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.

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Comments Feed11 Comments

  1. Kevin Mark

    Does your church have any CC musical archives?


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Kevin,

    If by CC you mean Creative Commons, no, that is unlikely.

    Some of the old German song books are so old that the (USA) copyright has expired. I believe that the [i]Gesangbuch mit Noten[/i] (song book with notes) was one such that was first published in the late 1800s in the USA, and is still sometimes used today to find the German words to music, or alternative melodies for songs.

    I’m not an expert on copyrights, but I believe that most of the English Mennonite books that have been published are still under copyright. As for sheet music, there is a small chance that we may still have some sheet music old enough to be out of copyright, but I rather doubt it.


    Kevin Mark Reply:

    I was asking if your church as recorded any of its performances and archived them with a CC license.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Ah. Yes, recordings exist of some of this. Unfortunately, the choir area is covered only by a directional mic that doesn’t point at it right now (long story) so they are of rather iffy quality. If there’s interest in it anyhow, I could post them.

    In theory we’ll be getting three new omnis installed this spring that should help out tremendously on that.

  2. Anonymous

    The song “Großer Gott wir loben dich” is still a well-known Church song in Germany.

    The concept of a “Vorsanger” (from German: “Vorsänger”), who can choose rhythm and melody, is new to me.
    In German a “Vorsänger” is a precentor. Every persons who sings alone before other sings is a a “Vorsänger”.


    Kevin Mark Reply:

    This link seem interesting.


  3. Joseph

    We still today sing that song and other songs and use what we call a “song leader” who starts the song on the right pitch and leads the song. In our mennonite setting we only sing with our voices. No piano or other instruments are used.


  4. guest

    any connection to debian in this article?


  5. cliff

    As opposed to the way we do it of letting the choir pick the pitch and having the choir director drag it down a bit.


    terah Reply:

    Cliff, I knew you’d have a comment about this story. Thanks for the smile!


  6. Vorsänger

    I got an “ä” for you. Copy & paste is free. ;)


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http://changelog.complete.org / Vorsanger