A New Album Re-Creates The Work Of The 1st Known Female Composers In America

Jul 24, 2020
Originally published on July 24, 2020 6:45 am

Chris Herbert was in a hurry. The vocalist and musicologist was studying the Ephrata Codex — an 18th century music manuscript — in the Library of Congress, which meant he was on the clock. Herbert was working on digitizing the Codex. He flipped through the pages, taking pictures of each one, with no time to pause.

A few weeks later while on tour in Europe, he took time to examine his work and noticed something he hadn't seen before. Zooming in on the images he'd hastily snapped in the Library of Congress, he saw names written in small font beside the musical compositions. Three of those names belonged to women: Sister Föben, Sister Katura and Sister Hanna.

Herbert was curious, and then ecstatic. He deduced that these names indicated authorship. After continuing his research, Herbert could not find any evidence of compositions that predate the ones composed by the sisters listed in the Ephrata Codex, making them the first known female composers in America.

Now, Chris Herbert's bringing their compositions to life. Last year, he began production on Voices in the Wilderness, an album that includes the compositions of the female composers of the Ephrata Cloister. He selected an a cappella quartet, and recorded the music in the Meetinghouse at the cloister, the original building the music would have been intended for.

Christopher Herbert via / YouTube

Ephrata, located in central Pennsylvania near Lancaster, was home to a mostly-celibate religious commune that reached its peak in the mid-1700s, when Sister Föben, Sister Ketura and Sister Hanna lived there. The commune was founded by a "radical, religious pietist" named Conrad Beissel.

"He had a very unique view of theology," Herbert explains. "He believed that God was divided into two genders, and that women should marry the male side of God, which was named Jesus, and that men should marry the female side of God, which was named Sophia. And because of this relationship, there was an encouragement for celibacy."

Free of the constraints of child-bearing and rearing, the brothers and sisters of the commune were encouraged to produce creative works, like hymnals and music compositions, as a means of religious devotion.

"By writing music, they were professing their faith," says Herbert, and that although the music is technically simple, that's where its beauty lies.

"It's just devotional, simple music. Not trying to be frilly, not trying to be ostentatious. Simply existing for the sake of a religious experience," he says.

Founder Conrad Beissel himself was a hymn writer, and his followers at Ephrata were prolific. There are at least 135 surviving music manuscripts from Ephrata and its descendant commune, Snow Hill. But this creative means of devotion birthed some unintended consequences.

Rules about worship changed frequently at Ephrata. At times devotees shaved their heads, at other times they slept only three hours a night. Treatises were written about what to eat in order to sing properly, and what to eat in general — no meat, no honey. Herbert speculates that these changes and the emphasis on creativity may have played a role in why those names were listed in the Codex.

"Because of the number of rules, and also this push to create, it created some conflict in the cloister about attribution of work and who gets credit for it," he says.

At times, names were written in code next to hymns as a kind of insider scoreboard, "internally giving points" Herbert says, for creative works of devotion and faith.

But most striking is the fact that women were credited for their compositions at all. At the time, Herbert says, very few women would have been in a position to compose music. Even across the Atlantic in Europe, composing would have been reserved for women of means.

"The only women we know of today who were composers often...were in very specific situations in which they were given the opportunity to even have credit for their original work," he says, and in the Americas, it was a "complete anomaly" for women in the Colonies to be credited for any kind of creative work.

With the recording of these early compositions on Voices in the Wilderness, Chris Herbert brings us a step closer toward recognizing the contributions of women in the history of American music.

The album Voices in the Wilderness is due out in spring 2021 via Bright Shiny Things.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).


The music you're hearing was written by one of the first known women composers in America. She was known as Sister Foben, and she lived at the Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s.


This cloister was home to a radical religious commune that encouraged celibacy and creativity.

CHRISTOPHER HERBERT: These celibate orders of brothers and sisters, they don't have the responsibilities of working with children or having children. It opens up so much more time.

MARTIN: Christopher Herbert is an assistant professor of music at William Paterson University, and he has studied the cloister for years.

GREENE: He says the members were encouraged to create hymnals and to write music manuscripts as devotional tools. Herbert was digitizing these manuscripts when he made an exciting discovery.

HERBERT: I realized that there are names of different brothers and sisters, and they're written next to specific musical compositions.

MARTIN: He had found the names of the composers, and among them was Sister Foben along with two others, Sister Ketura and Sister Hanna.

HERBERT: So these three women are all in their 20s, writing music and they're receiving some sort of credit for their work. This is a complete anomaly in the colonies for women to be artistically credited for anything they did.

GREENE: After doing some more research, Herbert came to an even more thrilling conclusion. There is no way to prove this definitively, but he could not find any earlier compositions credited to American women.

HERBERT: These three women are most likely the first female composers in America.

MARTIN: Now Herbert is bringing their compositions to life on a new album.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

GREENE: The music you're hearing here was performed and recorded recently in the meeting house at the Ephrata Cloister, where Herbert says it would have been performed years ago.

HERBERT: To bring that music to life in the original space, that's an intangible excitement.

MARTIN: Herbert says the process of putting together this album was utterly inspiring.

HERBERT: There's nothing particularly complicated, but at the same time, that's why it is beautiful.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

MARTIN: The music of some of America's earliest known women composers brought to life after nearly 300 years.

GREENE: And it is going to be on an album, "Voices In The Wilderness," that is due out early next year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.