Horst Reviving A Cappella Recordings

John L. Horst in the studios of WEMC-FM.John L. Horst in the studios of WEMC-FM.
Photo by Wayne Gehman

A retired Eastern Mennonite University faculty member is working to keep alive a rich musical legacy.

John L. Horst, Jr., professor emeritus of physics at EMU, hosts a weekly program, “Mostly Mennonite, Mostly A Cappella,” 8-9:30 a.m. Sundays. The show repeats 10:30 a.m. to noon on the university’s public radio station, WEMC, 91.7 FM.

The four-part, a cappella singing that is part of the heritage of worship in Mennonite congregations is featured on his 90 minute program. Horst draws from a variety of sources, inter-Mennonite and beyond, in selecting material to feature.

Horst, who taught at EMU from 1967 to 2004, sang bass from 1956 to 1963 as a member of one of the original “Mennonite Hour” quartets. The group recorded regularly for the radio broadcast and also toured the country with speaker B. Charles Hostetter to promote the program.

The “Mennonite Hour,” produced by Mennonite Broadcasts, Inc. (now Mennonite Media) based in Harrisonburg, started the program in 1952. Distribution peaked at more than 140 stations across North America in the early 1960’s. In 1965, the program was shortened to 15 minutes with less music, and in 1978 it went off the air.

“With the exception of [the late] EMU professors J. Mark Stauffer and Earl Maust, the singers in the 1950’s era were all dedicated amateurs from many walks of live in the greater Harrisonburg community,” Horst said. “However, all of them were well-schooled in the traditional Mennonite art of unaccompanied, four-part harmony singing.

“The singing was unpretentious, direct and committed to communicating the Gospel message,” he said. “The distinctive ‘Mennonite Hour’ sound was unmistakable – simple arrangements, solid harmony and clear diction.”

Horst noted that a recording studio built by Richard Weaver on S. College Ave. – converted from a chicken house in 1954 – “provided an excellent environment for good a cappella singing. In the 1950’s, a single, well-placed microphone was used with limited electronic processing.”

After Maust and Stauffer, leadership in the ‘second era’ of the 1960’s came from Marvin Miller, David Seitz and David Augsburger, Horst pointed out, adding: “The singing and sound is noticeably different, with stereo added in this period.” Augsburger went on to succeed B. Charles Hostetter as “Mennonite Hour” speaker.

In 1999, Horst began delving into the Mennonite Media archives and found himself reviewing archival tape recordings that were used on the “Mennonite Hour” broadcasts. He has since produced five compact disc reissues of hymns, gospel selections, folk hymns, spirituals and choral works, including two just-released recordings. Mennonite Media had released six CD’s on their own earlier.

The first of two new recordings, “Sing Them Over Again,” is a compilation of 27 original a cappella recordings by the “Mennonite Hour Singers from the early era, the decade of the the 1950’s.

A second collection, “A Symphony of Hymns,” employs the movements of a classical symphony – prelude, exposition, adagio, scherzo and finale – as a framework to present 26 songs of the church. These selections feature the music groups from the decade of the 1960’s.

“It was an honor to listen to and critique the rich ‘Mennonite Hour’ archive of about 900 acappella hymns and anthems,” Horst said. “It has been a pleasant journey . . . ‘This All My Song Shall Be.'”

For more information on Horst’s a cappella project and available recordings, see www.mennomedia.org/resources or call (800) 999-3534.