One year before the Bethlehem Steel Company was forged in Pennsylvania's majestic Lehigh Valley, another tradition was born here: a choir dedicated to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
There's a librarian, a banker, nurse, retired F.B.I. agent. All are volunteers.
Karen Cocca remembers the first time she heard the choir:
"I was in about the 6th grade. And came to a concert with some other students. And it was really the first time that I had heard a choir that largeÂ…it was really awe inspiring."
For Edmund Young, "It's like one big family of people who love the music of BachÂ…and it's just one big happy family."
This year, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem celebrates its 100th anniversary. It is a national treasure - the oldest choir in the country devoted exclusively to Bach.
Under the baton of Greg Funfgeld, the choir from the little town has achieved international acclaim. Funfgeld believes the choir has performed at least 130 or 140 of the Bach cantatas - and they are working their way through the rest.
Why Bach in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania? In part because the Moravian missionaries who came here from Europe in the 1700's brought with them a musical heritage as deep as their spiritual heritage.
Funfgeld says the Moravians were vital for the choir's creation:
"The Moravian churchÂ…was the home of the Bach choir in its early days and certainly their love of this music, their deep reverence for it, created an atmosphere where this performing group, the Bach choir, could thrive."
In fact, says Funfgeld, the first Mass in B Minor by Bach performed in America was performed here, in the balcony of the Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He adds:
"and in those days, they didn't have pews, so they had turned all the chairs around, so that the audience could look up and watch the performers."
Without J. Fred Wolle, the organist of the Central Moravian Church at that time, there may never have been a Bach choir. Wolle's passion about Bach's music drove him to train a choir to sing the baroque composer's most challenging work - the Mass in B Minor. The performance is the centerpiece of Bethlehem's annual Bach festival in May.
In the Moravian archives a few blocks from the church, the choir's history is carefully documented. You can find the first program othe first performance. There is also Walle's musical score with his own annotations and an English translation. Significant, says Funfgeld, because:
"you have as clear an understanding of the text as possibleÂ…so you understand every word that's being said."
Also in the archives, a centennial book with the names of everyone who has ever been a choir member - all 3-thousand of them.
Families have always been part of the choir's tradition. Edmund Young has been a member 43 years. He sang with his mother, his aunt, his wife, and now, his son. Peter Young joined the choir ten years ago:
"Dad and I usually ride together. It's time that we spend together. I mean some dads go out and maybe play ball or get active in sports. But my father and I have always sung together."
Another hallmark for the Bethlehem choir is its devotion, not only to the music of Bach, but also to its spiritual foundation.
As Karen Cocca puts it, "The understanding of why the music was written, what the message is that's trying to be conveyed. That's the part that joins with the music and really touches me. One of the benefits we have in Greg Funfgeld being musical director is that he is a Christian man, someone who understands deeply the commitment that Bach had to writing music that glorified god."
For instance, the text of Sanctus.
"It's based on a passage from Isaiah, where it talks about the angels surrounding heaven and the cherubim and the seraphim. And they had six wings. And in certain places, he'll have the two sopranos and the first altos singing this wonderful section of Sanctus and there are these enormous leaps in the bass voice, where they sing 'sanctus', 'sanctus', and it just gives you the feeling of this enormous statement of praise."
Today, Bach lovers can hear the great composer's music anywhere in America. But there was a time, when listening to Bach's monumental choral works meant taking a pilgrimage to the little town of Bethlehem.
That century long connection between Bach and this place still carries unique meaning, especially at Christmas.
For Karen Cocca:
"It's just so fitting that in this city there's more going on than the lights on main street and the star on top of the mountain and for this choir to be here, it's very significant that this town is where the music of Bach was heard of the first time in this country, the Mass in B Minor, and that's a really incredible special thing."
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