Sophisticated Moravians Introduced Organs, Organists, Music To Early American

The Sophisticated Musical Culture of the Moravians in Early America

The richest and most sophisticated musical culture in colonial America was that of the Moravians in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. The Moravians came from German-speaking Bohemia to first settle in the West Indies in 1732. By 1741, however, a sizable community of Moravians had settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

In a few short years, Moravian communities were being established all over the colonies-many literally carved out of the wilderness. Important to those communities was worship and music and thus organs, organ music and organists played an important role.

Within five years of the settlement of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1746, Johann Gottlob Klemm installed an organ in the Moravian Church. Klemm thus claimed the distinction of being known as America’s first professional organ builder.

Who were the organists playing instruments built by Klemm and others? We know one Brother Wilhelm Grabs of the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was called to become an organist in a new city carved out of the wilderness, Wachovia, North Carolina.

Documented in one of the extensive diaries kept by the leader of the Bethlehem community the following story is told: In 1774, Brother Wilhelm Grabs was chosen to transport a small one-rank organ from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to Wachovia, North Carolina via ox cart through dense forested terrain. Once the organ was set-up in the rudely constructed church, Brother Grabs, a twenty-year-old man with huge hands more akin to his shoemaker’s trade, was assigned to learn the art of playing this little organ.

It is on this organ that Brother Grabs was playing when a band of Cherokee Native Americans appeared at the tiny settlement. The sounds of this remarkable instrument amazed them. Astounded, they imagined the sound was made by singing children hidden inside the box of the organ.

Exactly what type of music was played by these early American Moravian organists remains a mystery. Possibly it was notated in manuscripts brought from the organists’ countries of origin. Possibly it was music that was popular in their German homelands; or possibly the organists were skilled at improvising and required little or no written organ music for the use in church services of this period.

We do know, however, that the music played in 18th-century Bethlehem on a small one-rank organ would probably sound austere and plain-faced to our ears. However, this simple music was most certainly exhilarating in a world without the tumult, commotion and noise of our existence. The sound of those first Moravian organs must have been fascinating to people who had never heard such a thing as an organ.

Through the influence of the Moravians, a lasting mark was made on the history of Early America by organists playing the great music for the organ.