March 9th, 2008
This October, our church celebrates its hundredth anniversary. All this year, every so often, we are having brief “historical moments” during church.
Today, our temporary choir director — and my high school band teacher — was a Vorsanger. He got up during church and discussed how hymn singing was done in the early days of the church. Today, our Mennonite church sings in a variety of styles, most commonly 4-part music accompanied by a piano, and no director. But we also sing more “contemporary” styles.
Back in the earlier days, the church didn’t have hymnals with music for everyone. The Vorsanger — song leader — would sing each phrase, then the congregation would sing it back in unison, throughout the whole song. Hymns that the congregation already knew well would just be sung normally, in unison, with the Vorsanger directing.
Not only did the Vorsanger lead the singing, but he or she also chose the music — not the pastor. As the church purchased first a pump organ, and later a piano, the instruments would sometimes be used to accompany the singing. The musicians never knew what would be sung in advance. One 80-year-old member of our congregation remembered the she started to play for church at 8th grade. But much of the time, there would be no instrument, not even to pick the starting pitch.
This morning, we sang Holy God, We Praise Thy Name with the Vorsanger. It’s a familiar song in our church, but we generally sing it in English. The Vorsanger taught it to us in German, the older people in church would have remembered it. He finished his introduction, stepped away from the microphone, and rang out with the first phrase.
Großer Gott, wir loben dich
Then we all sang the phrase back to him, in unison. On to the next phrase, back and forth for the rest of the hymn. Terah and I were in the choir area, behind him, but could hear him — and the rest of the congregation — just fine.
At the end, our Vorsanger for a day said he thought we got it, so we sang through it again, still in unison, but without him leading us on each phrase.
Großer Gott, wir loben dich,
Herr, wir preisen deine Stärke,
Vor dir beugt die Erde sich
Und bewundert deine Werke.
Wie du warst vor aller Zeit,
So bleibst du in Ewigkeit.
What a powerful way to feel connected to the people that worshiped at the same place so many years ago.
As our director said before we sang in choir this morning, music can say so much more than words.