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Music of the Harmony Society

The Full Story

Music was a very important component of the Harmonists' lifestyle. A large collection of Harmonist music has been carefully preserved in the archives. Below is a sampling of Harmonist music that is excerpted from two volumes of American Communal Music of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Below the music are excerpts from the record album inserts.

Harmonist Keyboard Music, performed by Ian Henderson, Pianist, performed on a Viennese model fortepiano built by John L. O’Conner & Sons, Batavia, NY, recorded by Mark Recording Studios, Clarence, NY, December 17, 1983.

Harmonist Orchestral Music, performed by The Economy Kunstfest Orchestra, Richard D. Wetzel, Director, recorded in the Old Economy Village Feast Hall, June 7 & 8, 1969 by Audiotronics-Engineering, Ambridge, PA

Harmonist Choral and Orchestral Music, performed by The Collegium Musicum of the School of Music of Ohio University, Richard D. Wetzel, Director, recorded at the eighth annual Historic Communal Societies Conference of the National Historic Communal Societies Association, held at Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata, PA, October 1981.

"The Harmonists maintained vocal and instrumental ensembles throughout their history and the years 1824-1831 were especially musical ones. It was at Economy that the orchestra, formerly a somewhat unbalanced ensemble, approached Classic proportions with a full string section, pairs of horns, bassoons, clarinets, flutes and percussion.

"Before the schism of 1832, Harmonist musical activities were directed by Dr. Johann Christoph Müller, physician and school teacher in the Society.  He played violin, flute and piano and composed short instrumental pieces and songs that emphasized friendship. 

"In 1843, more than twenty years after he had left the Harmony Society, physician, botanist, printer, musician, Johann Christoph Müller copied some of his early songs for his pupil Thalia Bentel. Above one of them he wrote a denunciation of George Rapp: '... the greatest monopolist I ever knew.' In spite of the bitterness Müller then felt toward Rapp, he had been for more than twenty years an important leader in the Harmony Society, caring for its members as physician, and taking charge of the education of its children. He supervised the compilation and printing of the Harmonist hymn collections of 1820 and 1827, and the book of religious poetry Feurige Kohlen... (Fiery Coals) which was published at Economy in 1826. As director of the orchestra he gradually enlarged the ensemble and its repertory and urged Rapp to hire William Cumming Peters as composer and musical consultant. Müller left the Society during the schism of 1832. The two [choral] songs given on this recording were composed by him in 1816, when the Society was in Indiana.

"Frederick Eckensperger joined the Harmony Society in 1805 and served it as hosteler and teacher until his death in 1849. He composed vocal and keyboard pieces and the texts to the examples given here were included in the Harmonists' printed hymnals of 1820 and 1827 in the sections entitled Von der Menschwerdung Christi (The Incarnation). Manuscript sources indicate that the aria and chorale were sung as part of the Christmas celebration in 1817. The mystical symbolism of the text is typical of the odes, the term the Harmonists gave to works of this kind. Eckensperger's ode was a favorite one in the Society and even appears in Harmonist manuscript books used by the Männerchor and Gemischten Chor, organizations active at Econmoy toward the close of the nineteenth century.

"Documents at Economy indicate that the Harmonists acquired their first piano in 1817.  A letter of 1816 states that Dr. Müller tested pianos made by Rosenbaum of Pittsburgh, and a shipping bill of 1817 shows that the Harmonists purchased '...1 box a piana forty [sic], 379 lbs.'

"At Economy, instruments by Robert and William Nunns, English piano builders who came to New York around 1821, were preferred.  Gertrude Rapp, Frederick Reichert Rapp, among other Harmonists, played the piano, and keyboard works by C.P.E. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Pleyel, and other European masters are found in the Economy archive.

"Müller's ...March and Eckensperger's Presto are typical of Harmonist-composed pieces: They are short, binary structures with little or no development, and were designed to be entertaining.

"Charles von Bonnhorst was born in Prussia. He served as an officer in the artillery corps of the Prussian army and took part in the Battle of Jena in 1806. Soon thereafter he came to America and settled in Mifflin Township, near Pittsburgh. He studied law and was admitted to the Bar Association of Allegheny County. His skill as an attorney and his ability to speak both German and English made him a valuable counselor to the Harmony Society as well as to other German immigrants. Bonnhorst was a violinist and wrote many pieces for the Harmonist musicians at Economy.

"By 1832, the Harmonist orchestral repertory contained about 320 pieces.  Many of those between numbers 242 and 320 were arrangements made for the Harmonists by the Englishman, William Cumming Peters, who came to America in 1820.  Peters was a clarinetist and may have played in a Canadian military band before arriving in Pittsburgh in 1823.

"Little is known about his early life and although he became one of the most prominent music publishers in America between 1840 and 1860, he remains an elusive and shadowy figure. In Pittsburgh he made his livelihood as a music teacher and piano and music salesman. He reportedly opened the first piano and music store in Pittsburgh, remaining there until 1831. He was hired by the Harmonists in the mid-1820s, and in 1827 composed small pieces for the orchestra. He also arranged larger works for the Harmonists, including overtures and sinfonias by Rossini, Latour, Mozart, Pleyel, Vanhal and Sterkel. His Economy Waltz and Economy Quickstep were composed for the Harmonists in 1827 and are typical of the larger part of the Harmonists' orchestral repertory.

"Between 1828 and 1831, probably because of Peters' encouragement, Dr. Müller directed concerts at Economy that were open to non-members.  On the concert of March 27, 1831, Peters' Symphony in D, possibly the first attempt at a work in this genre by a composer in what was then considered 'the West,' was premiered.  By contemporary European standards it is a naïve work, consisting of a song form Andante and Rondo.  Peters made no attempt to develop his themes and the scoring is often thin.  The piece is not without charm, however, and in the context of American music of the 1820s it is a work of historic significance.

"The score to Mr. Peters' Favorite German Waltz was written in Louisville where Peters established himself as a publisher in the 1830s.  It is dedicated to the 'Economy Musical Society' and dated March 20, 1833.  It was not copied into the part-books at Economy, however, because the schism of 1832 greatly reduced the Harmonists' musical resources, and it is probable that the performance given on this recording (1969) was the premiere one."

Music and excerpts ©1982 and 1984 National Historic Communal Societies Association. Copied on this website with permission.

For more information, please see Frontier Musicians on the Connoquenessing, Wabash and Ohio: A History of the Music and Musicians of George Rapp's Harmony Society (1976) and "Oh Sing No More That Gentle Song": The Musical Life and Times of William Cumming Peters (2000), both by Richard D. Wetzel.

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