As I write this, I’m being serenaded by a haunting a cappella quartet. The music they are performing echoes across time from the mid 1700’s. It was composed by members of the Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Listening to these devotional Germanic hymns is a welcome retreat from the modern world.
It is miraculous that this music was preserved. In fact, the historic cloister, which you can still visit, boasts of more than 1,000 original compositions. Many of them were gathered together in 1746 to make up the Ephrata Codex, an anthology of all the members’ compositions up to that year.
The 972-page codex is a handwritten, gorgeously illuminated work of art that is housed in the Library of Congress. It’s the only known copy. It has been digitized, thank goodness, so you can look at every page of it online here. But I’m including pictures from some of the pages in this post, since the entire volume is now in the public domain.
There are many things that intrigue me about this codex. One of them is the note on the inside cover. It says, “April 1775. This curious book was lent me by Doctor Franklin just before he set out for Pennsylvania.” The quote is attributed to John Wilkes.
I would love to know this book’s entire provenance. The Doctor in question had to be Benjamin Franklin. According to Wikipedia, the year before, he had been Postmaster General of British America, and was living in England. I’m quite sure he rubbed elbows with Wilkes, who was the Lord Mayor of London at the time. But as Franklin’s sympathies for the rebel cause in the colonies started to increase, it was time to return to Philadelphia. One month after he loaned out this book, Franklin became a Delegate from Pennsylvania to the Second Continental Congress, which was convened in support of the Revolutionary War. Those were heady times, indeed.
One assumes there was no time or opportunity for Wilkes to return the book to Franklin during that period, and the fact that Wilkes wrote in it gives one the impression that he expected to possess it for quite some time. Why would Franklin bring such a heavy book to England in the first place? And why would he loan such a treasure out to someone who would soon become his enemy in nationality if not in spirit?
How did Franklin come to possess this book? Did he ever visit the cloister? It isn’t that far from Philadelphia, and the cloister did house the second German printing press in the colonies. Franklin started off as a printer’s apprentice, so this press would have been of interest to him.
And when would he have come to own this large, significant book in order to loan it out just seven years after the death of Johann Conrad Beissel, the founder of the religious community at the heart of which was the Ephrata Cloister? While the codex was being passed around, the cloister was still limping along, with the last celibate member surviving until 1813. So why hadn’t the community held onto the codex?
The second thing that intrigues me about the codex is that, according to this article, Chris Herbert, a modern-day vocalist and musicologist who has extensively studied this book, and in fact is considered to be an expert on it, discovered, almost by accident, that several of the musical compositions therein had been written by women.
That meant that these women, Sister Föben, Sister Katura and Sister Hanna, are the first known female composers in America. (You can see their work on pages 653-679 in the codex, which seems to correspond with Images 680-706 in the Library of Congress’ digitized version. It was very exciting to see their names!)
Composing is a stellar achievement for women in the mid 1700’s, a time when most women were housewives and mothers and did all the laundry by hand and made all the meals from scratch. That these particular women had the time and opportunity to compose, and that it occurred to them that they were allowed to take credit therefor, is impressive indeed. It was their lives at the Ephrata Cloister which made that possible. (And it was a fascinating community. I’ll delve deeper into it in my next post.)
But let’s circle back to this hauntingly simple and beautiful music. It is Chris Herbert who produced the album Voices in the Wilderness, which I’m enjoying so much as I write this. He included the works of those three female composers, and the album was recorded in the Meetinghouse at the very cloister at which it had been created. Bearing witness to that would have given me goose bumps.
Seriously, check out this music. It’s amazing! Also check out this video entitled The Music of Ephrata Cloister on Herbert’s YouTube page. And while you’re there, check out Hebert’s own performances as well. I just love discovering new (to me) music, don’t you?
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5 thoughts on “The Ephrata Codex and the First Known Female Composers in America”
Thanks. Voices in the Wilderness has just been added to my hymns and chant playlist. I love that a female voice is included as most general searches for Gregorian chants rarely offer up female ones like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpRrf6ZwSRc . Nuns have a long history of chanting that’s often overlooked in favor of monks. https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/french-benedictine-nuns-gregorian-chant-neumz/ As for composing and many other artistic achievements, women’s works have long been repressed and plagiarized. It’s said that Mozart’s sister composed and was a better musician than he but wasn’t allowed to tour once she reached marriageable age. Someone, looking at my art, said that if I wasn’t a mother I could’ve soared artistically. Sometimes I wonder if that’s true even though I don’t regret using all my creative energy to produce four flesh and bone masterpieces to benefit humanity.👩🎨
Flesh and bone masterpieces. I like that. I’ve always loved chanting, but yes, women’s voices are so often silenced. That why I enjoyed writing this one so much.
Been using hymns and Gregorian chants for decades to reduce stress and to aid my sleep when in pain. Have them with or without accompanying music, contemporary and medieval originals and in various languages. This one, in Latin, has celestial music in the background. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eb_J46Eprqo and one commentor said, “According to exorcists, Latin chant music has a powerful positive impact on those who are troubled by worrisome and demonic thoughts.” … so listening to it keeps my demons at bay.😈 You should probably be worried that you and I have so many interests in common.😄
ROFL. You’re probably right! 😀 There’s a church in Seattle that does a kind of chant gathering once a month. The spectators bring pillows and blankets and lie on the Sfloor and just listen. I haven’t seen it yet, but I want to. It’s one of those things on my long term to do list. Something to look into if you’re ever in the vicinity!