The sound of Easter morning

By on April 12, 2017

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A Lititz Moravian tradition since 1771

They are a family — literally and physically — and one that documents its roots in generations. They are brass playing musicians — husbands, wives, children, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends — of the Moravian Trombone Choir, a Lititz institution for 250 years.

Even in 2017, as the group rehearses for Easter events, the connections are clear. At 88, John Smith is the choir’s senior member and has been playing with the group for 70 years. He played with late brother George who was a choir member for decades. Today George’s daughter Carolyn Smith Weidman, John’s niece, carries on the tradition. Weidman, who took up the French horn at age 50, “as a challenge,” is now a 20-year choir veteran.

Sitting behind Weidman at a recent rehearsal is Angie Shenk, playing trumpet, who is usually surrounded by one or more of her children when they are not involved in school activities. They join the choir for many concerts and will be there for Easter services.

Recognized by many from their Easter hymns and early Easter morning town tour, the group traces its heritage to 1771, when Moravian musicians from the young Lititz congregation introduced a European tradition to Central Pennsylvania. On Easter morning, the all-trombone choir toured the town playing hymns to announce Christ had risen and the start of the most important day of the year for Christians. They have done it ever since!

Only two other Moravian trombone choirs exist in the United States, one in Bethlehem, the center for the Eastern Moravian church, and one in Winston-Salem, N.C.

According to Choir President John Reidenbaugh, the tradition dates back to 14th Century Germany and came to the American colonies with 18th Century immigrants. The Lititz choir was exclusively trombones for more than a century, but today welcomes musicians playing a variety of brass instruments.

The tradition remains rock solid strong. LMTC members are still serenading Lititz residents each Easter as well as playing at church services and functions, concerts and community events throughout the year.

According to trumpeter Smith, a life-long Lititz resident and choir vice president, “I get great satisfaction from playing with the choir and I have done so since I was a teenager, except for three years in the service. I’m committed and I’ll play as long as I can.”

Smith, who was a Lancaster Symphony Orchestra member for many years and played with a number of local music groups, gives meaning to being committed. In conversation before a recent rehearsal, he tells me that he and wife Dixie were married on an Easter Sunday 58 years ago.

“It was in the afternoon,” he clarifies, “only after I played during both the overnight town hymn tour and the dawn service.”

The choir pre-dates electricity, alarm clocks, messaging and iPhone alerts, and Lititz Christians always have embraced the choir’s message of the start of Easter. Some 25-30 musicians, including members from area churches, will gather at the Lititz Moravian Church for breakfast just after midnight this April 16, and then break into three groups to tour the town playing hymns, including Charles Wesley’s 18th Century “Christ The Lord Has Risen Today.”

Two groups walk the streets, explains Choir Business Manager Jan Reidenbaugh, while a third rides a van to traditional stops before playing. The group will tour despite adverse weather and has played on porches or under umbrellas when greeted by spring snow or rain.

Sometime before sunrise, the choir reassembles at the church and leads the congregation to the God’s Acre cemetery, playing Christian Burke’s early 20th Century hymn “Lord of Life and King of Glory” antiphonally for the first service of the day.

Mr. Reidenbaugh has served as president of the trombone choir for nearly three decades and coordinates yearly planning for the group. The current music director, Marilyn Winfield, has held her post for 21 years.

Choir membership is fluid with musicians participating in as many events as possible, with the Easter tour and dawn service circled in red on everyone’s calendar. The choir stays active during the year playing four-to-six scheduled concerts and are well known for appearances during the Christmas holiday season at the Landis Valley Carole Sing and Lititz tree lighting. The choir also has played for the Lancaster YMCA Good Friday breakfast for many years as Lent draws to a close.

The current choir consists of musicians playing trumpets, French horns, baritone horns, trombones, tubas and sousaphones and can swell to more than two dozen players when alumni, friends and guests join the group.

The choir frequently welcomes worshipers at weekly services at its Lititz church home and also plays for weddings and funerals. The group only accepts donations for music and instrument repair when they play.

“We do it for the love of God and from the goodness of our hearts,” Mrs. Reidenbaugh says. “Everyone considers it an honor to play. It’s a tradition we don’t want to end.”

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net.

One Comment

  1. Marian L Shatto

    April 14, 2017 at 8:56 pm

    Welcome to Lititz, Art Petrosemolo. Thanks for the great article and photos.

    Good Friday isn’t the best time to find Moravian musicians on Facebook, but out of curiosity as to just how many trombone choirs/brass choirs/church bands there are in Moravian churches in the US, I posted the question on the Moravian Facebook Fellowship. These are the answers so far (plus a bit of research on church websites):

    Trombones only:
    Salem Trombone Choir, Winston-Salem
    Bethlehem Area Trombone Choir, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

    All brass:
    Lititz, Pennsylvania
    Madison, Wisconsin
    Sharon, Ohio
    Schoeneck, Nazareth, Pennsylvania
    Gnadenhutten, Ohio
    Reading, Pennsylvania
    Central, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

    Brass and woodwinds:
    Salem Easter Band (from throughout the Southern Province, about 500 players)
    Hope, Indiana
    West Salem, Illinois
    Advent/Hopewell Church Band, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
    Most of the individual churches in the Southern Province

    Sadly, the Trombone Choir at Downey Moravian, California, disbanded last year, though their church website indicates that they will still have brass for special services. And one member from London, England, noted that there is no tradition of brass choirs in the British Province.

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