Singing, Old Colony Mennonite

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The singing of the Old Colony Mennonites of Chihuahua, Mexico, by far the largest body of this group, is here used as the basis for a brief descriptive account of Old Colony singing in the regular worship services, based upon an extensive and thorough monograph, "The church music of the Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites," MQR 27 (1953), pp. 34-54, by Charles Burkhart, who spent a year in close contact with the Chihuahua group, carefully observing their musical practices. Old Colony singing has remarkable similarities to Old Order Amish singing, which are not, however, noted in the following account. For a discussion of hymns and tunes, see Hymnology and Tunes.

Old Colony church singing is led by a number of song leaders called Vorsänger or choristers, who are seated on a platform adjoining the pulpit at the front of the meetinghouse. The office of Vorsänger carries much prestige and is actually very important since, because of the absence of printed notes in the hymnal, the propagation of the tunes and mode of singing from generation to generation depends almost entirely on them. Because of the difficulty of learning the music much practice is necessary and few young men ever become proficient enough to become leaders.

Old Colony music is monodic and is sung by men and women together an octave apart. The natural voice is not used; instead the singing is nasal. Since no dynamics are consciously observed, all sing about mezzo forte in the middle of their range. The resulting tone quality is quite piercing and resonant. Use is made of simple responsive singing between the Vorsänger and the congregation. The former sings all the time, the latter making short pauses at specific points. At the end of each line the congregation stops singing on the first tone of the last syllable group, but the Vorsänger adds a few more tones of his own composition, after which the congregation, having caught a new breath, begins to sing again on the first syllable of the succeeding line. Thus there is no break in the sound, since the leader waits to catch his breath until the congregation has begun the next line. The tempo gives the impression of being very slow, partly because a single syllable is often sung to a fairly long melisma (melodic embellishment), although there are really few long notes. Nearly every syllable is sung to a melisma of anywhere from three to nine tones. Every syllable may be embellished, although the ornamentation is more florid for some than for others. Besides this primary type of ornamentation there is a secondary type composed of quite short tones, frequently inserted by the Vorsänger and naturally difficult for the congregation to follow. In addition to specific ornaments certain melodic formulas constantly recur which contain a number of short ornaments. The mediants sung by the leaders while the congregation catches its breath vary from one leader to another and actually serve as musical cues for the congregation's re-entrance, since the leader makes absolutely no physical gesture in his leading. Since part of the ornamentation is improvised, no two singings of a hymn are ever exactly alike. It is interesting to note that the mediants have something of a counterpart in the cadence formulas of the Psalms for the Gregorian vesper service. Being strictly monodic, the Old Colony style of singing lends itself to modality, both major and minor modes being used, as well as church modes and musica ficta.


Burkhart, Charles. "The Church Music of the Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites." Mennonite Quarterly Review 27 (1953): 34-54.

Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. "Singing, Old Colony Mennonite." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 3 Dec 2022.,_Old_Colony_Mennonite&oldid=143448.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. (1959). Singing, Old Colony Mennonite. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 3 December 2022, from,_Old_Colony_Mennonite&oldid=143448.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 532-533. All rights reserved.

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