Those Musical Moravians

In North Carolina, a culture in which the divine is entwined with sound

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The modern-day version of the 26th Regimental Band, at an event in 2005

Credit: Old Salem Museums and Gardens

The first time I heard A Storm in the Land and Cheer, Boys, Cheer!—two recordings by the contemporary American Brass Quintet—I was immediately struck by their wealth of catchy, evocative music, all of it taken from the band books of a group of Civil War-era musicians known as the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band. Period instruments such as piston cornets and alto horns play a variety of music on these albums: marches, waltzes, dirges, popular melodies, sacred chorales, even a clever arrangement of a Schubert serenade. This was music composed with great skill, incorporating sophisticated harmonies, rhythms, and dynamics. The more I listened, the more I wondered about the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band, about the lives of those musician-soldiers. And then I learned something about that Confederate band that piqued my interest further: Its members were all Moravians.

The first Moravians came to colonial America as missionaries in the mid-18th century. They were German-speaking Protestants from middle Europe, followers of the martyred church reformer Jan Hus. Their earliest permanent settlements, dating to 1741, were near Bethlehem, Pa., but some Moravians migrated south and eventually made their way to what is now Winston-Salem, N.C. In 1756, they purchased 98,000 acres (known as the Wachovia Tract), and by 1766, they had established a closed theocratic community remarkable for its social, educational, and artistic values.

Moravian life continues to flourish in Winston-Salem, and I wanted to experience it firsthand, to understand how the earliest American Moravians entwined commerce and creativity and why music is still such an important part of their culture.

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