Mechanical sounds and living voicesBy John E. Sharp
The Hesston (Kan.) College campus was astir on Nov. 9, 1949, when a Steinway grand piano arrived.
With the excitement of a child discovering a new toy, music professor John P. Duerksen inaugurated the Steinway by playing it for the campus community.
In his introductory comments, he said the piano would help produce finer programs of music, as well as serve talented students who wished to learn to play it.
It was not the first piano on campus. For about a decade, students who wished to take lessons could cross the street to the home of Paul and Alta Eby Erb, who owned a piano. Then a piano was placed unofficially in the snack shop and then in the Green Gables reception room.
But word leaked out.
In 1946, an alarmed John L. Stauffer at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Va., wrote to the Mennonite Board of Education member Nelson E. Kauffman to ask, “Is it true? I am told that they have a piano at Hesston this year… . It looks as if they [pianos] are just around the corner unless we bestir ourselves” to prevent it.
MBE officials were ready to “bestir” themselves to prevent the further eroding of MC Mennonite worship practices. The piano would lead to the organ — which, of course it did. Organs would require professional organists, cost money, endanger a cappella singing and change the nature of the congregation.
By long tradition, MC Mennonites had safeguarded a cappella singing against the threat of musical instruments, as had their Swiss and South German Anabaptist forebears.
Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz followed their spiritual mentor, Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, in his rejection of all things Catholic: ceremonies, rituals, liturgy, images — and instrumental music.
Though he was a musician of extraordinary talent, Zwingli said the New Testament taught none of those popish mockeries. Thus, musical instruments were forbidden.
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