The Ephrata Codex: A Record of the First Female Classical Composers in America

In the library of Congress, there is a document known as the, “Ephrata Codex”- an 18th century music manuscript created by a group of pioneers in Pennsylvania, at the dawn of colonial America’s birth. They called their commune, “Ephrata” and brought together about 80 individuals from various families to not only build a communal form of life based on the same morals and ideology, but also with a strong emphasis placed on musical composition. Perhaps the most notable fact about the Ephrata Codex is that it contains evidence of America’s first female composers. The contents of the Ephrata Codex appear to be a compendium of the community’s musical output up to 1746. The musical settings correspond to text-only hymnals entitled Zionitischer Weyrauchs Hügel (printed in 1739 by Christoph Sauer), and Das Gesäng der einsamen und verlassenen Turtel-Taube (printed in 1747 by the Ephrata Brotherhood – containing texts written exclusively by Beissel and his followers).

 

Thanks to the work of digital conservators, the entire Ephrata Codex is now viewable on the Library of Congress website in beautiful high-resolution images. The manuscript was acquired by the Library in Congress in 1927, and it appears that a mistake was made when cataloguing the title of the volume: the title is transcribed as “Die Bittre Gute,” which is translated as “The Bitter Good.” It is much more likely that the title reads “The Bittre Süse,” which translates as “The Bitter Sweet,” thus conforming more to Ephrata theology.

Dr. Christopher Dylan Herbert, an assistant professor of music at William Paterson University, wrote that when he reviewed the Codex in the Library of Congress, that he was the first to notice female names hidden in the corners of certain pieces. These names- Sister Föben, Sister Katura and Sister Hanna give evidence of them being the earliest female classical composers ever recorded. Delving into the music manuscripts even further, he developed the idea to reproduce and record these choral pieces- to be sung for the first time in 300 years in the same acoustic setting they were last performed- the Ephrata Cloister.

The Ephrata Cloister

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.

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.

If you’d like to see more of Chris Herbert’s, “Voices in the Wilnderness,” we encourage you to watch his interview here