Past Times

Moravian band was a family tradition in the traditional Easter service

The Home Moravian Church Band on Easter 1903.
The Home Moravian Church Band on Easter 1903. Collection of the Wachovia Historical Society; photograph courtesy of Old Salem Museums & Gardens

Easter sunrise service has been a tradition of the Moravians in Winston-Salem since 1772. In 1937, N&O correspondent G. deR. Hamilton Jr. reported on the popularity and significance of the service.

Braving the cold wind which swept across historic old Salem, the thousands came not only from this city, but from all over the state and from surrounding states, by rail, highway and air, to hear Bishop J. Kenneth Pfohl of the Moravian Church intone again the simple, impressive words of the litany formulated by his ancestors.

“The Lord is risen,” proclaimed the Bishop, standing on a platform in front of the ancient Home Moravian Church on the Salem College campus, as the first rays of the morning sun broke through the majestic oaks on the eastern boundary of “God’s Acre,” where the Moravian dead sleep...

A clear moon, just two days past full moon, shone down on the robed Bishop, flanked on the right by Moravian pastors and on the left by the personnel of the Moravian Home Church Sunday School, as he began the service with the solemn declaration.

As the congregation, made up not only of Moravians, but of representatives of virtually every Christian faith, white and Negroes alike, responded, the great Moravian “citizens’ band,” composed of more than 350 pieces, broke into the stately German chorale....

As Bishop Pfohl took his solitary seat in a tiny platform on the border of the “city of the equal dead,” where all graves are marked alike with no distinction because of station in life being allowed, the sun, a huge golden apple, came into full view through the bare branches of the massive oaks. The N&O 3/29/1937

Writer Bill Sharpe explained the storied tradition of the “citizens band.”

Harry Whitt is a salesman and his neighbor, Roscoe Jones, is a coal dealer. Down the street lives the 13-year-old son of a produce man and the collegiate scion of a railway engineer.

But on Easter morning they are all members of the Moravians’ great citizen-band, a musical organization perhaps unique in America. Three hundred and seventy-five Whitts, Joneses and their neighbors and similar and dissimilars from every corner of the city played in the great Easter band here this morning – many of them musicians for a day.

The wonder of Winston-Salem’s citizen-band does not lie only in its mass of brass, although it is one of the largest bands gathered regularly to play for any occasion. One of its marvels to the outsider is the nature of its membership. For, although its nucleus is made up by combining the various bands which are a peculiar feature of Moravian church music, a large part of the combined Easter band comes from these volunteer citizen-bandsmen who do not play regularly (or, perhaps, even occasionally) for any other occasion.

Whitt and Jones themselves have not played in a band for many years, except at Easter time. But when Easter rehearsals start they dutifully pucker their lips, stretch their lungs and push down the stops of their instruments. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker – they comprise a democratic assembly of players who, in this one season of the year, subordinate their ordinary pursuits to the great musical moments of Easter.

The organization, training and direction of this permanent band is largely the work of one man – B. J. Pfohl, who for 58 years has led the Moravian bands. It is said that B. J. Pfohl has turned out more bandsmen than any other musician in the world; and the 375 men and boys who gathered in Winston-Salem today comprise a mere fragment of his handiwork. Other hundreds of Winston-Salemites who no longer play were trained by Director Pfohl, and hundreds of others will be found in other communities.

Training bandsmen is, in fact, an old story to B. J. Pfohl. Through the generations that have sat under his baton, son following father, and grandfather retiring to make way for grandson. The oldest member of the band is 73, but this is only one year older than is Mr. Pfohl himself. The youngest member of the present band is 9 years old. Many boys in their first teens are “veterans” of the Moravian band, dependable and enthusiastic volunteers of the citizen-band, born to the tradition and faithful to its perpetuity.

The tradition itself is intimately linked with Moravian Salem’s religious history. Many years ago, the pioneer churchmen played homemade trombones in the church steeples to herald Easter morn. In contradistinction to the usual organ, brass became a prominent phase of Moravian church music. Church and Sunday school bands are found in many of Forsyth County’s Moravian congregations. Such bands are used in many services the year round. But at Easter the Moravian bands come fully into their own. The N&O 3/29/1937