Voices ephrata BSTC0141

Voices in the Wilderness – Music of the Ephrata Cloister
Elizabeth Bates (soprano), Clifton Massey (alto), Nils Neubert (tenor), Steven Hrycelak (bass)
Christopher Dylan Herbert (director)
rec. 2019, Historic Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata, USA
Texts and translations included

‘Early music from America’ is something that seems hardly to exist. Such music seldom appears on the programmes of concerts or on disc. Some ensembles have paid attention to the music written in what is now known as the United States of America during the late 17th and the 18th centuries. Among them are The Boston Camerata and Anonymous 4. I also would like to mention a Telarc disc, which was released in 1998 under the title of “Lost Music of Early America – Music of the Moravians” (Boston Baroque, directed by Martin Pearlman). The Moravian communities were based in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The latter is also the state where the music on the present disc has been written.

The Ephrata Cloister was founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel, a Pietist who emigrated to Pennsylvania from Rhenish Palatinate in 1720. On the site of the Cloister, we read that Beissel was “seeking to live as a hermit following his own religious ideas. He believed earthly life should be spent preparing to achieve a spiritual union with God at the Second Coming he felt would soon occur.” “By the early 1750s, nearly 80 celibate Brothers and Sisters were housed in impressive Germanic log, stone, and half-timbered buildings. At the same time, nearly 200 family members known as Householders, occupied nearby homes and farms. Celibate members followed a life of work balanced with hours of private prayer. Wearing white robes, they adopted sparse diets, and slept little, all in an effort to provide discipline as they prepared for an anticipated heavenly existence. Labors included farming, papermaking, carpentry, milling, and textile production.”

Beissel stimulated members of his community to write hymn texts and being involved in musical activities. This resulted in a variety of printed hymnals and music manuscripts, leaving behind a large corpus of material that is now located in various libraries, archives, and private collections in the United States and United Kingdom. Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone in the ensemble New York Polyphony from 2000 to 2020, has spent much time and effort into the research of this repertoire. In 2018 he earned a doctor’s degree at The Juilliard School with a dissertation under the title: Voices in the Pennsylvania Wilderness: an Examination of the Music Manuscripts, Music Theory, Compositions, and (Female) Composers of the Eighteenth-Century Ephrata Cloister.

The composers of the hymns are mostly unknown. The programme includes two pieces that are known to have been written by Sister Föben, born Christianna Lassle. That makes her one of the first American female composers. The fact that the community had come into existence through immigration from Germany, explains why the texts are in German. Some of them are from the pen of Conrad Beissel, others were written by Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714), a radical Pietist and author of a history of the church, Christian Friedrich Richter (1676-1711), a hymnwriter and entomologist, and Michael Müller (1673-1704), a theologist and hymnwriter, who wrote a rhymed version of the Book of Psalms. The latter three lived in Germany and were never in America. One hymn text is written by Brother Angonius, born Michael Wohlfahrt (1687-1741). Obviously all hymns are strophic. The fact that none of the composers were professionals explains why there are some odd breaks between the lines, sometimes between two syllables.

The programme opens with a remarkable piece, a sequence of three hymns, called Rose, Lilie and Blume (rose, lily and flower). The text is taken from Das Gesäng der einsamen und verlassenen Turtel-Taube (the song of the lonely and abandoned turtledove) by Beissel. It is a typical Pietist text, in which we find the bridal mysticism that is a feature of Pietism. That is reflected in the way the text is set. It is very long, and here some of the stanzas have been omitted. Musically speaking, the very high notes in the upper voice are remarkable. Such notes also appear in some of the other hymns. Assuming that the pitch of the performance is in line with what was common at the time, this is an indication that the community must have had very good singers in its ranks.

As one may expect, these hymns are intended to be sung a cappella. An organ is not used, and was probably not employed in the community at the time. Pietists were known for being rather sceptical about instruments in general, at least in services. It may also not come as a surprise that all the hymns are strictly homophonic.

It is understandable that this kind of music is not part of concerts and even seldom recorded. This is no ‘art music’, but music that was part of religious events. That makes it all the more important that there are people, like Herbert, who are willing to explore this part of the American musical, religious and social heritage. A disc like this one is the ideal medium to make it known to a wider public than just specialists in religious and music history.

This is very much a labour of love, and that shows in the engaging manner in which these hymns are performed. The singing is excellent, and in particular Elizabeth Bates deserves praise for the way she sings the sometimes very high notes.

Historically and musically this is a very interesting production, and although the music is not comparable with the ‘art music’ of the time, I find it quite fascinating to listen to. Those who like to broaden their horizon, and certainly those who have a special interest in (religious) history should investigate this disc. There is little chance that they have heard anything like this before.

Johan van Veen

Availability: Bright Shiny Things

Dein Erbe, Herr
Herzog unsrer Seligkeiten
Wenn Jesus die Hertzen entzündet
Wann Gott sein Zion lösen wird
Ach Gott! Wie mancher bittrer Schmertz
Sister Föben (Christianna Lassle, 1717-1784)
Die sanfte Bewegung, die liebliche Krafft
Wann Gott sein Zion lösen wird
O! was vor verborgne Kräfte
Jesus Hirte meiner Seel
Sister Föben (Christianna Lassle)
Formier, mein Töpffer