Assistant Professor of Music Sarah Eyerly studies the practice of musical improvisation in the 18th-century communities of the Moravian Church. It’s a topic that seems obscure—until you know the backstory.

Sarah Eyerly

Rewind to 2002. A cousin sent her father a Pennsylvania Historical Society article about her great-great-great-great grandfather, Johann Jacob Eyerly, Jr., whose newly translated diary documented his roughly 300-mile walk along Indian trails from Bethlehem, Pa., to Pittsburgh, in the early 1790s. (The trip took eight days, during the summer. He wrote that the weather was so hot that the clothes melted off his back.)

The article mentioned that the diary was kept in the archives of the Moravian Church in Bethlehem. So Eyerly and her father drove there to view the manuscript. There, Eyerly, who grew up in the Lutheran Church, discovered family history she never knew: The Eyerlys’ roots were in the Moravian Church.

Coincidentally, her advisor at the University of California-Davis happened to be Moravian. After some discussion, Eyerly decided to apply for a research grant to go to the central archives of the Moravian Church in Germany. She spent a summer there and found manuscripts related to the practice of improvising hymns.

That ended up being the subject of her dissertation, and a life-changing event that has led her to become one of the foremost authorities on improvisational hymn singing.

In September 2011, she presented a paper at Oxford University on improvisational hymn singing as a way of communicating Christian theology.

“People would get together and sing in groups,” said Eyerly, who’s in her fourth year teaching music history at Butler. “They would lie on the floor and sing into the wooden floor boards so the vibrations of the singing would cleanse them in the way that theologically Christ’s body and blood can cleanse the Christian community in spiritual and physical ways. So it was a spiritual and physical way of singing that helped to guide participants toward an understanding of their theology.”

A year later, Eyerly went back to Oxford for a conference called “Perspectives on Musical Improvisation.” She talked about how the Moravians were able to teach so many community members how to improvise hymns and the pedagogy behind teaching improvisation.

Eyerly is writing a book on Moravian music, which she hopes to publish in the next two years. She is also returning to Oxford in September 2013 to talk about the Moravians and the creation of Christian community through song.

“This consumes me now,” she said with a smile.


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