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A Sweet “Bitter-Sweet” Find in an Eighteenth-Century Pennsylvanian Music Manuscript

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The following is a guest post from Dr. Christopher Dylan Herbert. Dr. Herbert is a baritone and musicologist. He is an assistant professor of music at William Paterson University and is a member of the Grammy-nominated quartet New York Polyphony. An extended version of this blog will be published as an article in volume 76, no. 2 (December 2019) issue of the Music Library Association’s journal, Notes.


In 1746, a group of men in the Pennsylvania wilderness assembled a massive music manuscript. They dedicated the volume to their leader Conrad Beissel (1691–1768) who started their celibate cult and called it Ephrata. The Ephrata Cloister, as it is known today, reached its height during the late 1740s and early 1750s, attracting as many as 80 solitary brothers and sisters, and many surrounding families. Ephrata residents wrote their own hymn texts and musical settings, mostly in four-part harmony. Their compositions followed a music theory system that was designed specifically for their use. The 1746 manuscript mentioned above is held today by the Library of Congress and is known as the “Ephrata Codex.” Perhaps the most notable fact about the Ephrata Codex is that it contains evidence of America’s first female composers (more on this below).

The largest of Ephrata’s music manuscripts, the Ephrata Codex is significant and unique. Most Ephrata music manuscripts are small in size (between octavo and duodecimo format), contain four-part hymnody, and use Arabic numbers. Their calligraphy and colorful illuminations, while clearly descended from medieval manuscript traditions, are examples of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania Fraktur. The Ephrata sisterhood was in charge of the scriptorium and produced the lion’s share of music manuscripts. By contrast, the Ephrata Codex was created by the brothers, contains mostly five-part hymns (soprano, alto, tenor, bass 1, and bass 2), employs Roman numerals, and is illuminated with many abstract designs. 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.

The title page of the Ephrata Codex, Ephrata Community, Music Manuscript, 1746, Library of Congress, M2116 E6 1746.

The question of Ephrata music authorship is significant; while scholars have mostly assumed that Beissel is the composer of the hymns, this notion deserves to be questioned, particularly because of a discovery I made on pages 653-679 of the Ephrata Codex. When I was performing my dissertation research on Ephrata’s music in 2017, I took a photo of every page of the Ephrata Codex (I could have benefited from its digitization!). Several months later, I was reviewing images in order to create an organizational scheme for the Ephrata Codex and how it relates to other Ephrata music manuscripts. I was deep into my photos when I noticed something that had been hidden in plain sight: the names of three women and two men next to specific musical settings.

page 679 of the Ephrata Codex, Ephrata Community, Music Manuscript, 1746, Library of Congress, M2116 E6 1746. The name of Sister Föben is written next to a hymn.

These names (Jaebez, Theonis, Föben, Hannah, and Ketura) refer to celibate brothers and sisters of the Ephrata community. Why would these names be included in a presentational volume for Beissel? Why also, in a book assembled by the brothers of Ephrata, would women’s names be included? The texts of the hymns are authored by various individuals, both from Europe and Ephrata. Authorship in these cases can be confirmed because of the work of another Ephrata scholar, Allen Viehmeyer, and his Index to Hymns and Hymn Tunes of the Ephrata Cloister 1730–1766 (Ephrata, PA: Ephrata Cloister Associates, 1995). The only credible conclusion is that the inscriptions in the Ephrata Codex denote composer status for these particular hymns.

It is impossible to know specifics about the inclusion of these names, but what is clear is that these inscriptions provide evidence of America’s first known female composers. In the past several years, women composers have been slowly increasing in attention and prominence. I suggest we bring these three additional composers to the table:


Catherine Hagamann (Sister Ketura), born unknown locale ca. 1718. Died October 10, 1797.

Christianna Lassle (Sister Föben), born unknown locale ca. 1717. Died March 4, 1784.

Hannah Lichty (Sister Hannah), born in Germany, ca. 1714. Died October 31, 1793.

To view a video about my work at the Ephrata Cloister with musicians and the sources, click here.

Comments (3)

  1. Do yoo think the title refers to Proverbs 27:7 – “Eine satte Seele zertritt wohl Honigseim; aber einer hungrigen Seele ist alles Bittere süß.“?

    • Thanks for your question, Paul. I consulted Dr. Christopher Dylan Herbert for an answer, and here’s his reply:

      “I am not a theologian, so I reached out to Dr. Jeff Bach at Elizabethtown College, who wrote the book on Ephrata and religion. Here is what he has to say about the topic:

      “I think that Proverbs 27:7 is part of the background. However, the title of the music book is Die Bittere Suesse, so the concept is a little more than the actual verse from Proverbs. Beissel used that phrase, die bittere Suesse, in some of his letters. But because almost everything he wrote has a biblical allusion, I could well imagine that Proverbs 27:7 is at least in part behind the phrase.”

  2. I’m thrilled to have ready your information on the web,and thank you for your research.

    I’m honored to have found through Ancestry to have been a direct descendent of Catarina Lassle, IF my records are correct.

    I look forward to reading and learning more about my ancestor and your work. Thank you!


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