Sarah Eyerly

Omohundro Institute

The process of musical reconstruction that led to the three recordings of “Jesu paschgon kia” is worth discussing in detail because creating the hymn recordings informed our understanding of hymn singing in historic Moravian communities and allowed us to appreciate the collaborative nature of historical work in music. Like many musical projects, the recordings benefited from the expertise of a number of different collaborators: composers, musicians, music theorists, and linguists.

One of the first challenges in reconstructing the hymns as sounded pieces of music was the absence of chorale books, or tune books, on this side of the Atlantic. At the time we began the project, we had four versions of the text of “Jesu paschgon kia” from the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (Figure I). Eventually, that number would grow to six different manuscripts containing the text of the hymn verse. However, there were no manuscripts preserving the tune repertory that would have been used in Moravian communities in Pennsylvania, New York, or Connecticut in the mid-eighteenth century. Fortunately, during a research trip to the Moravian Archives in Herrnhut, Germany, in 2004, Paul Peucker (former Herrnhut and current Bethlehem archivist) had introduced Sarah to several small manuscript chorale books from that time period. They were undated, but Peucker and archivist, Rüdiger Kröger were confident that they dated to the 1740s and 1750s. Two of the chorale books were likely prepared by the Moravian composer Christian Gregor (H.4 and H.4a). An additional chorale book contained tunes that may have been in use before Gregor’s standardization of popular Moravian hymn tunes in 1784 (H.3). Sarah also located a smaller chorale book that may date to the early 1740s (H.2).

To begin the process of reconstructing the music for “Jesu paschgon kia,” Sarah played through various tunes from photographs of the Herrnhut chorale books, hoping to be able to identify melodies that would fit the syllabic and phrase structure of the text of “Jesu paschgon kia.” The most helpful clue came in the form of a particular manuscript page from the H.4 chorale book (Figure II). Like many other Protestant denominations, Moravians cited individual chorale tunes by the various texts that may have been associated with them over long use and common practice, and so a single tune could be known by several different names depending on the intended text or the occasion for singing. The Mohican hymnals had consistently cited the tune of “Jesu paschgon kia” as “Herr Jesu Christ, dein Tod.” However, it was only by examining the entirety of the H.4 chorale book that Sarah discovered the appearance of a well-known tune, “In dulci jubilo,” with the German title of “Herr Jesu Christ, dein Tod” written underneath the Latin title. “In dulci jubilo” predates the Moravian Church. The text was originally a macaronic (multilingual) carol in Latin and German by the German mystic Heinrich Seuse and dates to the middle of the fourteenth century. The tune “In dulci jubilo”—most frequently sung today in its harmonized version by Johann Sebastian Bach or as the popular Christmas hymn “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”—was written sometime after the fourteenth century and then associated with the macaronic carol text. In the H.4 chorale book, this same tune had been linked to verse 9 of the Moravian hymn 1485, which had been written by Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf in 1741 for the birthday of the Moravian composer and musician Jakob Till. The birthday text was then recorded in the diary of the community at Herrnhaag, Germany, and later appeared in supplements to the main Moravian hymnal, the Herrnhuter Gesangbuch.

Once Sarah had identified the tune for “Jesu paschgon kia,” she prepared a modern edition of the music in Sibelius, a music notation program, using the soprano and bass lines and unrealized figured bass markings as they appeared in manuscripts H.3 and H.4 (Figure III). Identifying the chorale tune and preparing a modern edition were obviously important steps in reconstructing “Jesu paschgon kia.” But before the hymn could be sung, we faced another challenge. It has been nearly a century since Mohican was spoken. Indeed, the last speakers, who died in the 1930s, mostly spoke English, although they remembered their parents using Mohican. Thanks to our knowledge of German, we were able to sound out the hymn texts using the German phonetical renderings from the Mohican hymnals. We then used the phonetic version of the text to create an initial attempt at matching the text with the tune of “Herr Jesu Christ, dein Tod/In dulci jubilo” (Figure IV). But we wondered if the texts had been transcribed accurately and whether the German phonetics captured the sounds of Mohican as a spoken language. For guidance on pronunciation, we turned to linguist Christopher (Chris) Harvey. Chris, who studies related Algonquian languages and historical records, created a spoken-word recording of “Jesu paschgon kia” (Recording I) and transcriptions using IPA (international phonetic alphabet) while also correcting the Moravian versions of “Jesu paschgon kia” grammatically and orthographically. Using his new text, Sarah reworked the text underlay for the edition she had created of “Jesu paschgon kia” and began to rehearse the pronunciation of the text with her students in the early music choir Cantores Antiquae Musicae at Florida State University (FSU).

Before the choir could move beyond pronouncing the text to rehearsing the music, however, the chorale manuscript needed to be decoded from the original figured bass (numerical figures that represented the harmonic structure). Sarah therefore sought help from a doctoral music theory student from FSU, Joshua Tanis, who wrote alto and tenor parts to accompany the original soprano and bass lines that appeared in the H.4 manuscript and ensured the hymn was singable and harmonically correct, according to eighteenth-century European musical principles. Over the course of several weeks, Sarah and her students worked to sing and rebalance the text settings and musical underlay (Figure V) to produce a final edition of the music. Weeks of choir rehearsals followed, conducted by ethnomusicology student Drew Griffin and accompanied by organ student Teodora Mitze-Cîrciumaru on a continuo organ that could imitate the quiet sound of eighteenth-century Moravian organs. During these rehearsals, Sarah guided the singers on the aesthetic practices of Moravian singing. Finally, in February 2018, the singers and organist recorded the hymn in collaboration with engineer John Hadden, a specialist in early music recording, on the FSU campus (Recording III).

At the same time that Sarah and her students were rehearsing and preparing a recording of “Jesu paschgon kia” based on eighteenth-century Moravian aesthetics, Sarah also sent the modern edition of the hymn to composer Brent Michael Davids. He began the important work of transforming the original eighteenth-century chordal harmonies into harmonies that would better appeal to a modern church congregation. Brent also shortened the English translation of the Mohican text so it could be inserted above each musical phrase. Further, he added chord indications that could be read more easily by guitarists and other musicians familiar with tablature notation, rather than standard Western musical notation. The result was a flexible, modern version of “Jesu paschgon kia” that could be used in a number of different musical contexts, including a modern ecumenical worship service (Figure VI; Recording IV).

For the third version of “Jesu paschgon kia,” created by Bill Miller, we dispensed entirely with the German chorale tune. Instead, Bill worked with Chris Harvey in April 2018 in Indianapolis to learn the pronunciation of the hymn verse. Then he improvised new music to set to the text, based on his interpretations of Northeastern Native styles of singing. The result was a very different musical take on the piece, a rendition that helped us to appreciate the extent to which the original chorale tune had exerted a distinct sonic presence that almost overshadowed the Mohican text of “Jesu paschgon kia.” Bill’s version of the hymn carefully articulates and separates each of the individual phrases of the hymn verse, providing a new way to experience and hear the text itself (Recording V). Since Bill’s version was created through improvisation, there was no need to transform it into a notated piece of music. The oral nature of Bill’s version also allows the possibility to transform future iterations of “Jesu paschgon kia” into different combinations of text and tune that reflect new ideas about the meaning of the Mohican words.

In the end, the musical reconstruction and singing of “Jesu paschgon kia” has helped us to appreciate the extent to which its original text was a kind of flexible shorthand even in the eighteenth century. It was a prompt for the communal activity of singing, rather than a textual communication, such as a letter or a congregational diary, whose intent was to convey a particular message. Moravian hymns in general were not intended to be sung from books. Instead of being used as prescriptive texts to be read from during singing, hymnals preserved the repertory of hymns commonly used by the church. The practice of singing individual hymns was also flexible and meant to respond to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So texts or tunes could change from performance to performance. 

Singing “Jesu paschgon kia” has also allowed us to appreciate the collaborative and social nature of hymnody in general. Singing hymns is an activity that depends upon community participation, especially since chorale tunes can only be sung if there are four parts (or voices) present to sing them. Reconstructing “Jesu paschgon kia” in the present has required a deeply collaborative process, just as it was an act of collaboration to create and sing the hymn in the eighteenth century.

Rachel Wheeler and Sarah Eyerly, “Singing Box 331: Re-sounding Eighteenth-Century Mohican Hymns from the Moravian Archives,” digital companion version, William and Mary Quarterly, October 2019,

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