Music of the Mennonites | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Music of the Mennonites

The term 'Mennonite' can be used to refer both to members of the various Mennonite churches and, on a more general level, to non-practising descendants of Mennonites.


The Mennonites. The term 'Mennonite' can be used to refer both to members of the various Mennonite churches and, on a more general level, to non-practising descendants of Mennonites. Derived from the 16th-century Anabaptist movement of the Radical Reformation in central Europe, the Mennonite church was named for Menno Simons (1492-1559), one of its early leaders. Mennonites practise adult baptism, refuse to take oaths or go to war, and believe in the separation of church and state.

Mennonites first came to Canada from Pennsylvania during the late 18th century and settled mostly in Ontario, particularly in Essex, Lincoln, Perth, Waterloo, and York counties (though some small groups went as far west as Saskatchewan and Alberta, and eventually east to Quebec). These so-called eastern or 'Pennsylvania' Mennonites were of German-Swiss and South German origin (hence the common name 'Swiss Mennonites'), and the dialect spoken among them was basically high German, mixed with a considerable amount of English. While today English is used both at home and at church by most Mennonites of this group, conservative Pennsylvania Mennonites (Old Order and others) still use dialect at home and German almost exclusively at church. Other Mennonites to arrive in Canada emigrated directly from Europe (chiefly from Russia, hence the common name 'Russian Mennonites') during the 1870s and 1920s and following World War II, establishing communities in the western provinces (especially in Winnipeg - the largest single centre of Mennonites in the world) and, to a lesser degree, in Ontario - in Waterloo Region, on the Niagara Peninsula, and along the shore of Lake Erie. In 1991 only a small minority continued to use German, and the churches which used it also provided services in English. In 1990 there were nearly 1000 Mennonite congregations in Canada with over 108,000 participating (ie, baptized) members and a total population of about 200,000.

Some Mennonites (91 per cent in 1941 but only 15 per cent in 1990) have remained in rural areas, agriculture being their chief occupation. Of the small, rural groups, the Amish and the Old Order (together totalling less than 5000 members in Canada in 1990) and the Old Colony Mennonites (about 4000 members in Canada in 1990) continue to live separately from the rest of society, wearing distinctive traditional dress, attending separate schools, and shunning technological advances and 'wordly' entertainments. The largest branches of the church, including the Old (ie, 'Swiss') Mennonites (known as the Mennonite Church; about 14,000 members in the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada in 1990), General Conference (known as the Conference of Mennonites in Canada; about 30,000 largely 'Russian' members in 1990), and Mennonite Brethren (about 26,000 largely 'Russian' members in Canada in 1990), are less strict and mix in the mainstream of society.

The only music allowed in the Amish, Old Colony, and Old Order churches is unaccompanied unison congregational singing. This tradition dates to the Radical Reformation and, in particular, to the Ausbund (Switzerland 1564; and numerous later editions), a hymnbook of sacred and secular melodies setting texts often about the martyrdom and suffering experienced by the early Anabaptists. Old Colony Mennonites use a 19th-century Russian Mennonite hymnal. It was printed first under the title Geistreiches Gesangbuch in Prussia ('Spiritual Kingdom Songbook,' Königsberg 1767 and Marienwerder 1780) but is reprinted in a revised edition as Gesangbuch: Eine Sammlung Geistlicher Lieder zur Allgemeinen Erbauung und zum Lobe Gottes ('Songbook: A Collection of Spiritual Songs...,' Mennonitisches Verlagshaus 1977). For each hymn this book includes a 'long' melody (lange Weise), which is slow and ornamented, and a short melody (kurze Weise), also referred to as the 'wordly' melody. Despite official disapproval, some Old Colony young people also sing secular songs and engage in square dancing. The Old Order Mennonites use a hymnal entitled Die Gemeinschaftliche Liedersammlung ('Congregational Song Collection,' Berlin, Ont, 1836; and later editions). Most of its 205 hymns were taken from a US Mennonite hymnal, Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch ('Non-denominational Songbook,' Johann Bär, Lancaster, Pa, 4th edn 1829), which includes hymns from a Reformed Church hymnal, Neu-Vermehrt und Vollständiges Gesangbuch ('Newly Revised and Supplemented Songbook,' no publisher; no place of publication 1753). Old Order young people sing 'fast' hymns and country and western songs at their Sunday evening 'singings' (which function primarily as social occasions for courtship purposes), and some engage in folk dances to the music of the mouth organ.

In most other Mennonite congregations, singing is in four-part harmony, sometimes accompanied by the organ or piano. Such singing is usually conducted by a songleader, a long tradition in many Mennonite congregations. The (Old) Mennonites, General Conference, and Mennonite Brethren publish their own hymnals. The Mennonite Hymnary (General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America 1940) and The Mennonite Hymnal (Faith and Life Press 1969) are examples. Some of their hymns have been written by Mennonites; the majority are found in hymnbooks of other denominations, although many were selected in particular for their four-part arrangements or distinctive harmonizations. Almost all such publications have been prepared by joint committees representing Mennonites in several countries. Benjamin Horch participated along with committee members from Canada, the USA, and South America in the preparation of the Gesangbuch der Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde ('Songbook of the Mennonite Brotherhood,' Winnipeg 1952), and George Wiebe was involved in the compilation of the Gesangbuch der Mennoniten (Faith and Life Press 1965) and the above-mentioned Mennonite Hymnal. An earlier Gesangbuch der Mennoniten (General Conference of North America 1942; edited by D.H. Epp, J.G. Rempel, and David Paetkau) is believed to be the first German hymnal for use in Canada produced solely by a committee of Canadian editors. A new Mennonite Hymnal was in preparation in 1991. Some of the proposed selections reflect the growing international community of Mennonites (including North American aboriginals, Central Americans, Africans, and Asians), already indicated in the Hymnal Sampler (Scottdale, Pa, 1989) and some earlier songbooks.

The quality of 'Russian' Mennonite choirs in Canada can be attributed to a strong choral tradition and to the frequent Mennonite song festivals or 'Sängerfeste,' including the annual events in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Men such as Benjamin Horch, John Konrad, Kornelius Neufeld, and David Paetkau were outstanding early travelling conductors in western Canada. The Mennonite Children's Choir of Winnipeg, led by Helen Litz, has achieved national recognition. Other choirs conducted by Mennonites include the Canadian Mennonite Bible College Choir (George Wiebe, conductor; often accompanied by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra), the Inter-Mennonite Children's Choir of Kitchener-Waterloo (Helen Martens, founder 1967 and conductor to 1981), the Menno Singers of Kitchener-Waterloo (Abner Martin, founder 1955 and conductor to 1979; later conductors were Jan Overduin 1980-3, William Janzen 1984-6, and Leonard Enns 1987-8, succeeded by Janzen again), the Mennonite Brethren Bible College Choir of Winnipeg (William Baerg, conductor; often accompanied by the Winnipeg SO), the Victor Martens Singers, the Wilfrid Laurier University Choir of Waterloo (Victor Martens and later Jan Overduin, conductors), choirs at Conrad Grebel College at the University of Waterloo (conducted by Leonard Enns, Wilbur Maust, and Robert Shantz), the Kitchener-Waterloo Philharmonic Choir (Howard Dyck, conductor; Dyck has also hosted several CBC radio programs), the Oriana Singers (Toronto) of Toronto (John Ford, conductor), and the Guelph Chamber Choir (Gerald Neufeld, conductor). Other prominent Mennonite conductors include Henry Engbrecht (in Winnipeg) and Paul Klassen (a Canadian Mennonite working in Germany). Other ensembles are the Faith and Life Male Choir and the Mennonite Singers (both of Winnipeg), the annual Mennonite Mass Choir (in Kitchener-Waterloo, William Janzen, conductor; accompanied by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra), many large church choirs (especially in Winnipeg), and occasional choirs of selected singers, including one in Winnipeg under Robert Shaw in 1984 and the Mennonite Festival Choir under Helmuth Rilling (Winnipeg, 1989) and Robert Shaw (Toronto, 1989). Many Mennonites sing in non-Mennonite choirs as well. The CBC TV series 'Hymn Sing' consists of many Mennonite choristers. Mennonite folk music ensembles have included Dorian (New Hamburg, Ont), the Rouge River Band (Markham, Ont), and Just Plain Hollow. Also noteworthy is the Mennonite Symphony Orchestra, founded and conducted 1943-55 in Winnipeg by Benjamin Horch and revived in 1978 as the Mennonite Community Orchestra. Made up of advanced students from several Winnipeg Mennonite colleges and of members of the community at large, this orchestra is concerned particularly with commissioning and recording works for historical and archival purposes by Mennonite composers. Canadian Mennonite composers include Carol Dyck, Leonard Enns, Randolph Peters, Linda Schwartz, Carol Ann Weaver, and Esther Wiebe. Regina-born Linda Schwartz, producer of the 1986 Satori Festival of Canadian music, was commissioned to write an orchestral fanfare for the Mennonite World Conference in June 1990.

Canadian Mennonite Bible College and Mennonite Brethren Bible College, both in Winnipeg, offer degree courses in church music. Music has been taught at these and other Canadian institutions by teachers of Mennonite background, such as John Konrad, Benjamin Horch, William Baerg, Doreen Klassen, Peter Klassen, and George Wiebe. Many Mennonite high schools, bible colleges, and liberal arts colleges in Canada also have significant music components. Especially important are the two colleges in Winnipeg as well as Columbia Bible College (Clearbrook, BC), Steinbach (Manitoba) Bible College, and Conrad Grebel College (University of Waterloo). Conducting seminars, choral workshops, and music camps are common among Mennonites and often are related to these institutions. Music scholars with research areas of particular interest to Mennonites include Wesley Berg, Doreen Klassen, Peter Letkemann, and Helen Martens.

Among many noted musicians of Mennonite persuasion or background are the Armin family; the pianist Irmgard Baerg, who premiered Victor Davies'Mennonite Piano Concerto (1975) with the Winnipeg SO and recorded it with the London SO under Boris Brott (used as the soundtrack for the 1983 film about Russian Mennonites And When They Shall Ask...); the harpsichordist and erstwhile member of the Manitoba University Consort Joyce Redekop-Fink; the pianist Shirley Elias; the popular musicians Paul Janz, Art Bergmann, and Curtis Driedger (the last-named of Toronto's The CeeDees); the tenors Paul Frey, Dennis Giesbrecht, Ben Heppner, Arthur Janzen, Peter Koslowski, John Martens, and Victor Martens; the baritones Theodore Baerg, Victor Braun, Jacob Klassen, Daniel Lichti, and Alvin Reimer; the basses Mel Braun, John Ens, and William Reimer; and the sopranos Elizabeth Neufeld, Henriette Schellenberg, Irena Welhasch-Baerg, Edith Wiens, and Ingrid Suderman - b Winkler, Man, 25 Oct 1944, a pupil of Teo Lindenbaum, Donald Brown, Jacob Hamm, and Luigi Wood - a winner in 1971 of the Western Canada District and Northwest Region auditions of the Metropolitan Opera, a semi-finalist in 1972 in the Montreal International Competition, a member of Vancouver's early music ensemble Hortulani Musicae, and a frequent performer with major Vancouver choirs. Harold (Irwin) Redekopp - b Winnipeg 30 Oct 1942, AMM 1965, ARCT 1966, ARCCO 1968, BA (Manitoba) 1965, MA (Manitoba) 1968, and B ED (Manitoba) 1970 - was a pupil of Filmer Hubble and Frans Niermeier, was the organist-choirmaster 1969-73 at St Stephen's Broadway United Church, Winnipeg, became a Toronto producer of serious music programs for CBC radio in 1973, and in 1991 was vice-president of regional broadcasting for the CBC English networks.

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