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J. Fred Wolle's Legacy Lives on in Bach Choir

Organization founder led first U.S. performance of Bach masterwork in Bethlehem 111 years ago.

Bethlehem’s Bach Choir has been around for over 100 years. Like a monument to another time it blends community spirit with high art in a way that few organizations do today. And most of it is owed to a man named J. Fred Wolle (1863-1933).

Wolle (pronounced Wally) had roots deep in the Moravian musical tradition. His ancestors had first come to Bethlehem in the late 18th century. His grandfather Peter Wolle began the family’s sacred music tradition. He composed a great deal of sacred choral music and was best known for the creation of the Moravian hymn book. He was also the first Moravian bishop consecrated in America

Peter’s son Theodore stayed involved in music but in a different way. Teaching music in the South in the 1850s he became a dyed-in-the-wool Confederate, even playing in military bands. Needless to say, his northern Moravian family members were furious with him. But apparently forgiven in 1865, he returned to Bethlehem where he lived out the test of his life until 1885.

Theodore’s cousin J. Fred Wolle was the son of Francis Wolle, an academic with a passion for the study of spiders and a tin ear where music was concerned. Convinced that his son’s interest in music was the path to church mouse-like poverty, he encouraged him to go to college and then into business. But J. Fred’s mother recognized her son’s talents pointed to a career in music and his father quietly relented.

But getting an education in music was not simple in those days. Thanks to his brother, a middle management type at the Bethlehem Iron, later, Steel Company, J. Fred was able to go to Germany the fatherland of Bach to study. Under Joseph Rhineberger, one of the great organists of the day, he was saturated in the classics. And not just Bach. It was here that he developed a passion for Wagner that was to last the rest of his life.

On returning to Bethlehem, he zeroed in on bringing Bach’s music to America in a big way.

On March 27, 1900, he directed a choir of local singers in a performance of “Bach’s Mass in B Minor” at the Central Moravian Church on Main Street. It was the first time this piece of music had ever been performed in the United States. Critics from New York to Philadelphia raved.

His ears ringing with praise, Wolle led the choir in performance of the great work until 1905, when he suddenly left to head the University of California’s music department. Apparently happy there with no plans to return to Bethlehem, he got word in 1911 that Bethlehem Steel CEO Charles Schwab wanted him to return. And money was apparently no object.

Schwab was a music lover and that, quite possibly, was the reason he wanted Wolle to return. Others have been unkind enough to suggest he may have been trying to smooth over ruffled feathers in the community over the way he put down a steel strike the previous year.

Whatever the reason, Schwab kept his promise and Wolle flourished. By the time he died in 1933 Wolle had revived the Bach Choir, making it an internationally known musical organization. And it still is.

Editor's Note: The 104th Bethlehem Bach Festival concludes today with performances at 10:30 a.m. at the First Presbyterian Church and Peter Hall. The masterwork, Bach's "Mass in B Minor," will be performed at 2:30 at the Packer Memorial Church. Visit bach.org for more details.

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