The Anabaptist singing tradition has been marked with the production of various hymnals and print materials. These publications have become a source of reflection and scholarship. Thus, it seems reasonable that a thorough evaluation and analysis of Die Liede der Hutterischen Brüder (Songs of the Hutterite Brothers) be created, developed and published.
Hutterite Songs by Helen Martens, is a result of her doctoral work at Columbia University under the direction of Paul Henry Lang, renowned music scholar and historian. The influence of Lang, coupled with Marten's skills as a scholar and writer, has created a body of scholarship that is intriguing and thought provoking. Martens is diligent in her discussion of Hutterite music and its sources and is thorough and clear in her scholarship and writing.
Laid out in 10 chapters, Hutterite Songs includes a discussion of the substantial influence of 16th century society on Hutterite music. In addition, Martens discusses the impact of court melodies, Minnesinger and Meistersinger songs, Roman Catholic chants, Lutheran hymns, melodies borrowed from the Reformed Church, folk songs, and songs by Anabaptists and other religious minorities. This far-ranging analysis solidifies the thesis that Hutterite literature borrowed freely from the secular and sacred elements of the Renaissance.
It is intriguing to learn that much of the music sung by contemporary Hutterites is based on tunes dating to the 16th century. The author states "Many (of the melodies) have not been sung by people other than the Hutterites and the Amish since the 16th century." Two melodies date to the 1500s, the period of the Meistersingers and Minnesingers, while others rooted in the Catholic tradition date to the 10th century. Cited in the author's conclusion is her discovery that the Hutterites "are the only people in the world who sing the melody (Es warb ein Knab nach ritterlichen Dingen) that the best German scholars had declared lost." In addition, she cites a tune that was composed by Hans Sachs, renowned composer and singer within the Meistersinger tradition.
As a musician, I was intrigued with the comparison of tunes found within the context of this book. Martens carefully gathered melodies from various Hutterite communities and then compared them with the original melodic line and text. It is clear from her scholarship that melismas were generally avoided or eliminated, but that the shape and direction of the original musical lines have been kept intact. The challenge of this research is compounded by the difficulty of defining the precise origin and tune of a song over 400 years old. During the 1600s, texts and tunes were borrowed and adjusted to fit place and purpose, and melodies were often altered before they were notated. Thus, "many versions of one melody may have existed and several versions may have differed radically." The comparative discussion of musical elements in Hutterite literature is extensive and thorough. This analytical work clearly supports Martens' thesis that these melodies were directly influenced by outside sources.
Martens discovered a variety of literature when she evaluated the song texts. Within the Hutterite collection, she learned that there are no Christmas or Easter songs. There are no songs expressing desire for revenge; however, there are songs that express love and/or prayers for enemies. The author finds more consistency with the texts than with the melodies. Apparently during the early years, texts were not transmitted orally in the way that melodies were often transmitted. Once the printed collection was published, the form and structure of hymn texts changed very little from community to community or from century to century.
Hutterite Songs suggests that by studying our Anabaptist brothers and sisters, we may rediscover the importance and purpose of song in a vital worshipping community. Today's congregations would be wise to consider the role of singing that Hutterites model. As many Mennonite congregations evaluate and incorporate music from outside the Mennonite Church, the values of "singing a faith" as illustrated by the Hutterites can become a springboard for conversation. Does our "new music" provide: "an aid to worship, a way to inculcate in children the Anabaptist articles of faith - baptism, the oath and the refusal to bear arms, to keep their history alive and a way of recreation?" Other themes include a philosophy of life, walking the "narrow" way, obedience to God and biblical principles.
One additional word of encouragement to readers of this work: take time to read the endnotes. These notes contain a wealth of information that is both fascinating and interesting. I often found myself captivated by this material and its support of the author's thesis.
I highly recommend this book; it broadens our understanding of music within the Anabaptist tradition. Hutterite Songs is well researched, well written, and carefully edited. Congratulations to Helen Martens and Pandora Press who have succeeded in producing a publication that should become required reading for anyone interested in studying the history and tradition of Hutterite singing and the value of singing one's faith in a community of believers
William H. Eash
Professor of Music