Between Orality and Literacy: Music in the Moravian Missions: 1732-09

Anna Maria Busse Berger
UC Davis

The purpose of this project is to investigate how the vibrant music tradition of the eighteenth-century Moravians in Germany, a tradition that was primarily based on singing and improvisation of chorales, was transmitted and altered when missionaries converted the people they encountered during their travels in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Moravians were one of a few religious group that used improvisation for religious purposes. They felt that only through the unpredictability of improvisation could they become close to the Holy Spirit. How did these improvised chorales fare when translated into different cultures? Were they as central to religious practices overseas as they were in Germany? How were they adjusted during encounters with local rituals? And above all, what roles did memorization and improvisation play in the mission stations?

This project extends the grantee’s scholarly work on various aspects of the interface between orality and literacy by enlarging its scope to see what happens when literate European missionaries introduce oral societies to writing.