Between Orality and Literacy: Music in the Moravian Missions, 1732–2009

FWF Lise Meitner-Projekt M 1200
Projektlaufzeit: 2011–2012

Leitung: Prof. Dr. Anna Maria Busse Berger
Co-Antragstellerin: Univ.-Prof. Dr. Birgit Lodes 

The purpose of the project is to investigate how the vibrant music tradition of the eighteenth-century Moravians in Germany, a tradition which was primarily based on singing and improvisation of chorales, was transmitted and altered when missionaries converted natives in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. To my knowledge, the Moravians were the only religious group that used improvisation for religious purposes. They felt that only through the unpredictability of improvisation could they become close to the Holy Spirit.  How did these improvised chorales fare when translated into different cultures? The first missionaries went to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in 1732, followed by Greenland in 1733 and Surinam/Berbice  in 1735-38. For the purpose of this project, I will concentrate on Moravian congregations in Greenland, Surinam, and Tanzania.

Now, my general question is how did this extraordinary musical tradition fare in the mission stations? This leads to a number of specific questions:  Did missionaries translate and publish the chorales they used in their missions?  Were these chorales similarly memorized? Did they ask natives to compose new hymn verses with images they would understand better and melodies which they would find more attractive? Did they continue with the “Singstunde” tradition?  Was there any room for improvisation?  Were there other possible outlets for communicating with the Holy Spirit?  If they were open to native culture, what room was there for native music? Finally, what is left of these chorales today?  Are they still being sung in church?  Did they make it into popular music? The archive in Herrnhut has collected thousands of letters and diaries by these missionaries which have hardly been explored.

Throughout my scholarly career, I have worked on various aspects of the interface between orality and literacy. Now I want to enlarge the scope and see what happens when literate European missionaries are introducing oral societies to writing.