Choral singing among Russian Mennonites developed after the Mennonite Brethren church was established in 1860, spreading to most Mennonite colonies by the early 20th century. The Mennonites who emigrated to Canada in 1874 did not encourage choral singing, with the exception of the Bergthal Mennonites, who organized some choirs as early as 1890. The Mennonites who moved to the United States adopted choral singing more quickly. Choral festivals as part of Sunday school conventions began in 1889 in Kansas and Oklahoma, and were held independently by 1902. Among the Mennonites of Swiss ancestry, choral singing was practiced in the singing schools, but was not an essential part of the worship service as it was in Russian Mennonite churches.
Mennonite Brethren who moved to Saskatchewan after 1902 formed a choral society (1906-1923) with members in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, and California. The society published a periodical and a collection of hymns, many by its most important leader, Aron G. Sawatzky.
Choral singing in Canadian Mennonite congregations was stimulated by Russian Mennonite immigrants of the 1920s—K. H. Neufeld, John Konrad, Franz Thiessen, David Paetkau, Nikolai Fehderau—who brought the Russian tradition to North America. Especially noteworthy are the provincial choir festivals and conductor's workshops organized by the Conference of Mennonite Brethren in Canada and the provincial General Conference Mennonite conferences in Ontario and the western provinces.
The most important developments since 1950 have been the result of urbanization and education. The choirs of Bethel College under William Hohman, Tabor College under Herbert Richert, Rosthern Junior College under David Paetkau, and the Bible college choirs in Winnipeg under John Konrad, Ben Horch, George Wiebe, and William Baerg have provided examples of choral excellence and a training ground for many conductors and singers. The combined oratorio choirs of Canadian Mennonite Bible College and Concord College (formerly Mennonite Brethren Bible College), both in Winnipeg, have sung regularly on national radio broadcasts. Mennonite oratorio choirs have been established in Winnipeg, southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Fraser Valley (British Columbia), and the Kitchener-Waterloo (Ontario) area. Well-known mass male choirs are found in Kansas, the Pacific region of the United States, and Winnipeg.
Alongside the growth of professionalism and high standards of performance and repertoire in the 1970s and 1980s, choirs in many North American Mennonite churches have dwindled as families grow smaller and young people no longer automatically sing in the choir. On the other hand, visitors to the Soviet Union have reported that vigorous choral singing by young people can once more be heard in Mennonite Churches.
See also Choirs
Berg, Wesley. From Russia With Music: A Study of the Mennonite Choral Singing Tradition in Canada. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1985.
Buller, Calvin. "Brotherly Love." The Choral Journal 18 (December 1977): 30-31.
Wohlgemuth, Paul W. "Singing the New Song," in John A. Toews, History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, ed. A.J. Klassen. Fresno, Calif.: Mennonite Brethren Board of Literature and Publication, 1975.
Yoder, Paul Marvin. "Nineteenth Century Sacred Music of the Mennonite Church in the United States." PhD diss., Florida State U., 1961.
Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 8 (April 1987): 6-17.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 142. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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