By Linda de Vries
Love Classical Choral Music? Think Chorale Bel Canto.
Seldom or never listen to Classical Choral Music? Think again.
On June 8, think the City of Downey.
Think Downey is too far to drive for just a concert? Think again.
“Destination . . . Chorale Bel Canto” posts several times in advance of each of our concerts, offering ideas for a different day trip to the city in which we’re singing, with a Chorale Bel Canto concert at the center of your experience. These trips appeal to a wide variety of interests and share fascinating, sometimes intricate, connections between the city and the music.
On June 8, 2014, Chorale Bel Canto is in Downey presenting America Sings! This concert is a collaboration with the Claremont Chorale under the direction of Gregory Norton, and features the music of Aaron Copland, Randall Thompson, and a concert version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with 130 singers, guest soloists, and a full orchestra.
Devote your entire day to the music of America!
Morning. Begin your day at the Moravian Church of Downey, located at 10337 Old River School Road (562-927-0718). June 8th is the 60th anniversary of their founding, and you will experience a special worship service featuring the Trombone Choir of Downey (see more below) at 10:30 a.m., followed by a bounce house, games on the lawn, and a taco truck if you want to stay for lunch.
The Moravian Church is the world’s oldest protestant denomination. Its history begins in Bohemia and moves to next-door Moravia, two historical central European countries that are today two states of the Czech Republic. As you will see below, the Moravians have always seen music as a necessity of life.
Jan Hus (1369-1415), a Czech priest and professor of philosophy at Charles University in Prague (Bohemia) is considered, after the English theorist of Reformation John Wycliffe, the first reformer of the Roman Catholic Church, as he lived before Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. After a long trial at the Council of Constance, he was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415.
After his death his followers at the University of Prague rebelled against their Roman Catholic rulers and defeated five papal crusades in the Hussite wars, which concluded in the Compactata of Basle on November 30, 1433. By 1431 90% of inhabitants of Czech territory were non-Catholic. The Hussites split, however, in a feud that ended at the Battle of Lippau on May 20, 1434. The remnant, too small to play a significant role in Church politics, formed itself into the Unitas Fratrum, Unity of Brethren.
The Unitas Fratrum, or Moravian Church, following the principles of Hus, was founded at Kunwald, Bohemia in 1457 by Gregory the Patriarch, who gained permission from Governor George von Podiebrad to organize the community.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church continued its persecution, denouncing the group as heretical and treasonable and imprisoning many Brethren in 1468. Fortunately, King Ladislaus II tolerated the brotherhood and it grew rapidly under the leadership of Lucas of Prague, who became leader in 1473 after Gregory’s death. By 1501 they had printed the first Protestant hymnbook. After the death of Lucas in 1528, leadership passed to John Augusta, who opened negotiations with Luther, but Luther decreed in 1542 that the Germans and Bohemians should go their separate ways. By the end of the 15th century the sect had spread into Moravia and founded 400 communities throughout the Czech lands.
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), initially a religious battle between Protestant and Catholic states, morphed into a power contest between the French Bourbon and Austrian Hapsburg rulers. Devastating central Europe, the war brought further persecution to the Brethren's Church, and the Protestants of Bohemia were severely defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. Offered Catholicism or exile, most fled.
The leader of the Unitas Fratrum at this time was Bishop John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), who lived out his life in England and Holland but continued to pray that the "hidden seed" of the Brethren might someday enjoy new life.
In the 1720s a small group of Moravian exiles found refuge on the Saxon estate of the Pietist, Count Nicholaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. The village of Herrnhut was founded on the slopes of the Hutberg on August 13, 1727. This became the Renewed Brotherhood, founded under the name of Moravian Brethren. Other sects found religious freedom there as well, but when dissension erupted, Zinzendorf took control.
Orthodox Lutherans became the Brethren’s bitter enemies, and the King of Saxony ultimately banished Zinzendorf, whereupon he founded congregations in Holland, England, Ireland, and America. He sent out the first missionaries to the Danish West Indies in 1732 and 1733.
In 1734 Governor General Oglethorpe granted the Renewed Brethren under Bishop David Nitschmann 500 acres in Georgia, recently carved out of the Carolina Grant. Owing to the climate, wars, and conflict within, the small Savannah colony failed to prosper, but the Brethren moved on to Pennsylvania in 1741, settling on the estate of George Whitefield, where they established the communities of Bethlehem and Nazareth.
The Moravian Church expanded into New Jersey, Maryland, and New York. Bishop Augustus Spangenberg established a colony in Wachovia, North Carolina, a colony named Bethania but now known as Winston-Salem.
The northern and southern colonies continued to expand their territories. After World War II, the Moravian Church expanded into southern California, where they had maintained an Indian mission since 1890. This coincided with the post-war expansion of the aero-space industry in southern California, leading to the founding of the Moravian Church of Downey in 1954.
Music. A major element of Moravian worship is music, both vocal and instrumental. Since the Moravians have a penchant for careful documentation, the records of their musical history are well-maintained in two archives, the Moravian Music Foundation headquarters in Winston-Salem, NC, and the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, PA. Both archives house extensive, important collections and provide numerous resources for scholars.
Count Zinzendorf saw life as “liturgical,” with every aspect a worship to be offered to God. Thus, secular matters of business and farming were given a religious connotation, which led to particularly Moravian varieties of worship.
The Losungen, or Daily Texts, were introduced in 1728 as daily devotional guides. These included not only texts from Scripture, but hymn stanzas. Zinzendorf had encouraged hymn singing from the early days of Herrnhut, producing a large hymnal in 1735. The hymn book of Christian Gregor appeared in 1778, and in 1784 his Choralbuch provided tunes for these hymns. Both were used in German-speaking congregations for a century.
Gregor created a unique tune-numbering system still in use today. All tunes of the same meter share a number (“tune 22s,” for example) and are distinguished from one another by a letter. The tunes and texts are, therefore, interchangeable.
Similarly Gregor composed his hymns by taking familiar stanzas from different hymns and merging them together into one hymn, sometimes intermixing new stanzas of his own. This is a mark of the most characteristic Moravian service, the Singstunde, or “song service,” in which the pastor carefully chooses individual stanzas from various hymns in a way that develops a particular Christian truth or theme as the singing progresses. The sermon is presented through the texts of the hymns. The organist has to memorize and be able to transpose over 400 hymns into whatever key the pastor begins singing.
The style of these songs resembles Handel more than Bach, in that the voice parts tend to move together so that the text may be clearly understood. They often use extensive instrumental introductions and interludes, but these, too, support rather than distract from the text.
Another important category of Moravian music is the trombone choir. From the time of Herrnhut, Moravians have used brass ensembles and bands to announce special events and to accompany singing at outdoor services and funerals. Beginning in 1754, these trombone choirs were imported from German to American Moravian churches, a set of instruments supplied to each new congregation. These trombone choirs have active parts for all four voices, reflecting the congregation singing in parts.
The Moravian Trombone Choir of Downey was founded by Jeff Reynolds in 1965 and is one of the most active of all trombone choirs in the world. The repertoire is primarily chorales, sonatas, and occasional music, mostly from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Moravians also play secular instrumental music, some by Moravian composers, but most by well-known European composers of the late 18th century onward, composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and the Bach family. Many of the works in the American Moravian collections are the only known surviving copies of music from these composers.
Haydn’s “The Creation” was performed for the first time in the United States in the Sanctuary of Central Moravian Church in 1811. The first complete performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor was presented at Central Moravian Church in 1900, making it a National Landmark of Music.
Moravian composers include David Moritz Michael (“Water Journey,” a woodwind sextet), John Antes (three string trios, the earliest known chamber music written by a composer born in America), Johann Friedrich Peter (six string quintets plus 100 vocal works).
Moravian music has a special place in American history. On Whit Monday for many years in the 19th century, a large flat-bottomed boat sailed down the Lehigh River, carrying two clarinets, two French horns, and two bassoons who serenaded listeners on the banks with Michael’s “Water Music.” In 1783 the Moravians in Salem held the first celebration of July 4th in the country, featuring Johann Friedrich Peter’s assemblage titled “Psalm of Joy.”
Lunch. You have a multitude of choices today in Downey! You may wish to remain at the church and munch from the taco truck. Or, you can hop over to the Greek Food Festival at St. George Greek Orthodox Church at 10830 Downey Avenue (562-862-6461). Or, you might enjoy the 1953 “Speedee” McDonald’s restaurant at 10207 Lakewood Boulevard (at Florence Avenue), which was the third McDonald’s built and is the oldest surviving building of the chain. (See a full description of this restaurant in the earlier Tongva post on this blog.). Or, you can check out yet another 20th century holdover, Bob’s Big Boy Broiler, located at 7447 Firestone Boulevard, 562-928-2627, originally Johnie's Broiler, a drive-in restaurant and coffee shop built in 1958 in the Googie style of architecture. (See a full description of this restaurant in the earlier Tongva post on this blog.)
Afternoon. The Greek Festival may still attract you, but you can also continue with the theme of American Music. Downey was home to many noted popular musicians. Alas, however, most of this activity is gone, but you can check out the historic spots on a driving tour around town.
Downey Records. Yes, Downey had its own record label! Located at 13117 Lakewood Boulevard, the building is now a dollar store.
Bill Wenzel brought his wife and two sons to Downey from Grand Rapids, Michigan, part of the post-war trek to southern California. Bill first worked in the music division of MGM and later ran his own spot welding shop. A week before Christmas in 1958 he and his eldest son Jack opened Wenzel’s Music Town at 13117 Lakewood Boulevard. The store sold hi-fi equipment, but specialized in stereo sets and auto stereo for growing in-car entertainment industry that was growing as a result of California’s cruising and drive-in restaurant scene.
Early in 1959, responding to demand, the father and son built a recording studio in one half of the store. They also established a record label, Jack Bee, a combination of their names.
Younger son Tom met his future wife, Maxine, at Bell High School, and they were married at age 17. In 1962 Bill and Jack started the Downey record label and brought in Maxine to run the store. Tom joined the staff in 1964. They created a subsidiary record label, Carmax, named for Maxine and Bill’s wife, Carmelita. Bill was the engineer and Jack handled the promotional side.
Success first came with the Downey label and the group Pastel Six, then with “Boss” by the Rumblers in 1963, followed by their biggest hit, “Pipeline” by The Chantays.
After these hits, the recording business began to wane, but father and son continued to record young Downey rock musicians such as Barry White and Little Johnny Taylor. In the late 60s, however, Jack was diagnosed with Leukemia and the recording business ceased around 1968. Jack died in 1971.
Wenzel’s Music Town continued to sell records, and tried to get new hits in as fast as the big Hollywood stores. By 1972, though, Tom and Maxine were running the store, and the bulk of their business was “oldies.” When the radio station KRTH (K-earth 101!) signed on the air they bought their play list from Wenzel’s. Until their retirement in 2002 Tom and Maxine ran “Wenzel’s Music Town, Home of Oldies But Goodies.”
In the 80s and 90s some of the old Downey Studios tracks were reissued on by various labels. A CD compilation of Downey Studio material was issued as “Downey Blues,” now available as “On Lakewood Boulevard.” The early Rumblers and Chantays material had previously been sold to Dot Records. Eventually, Ace Records acquired the rights to the remainder of the Downey catalogue.
Fun connection: In 1965 a group named The Bel Cantos recorded “Feel Aw Right” at Downey Recording Studios. You can hear it on YouTube. No connection to Chorale Bel Canto, but a nice serendipity.
Continuing your driving tour, your can view the former homes of The Carpenters. The family of Karen and Richard Carpenter, who became famous as a singing duo, moved to Downey from Connecticut in 1963. Their first lodging was in an apartment complex at 12020 Downey Avenue, first #22 and then #23. Karen and Richard bought a house for the family with their earnings, a house at 9828 Newville Avenue, pictured on their album, Now and Then. Then in 1973 Richard bought a house for his family at 8341 Lubec Street. Lastly, Richard and his family lived in a house at 9386 Raviller Drive.
Paul A. Bigsby, the father of the modern electric solid-body guitar (1948) and creator of the Bigsby vibrato built his guitars at 8114 Phlox Street.
Numerous other musicians come from Downey:
- Weird Al Yankovic, musician and satirist, was born in Downey and raised in nearby Lynwood
- Eddie Cochran, the rockabilly musician, lived in Downey
- Donovan Frankenreiter was born in Downey, as were James Hetfield and Ron McGovney of Metallica, Joey Latiner of Radio Free World, and Allison Iraheta, American Idol season eight contestant
- Dave Alvin and his brother Phil founded the Downey-based rockailly band The Blasters and recorded on the Downey label, as did the Chantays and Barry White
- Mary Ford moved to Downey to live with her brothers and sisters following her divorce from Les Paul
4:00. Head to the Downey Civic Theatre at 8435 Firestone Blvd. and listen to Chorale Bel Canto in America Sings! This concert of 20th century American music is a fitting climax to your day focused on Downey and American Music!
Dinner. If you didn’t lunch there, you might want to return to the Greek Festival, which is open until 11:00 p.m. Or, for traditional 20th century American dining, try nearby Pico Rivera, either Dal Rae Restaurant at 9023 Washington Boulevard (562-949-2444) or Clearman’s Steak ‘n’ Stein at 9545 Whittier Boulevard (562-699-4716).