A joyful noise from Pennsylvania; Bethlehem, the oldest U.S. choral group devoted to the music of its namesake, starts marking its birthday early.


BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- In 1892, J. Fred Wolle, founder of the Bethlehem Choral Union in the Pennsylvania industrial town, presented chorus members with a daunting challenge: to learn Johann Sebastian Bach's "Mass in B Minor."

It wasn't to be. Wolle's chorus performed the first American productions of Bach's "St. John Passion" in 1888 and "St. Matthew Passion" in 1892. But the titanic Mass defeated it. As Wolle later recalled, the "choir looked it over and their ardor wilted."

So he got another choir. With a friend, Ruth Porter Doster, Wolle organized the Bach Choir, with the Central Moravian Church Choir as its core. On March 27, 1900, after 14 months of rehearsals, Wolle fulfilled his consuming passion to conduct the Mass, "this veritable masterpiece of unspeakable power and imperishable glory."

This first American production of the "Mass in B Minor" at Central Moravian Church was reported by the Bethlehem Diary, a Moravian chronicle of daily life, as "a grand success crowning the assiduous efforts of more than a year [that] reflected immense credit upon the accomplished and daring leader, making his name famous among musical circles throughout the country."

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem is the oldest choral group in the nation dedicated solely to the music of its namesake. It enjoys an international reputation, and the "Mass in B Minor" remains its signature work. Highlighting a two-year celebration of the choir's centennial, the work will be performed in Bethlehem's beautifully spare Central Moravian Church on March 27.

Admission to the concert, a gift to the Bethlehem community underwritten by Bethlehem Steel Corp., will be $1.50, the same as in 1900. And as it was a century ago, the concert will be preceded by a brass ensemble playing a Bach chorale from the church tower.

The choir will also present the Mass Monday at the Kennedy Center in Washington and Feb. 7 at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

That Bach's music found an enthusiastic audience in the United States can be attributed largely to Wolle and the Moravian tradition he worked in. "The Moravians brought a musical heritage as deep as their spiritual heritage," says Greg Fungeld, the choir's director. "Music and the arts were integral to their devotion and daily life."

Led by Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the Moravians, an evangelical Protestant sect with roots in Moravia and Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), founded Bethlehem in 1741. It became a center of Moravian life in the new world. The Moravians' devotional approach to faith embraced music.

Raymond Walters, author of the 1918 book "The Bethlehem Bach Choir," noted that music was a "solace and a recreation" to Moravians. Their communities in Europe routinely performed music by Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Instrumental and singing instruction played a key role in the education of Moravian children.

But it took serendipity and time for Bach's intricate counterpoint compositions to permeate Moravian communities on both sides of the Atlantic. For the most part, the composer had slipped into obscurity after his death in 1750. Mendelssohn revived the "St. Matthew Passion" in 1829, after which Bach's music returned to the European scene.

By the time Wolle, the son of a principal of Bethlehem's Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies, traveled to Germany to study music in 1884, Bach was again revered in his homeland. In Munich, Germany, Wolle first heard Bach's "St. John Passion," and there, Walters wrote, he had his epiphany. He felt in the performance "a summons" to devote his energies to Bach. Once back in Bethlehem, the conductor vowed not to direct any chorus that wouldn't perform Bach.

Well aware of the Mass' intimidating nature, Wolle devised an instruction method that allowed members to revel in the work's climactic riches, then apply themselves to more tedious passages. He taught it backward, working from the final to the first measure of each of the Mass' many choruses.

And he established an annual Bach Festival, a spring event that filled Bethlehem's streets with men and women toting vocal scores instead of their more quotidian work and domestic gear.

Wolle directed six successful Bach festivals, then left to lead the music department at the University of California, Berkeley. He was lured back to Bethlehem in 1912 by Charles M. Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel.

Captivated after attending one of Wolle's choral productions while on a business trip, Schwab offered to help support the Bach Festival if Wolle would revive it. Wolle remained the Bach Choir's conductor until his death in 1933.

Fungeld, 46, in his 16th year, is the sixth director of the choir. Concentrating on one composer is extremely rewarding, he says. "You get to know [the repertoire] at an intimate and deep level. You immerse yourself."

Over the years, 3,000 people have performed with the Bach Choir, whose repertoire includes 133 cantatas, all of Bach's motets and 15 of his larger works.

The 110-member, all-volunteer choir is having a festive centennial celebration, which has included an appearance by Yo-Yo Ma, who performed Bach's six unaccompanied cello suites, and a collaboration with the Trisha Brown Dance Company. In May 1998, a historical marker honoring Wolle was dedicated on the Moravian College campus.

The average age of the choir has dropped steadily in recent years, an indication of Bach's timelessness, Fungeld says. Choir members commute from as much as 60 miles away.

The majestic "Mass in B Minor" remains at the "center of the choir's existence," the director says. "Over the years, the choir [has developed] a deep emotional tie to it." He continues to find in the Mass, as Wolle did, opportunities for "new ideas about tempo or articulation or phrasing."

The Bethlehem community has come to identify with the Mass. It has "a way of touching people spiritually and emotionally," Fungeld says. "They are stimulated and sustained by it."

Debates break out in the local newspapers about the latest performance innovation or the propriety of applauding after hearing a sacred work. (Fungeld has established a tradition of observing a moment of silence after a performance, then allowing the audience to express its enthusiasm.)

The choir's "Bach to School" program has introduced 30,000 students from the Lehigh Valley region to the composer's works.

Everyone needs to learn about Bach and his music, says Fungeld, echoing Wolle and the Moravians who paved the way for Bach's introduction to the United States. "If more people experienced this music it would be a healthier world."

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem will perform the "Mass in B Minor" at 7: 30 p.m. Monday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets cost $15 to $60. Information: 800-444-1324.

Pub Date: 10/01/99

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