American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Memory, Exhibit Object Focus

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Ephrata Community Songbook

Die bittre Gute, oder Das Gesäng der einsamen Turtel-Taube

The principal source for the music of the German Seventh-Day Baptists, a group that immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1732, this manuscript is inscribed with a title that unrolls in the full proliferation of German Pietism: "The Bitter good, or the song of the lonesome turtledove, the Christian church here on earth, in the valley of sadness, where it bemoans its `widowhood' and at the same time sings of another, future reunion [with God]."

Johann Conrad Beissel, founder of the Seventh-Day Baptists, served not only as spiritual director of the group but also as its composer, devising his own system of composition. His method is described in Chapter eight of Thomas Mann's 1947 novel Doktor Faustus:

He decreed that there should be "masters" and "servants" in every scale . . . And those syllables upon which the accent lay had always to be presented by a "master," the unaccented by a "servant."

With these rules Beissel set to music the hymn texts of his denomination (many of which he had written) and large passages of the Bible. He is said to have hoped to set the entire Bible to music in this system. In performance his music seems almost willfully awkward to those accustomed to normal German hymnody--or even to the homegrown hymntunes of the late-eighteenth-century English-language American tunesmiths--but the passionate need to express the words of the text is never in doubt. This style of music declined after the death of Beissel in 1768.

The group's illuminated musical manuscripts were hand-lettered in Fraktur and are among the earliest original music composed in the British colonies. This volume was once in the possession of Benjamin Franklin, and a note on the flyleaf reads: "April 1775. This curious book was lent me by Doctor Franklin just before he set out for Pennsylvania."

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