy Rolfe, flute; Jesse Irons, violin; Sarah Freiburg, cello; and Michael Beatty, organ. The two singers, heard both in solos and as duettists, were Jessica Petrus, soprano, and Hilary Anne Walker, mezzo soprano.

The unfolded in four groups of four pieces each, offering variety of vocal and instrumental works. Between the third and fourth groups came a full trio sonata by a relatively well-known colleague of J.S. Bach’s, Johann Gottlieb Graun. It had been brought to America, where a copyist changed the top violin to a flute—a perfectly common adjustment, then and now. The lively opener, the Sinfonia in F Major, came from the pen of the somewhat familiar Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795), the ninth son of Johann Sebastian, who spent his career in the court at Bückeburg, Germany. But most of his life’s work was lost in World War II bombing of the city. Happily, much had been carried to Pennsylvania by the Moravians, and therefore preserved. Johann Joachim Quantz wrote a  tender Pastorale as a preface to an oratorio by J.F. Agricola, entitled (in translation) “The shephered by the cradle in Bethlehem.” Not surprisingly, it evoked similar music from other Christmas-oriented compositions, such as the Pifa in Handel’s Messiah. The splendid singers imprtessed in vocalism and diction, both in solo and duet numbers.

Christian Gregor (1723-1801) and Johann Christian Geisler (1729-1815) were represented by five and four pieces, respectively, Johannes Herbst (1735-1812) by two, and  Jeremias Dencke (1725-1795), Johann Daniel Grimm (1719-1760), and John Antes (1740-1811) by one each. Typical moods of Christmas song appear in these works, ranging from the lullaby of Herbst’s Hier schläft es, drawing the listener’s attention to the sleeping infant, or Antes’s Loveliest Immanuel. The celebratory tones of the singers ring out the festive Geisler pieces that closed the program: the rapturuous song of the angels: Siehe , ich verkündige euch grosse Freude (Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy) and Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe (Glory to God in the highest).

Since the 1950s, Moraviana has occasionally featured in recordings, and it can still be heard their communities. But much is overlooked. Benjamin Franklin wrote enthusiastically of it, and hearing it today with such joyous and lyrical commitment, proves that it can continue to give pleasure.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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