No other community did more to shape the city of Winston-Salem than the Moravians. When they arrived in the 1750s, they brought their devotion to female education, religious tolerance, and music-making. This weekend, it's a Salem-wide celebration during the 25th Moravian Music Festival. WFDD's David Ford spoke with Moravian Music Foundation Director Nola Knouse.

Interview highlights

On the early Moravian church:

The Moravians are spiritual descendants of John Hus, a Czech priest who was martyred in 1415. His followers created a church body in 1457 dedicated to simplicity, pious living, education, and they started singing right away. They were nearly wiped out in the Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the early 18th century, some of their descendants found refuge in Germany and reestablished their church there. Within thirty years of their arrival they had a mission outreach that went all around the known world. They had established a musical culture that was unequaled anywhere.  

On their migration route to North Carolina:

They were kicked off of one of their most beautiful settlements in Germany because the landlord said, 'Alright, you're going to become Lutherans or you're going to leave,' and they said, 'Okay. We're outta here. It's been nice knowing you.' So, they fled Germany for America in 1735 and settled in Georgia. But that [settlement] didn't survive because—let's put it this way—the climate on the coast of Georgia is a little different from northeastern Germany. And they got caught in the political situation between France and Spain and Florida. They went from Georgia to Pennsylvania in 1741, establishing what is now Bethlehem. There were three reasons for buying the land in North Carolina. They were looking for a place where they knew they'd be safe and could stay forever. They were also looking to do missionary outreach to the Native Americans, and this would be a good center from which to do that. And they were looking for a place where they could buy a lot of land for not terribly much money because the church was in debt and they knew if they could sell it off over time they could pay off the church's debt.

Festival Choir at the 2009 Moravian Music Festival. Photo Credit: Moravian Music Foundation

On the non-musical Moravian legacies in Salem:

First, craftsmanship and trade. They were known to be good craftsmen. They were known to make good products and sell good products all around the region. People came to Salem, the central town, because they knew they had a doctor. Their medical work was groundbreaking in this region. And I think that bears fruit in the school of medicine that is still here. Their educational outreach was incredible. They started what they saw as the Salem Female Academy—now Salem Academy and College—early on. All the way back from the 17th century on they said, “If you educate a boy, that's great. If you educate a woman, you educate the family.”

On the 18th century Moravian music scene:

The first thing that happens as you approach the town is the lookouts have been on the watch for you and the trombone choir is meeting you at the edge of town playing chorales to welcome you. You come into town, and there's going to be a worship service that evening. You're going to go to the worship service and sing a lot of hymns. You'll be hearing anthems that the choir is singing to the accompaniment of string musicians, [and] sometimes woodwinds and brasses that are [played by] the ordinary townspeople. Nobody has music as their day job. They're doing this at nighttime. So, you might be watching the tin smith play the cello for instance. You're going to hear students learning to sing and learning to play instruments in and out of the windows of the classrooms of the schools.   

On the Moravian Music Festival:

2009 Moravian Music Festival Chorus with brass. Photo Credit: Moravian Music Foundation

The first Moravian Music Festival happened in 1950. This is the 25th festival. There has not been a Moravian Music Festival in Winston-Salem since 2003. There are 300 people registered for the festival. They will be spending their days in rehearsals and workshops and seminars practicing, learning, having a grand time talking to old friends and making new friends. Every evening of the festival there will be a public concert, free and open to the public. Each one of these concerts will be preceded by a Moravian band prelude. The Salem Band grew out of the Moravian church. It is the oldest, continuing mixed wind ensemble in the country. It dates back to 1771.

On hearing Moravian music played and sung as it was 240 years ago:

For me it's the sense of roots. It's the sense of the heart of this community and the soul of this area. There are roots in a place, and I think the music helps anchor us to the essence of that location. When you've been in Salem a good long while, heard this music, experienced it, when you go away you feel like a traveler until you're home again. And I think that happens to people who don't live here, but have been here some and they go back to their homes and they spend ten years, and they come back here and they go, “Ah…I'm back.” And I think that music anchors us to the soul of the place.

The Moravian Music Festival opens Sunday, July 23 at Salem's Home Moravian Church, and runs through the 29th with free concerts daily that are open to the public.



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