Harmony Society

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First Orchestra West of the Alleghenies
that Performed the First Original America Symphony

The Harmony Society greatly influenced the economic and cultural life of early Western Pennsylvania.  They built three towns and operated prosperous factories and farms.  Using their wealth they satisfied their enjoyment of music by establishing one of the first orchestras in the United States, building a large music hall, training musicians, commissioning original works, and holding frequent concerts. 

Spiritual leader George Rapp and his 500 followers emigrated from Iptingen Germany in 1804 to found a Utopian communal society.  Fleeing from religious persecution the members of the Harmony Society sold their property in Germany and pooled their money to purchase 3,000 acres of land in Butler County, Pennsylvania in 1805.  They built the village of Harmony on the banks of the Connoquenessing Creek near present day Zelienople.  All of their property was shared in common.  A very industrious group, they worked in Harmony from 1805 to 1814 earning a very profitable living.  The population of Harmony grew to 800.  By 1814 the village had one hundred thirty houses, a church, a hotel, a school, a mill, a brewery, a whiskey distillery, barns, storehouses, factory buildings, and a tannery.  Their farming efforts produced thousands of bushels of grain and supported large herds of cattle and sheep.  

Fond of music the Harmonists cultivated it in their leisure time.  Christopher Mueller organized the society’s instrumentalists to form an orchestra.  Johann Christian Mueller was the Society’s physician, teacher, and music director.  Dr. Mueller directed the orchestra, wrote arrangements, and started an apprentice system for experienced musicians to train young students.  One popular piece of music that Mueller arranged, “The President’s March”, was performed frequently in the Pittsburgh area by other musical societies.  (It was one of the first songs that Stephen Foster learned to play as a child.)  Another society member Frederick Eckensnsperger was a school teacher and inn keeper who composed keyboard and vocal pieces for the society.  During the society’s time in Butler County the orchestra played simple marches, dances, and hymn tunes.  The first written account of a Harmonist concert was in 1811.  An ensemble of 3 violins, a bass, a clarionet, a flute, and two French horns along with a chorus gave a performance for travelers from Pittsburgh.  At that time the society had one of the largest musical organizations in America.   

Seeking better river access for trade and more acreage to expand their factories and farms the Harmonists sold the village of Harmony for ten times the original purchase price.  They purchased 25,000 acres on the banks of Wabash River in the state of Indiana in 1814.  All of the members of the society moved to Indiana to found the village of New Harmony.  They prospered again in New Harmony with larger farms and expanded manufacturing.  As the society’s fortunes grew they devoted more time and resources to music education.  Harmonist children were required to attend school until age 14.  They attended classes in the mornings and worked in the afternoon.  Music fundamentals and singing were part of their curriculum.  The students were given music books with lessons and exercises in scales and harmony.  They were also taught to sing in two, three, and four part harmonies.  With expanded music education and the instrumental music apprentice programs, the society produced many skilled instrumentalists and vocalists.  The number of members in the orchestra grew as did its repertoire grew.  In 1816 Dr. Mueller began to compose short original pieces for the orchestra.

While in New Harmony, George Rapp instituted celibacy for society members.  He believed that sexual intercourse was not intended by God for man in his original state.  In the fall from Eden man was polluted by sex.  Intercourse was tolerated only in marriage for the propagation of the species.  Rapp believed there was no need to have more children as the second coming of Christ was coming soon.  Rapp forbad society members from marriage and sexual intercourse.  After 1814 there were few marriages and births in the society. The society only grew with new members joining.

After ten years in Indiana the Harmonist felt that their ability to trade was hampered by their great distance from the Eastern marketers.  In 1824 they sold New Harmony to Robert Owens and purchased land near Ambridge, Pa to found the village of Economy on the banks of the Ohio River.  The members of the society moved to Economy 40 miles north of Pittsburgh.  Focusing more on manufacturing the society’s fortunes grew in Economy.  They produced high quality silk and operated a clothing factory.  They ran a distillery, a vineyard, a brick works, an oil company, a planing mill, and a lumber company.  To ship their products they purchased and operated the stream boat named the William Penn.   By the mid-nineteenth century, the prosperous Harmony Society's per capita income was ten times that of the average American.  With its large farms, factories, inventions, wealth, and cultural life the Harmony Society in Economy was an American marvel. 

Using their growing wealth the Harmonists constructed a floral park, an art museum, a deer park, a maze, and the Feast Hall where they held orchestral concerts.  At the time of its construction the Feast Hall was the second largest performance/meeting hall in the U.S. slightly smaller than Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The Feast Hall building was two stories tall containing a orchestra practice room and music library.  The orchestra expanded in size with students of its music apprentice program who were in their teens through late twenties.   Between 1822 and 1826 the orchestra instrumentation included violins, violas, cellos, flutes, trumpets, clarinets, bugles, and a chorus of over 20 vocalists.  The orchestra performed on Sunday evenings and at society festivals held throughout the year such as Harmoniefest to celebrate their anniversary, the harvest celebration Erntefest, and the love feast Liebesmahl.  Culturally the town of Economy was like an eighteenth century German court, with its resident orchestra that presented several concerts a month.  As a royal court would, the society commissioned orchestral pieces from several composers.

Charles von Bonnhorst contacted Dr. Mueller of the Harmonist society in 1826 offering to write music for the Harmonist orchestra.  Bonnhorst, emigrated from Prussia to the Pittsburgh area around 1806.  In Pittsburgh he studied law, was admitted to the bar, and became an alderman.  His avocation was music.  He was a skilled violinist and composer.  Bonnhorst wrote over 50 compositions for the Economy Orchestra including waltzes, quadrilles, marches, and polonaises. 

W.C. Peters, an English born composer/arranger, who was fluent on organ, piano, flute, and violin arrived in Pittsburgh around 1825.  He earned his livelihood giving concerts, leading choirs, playing organ in churches, and teaching music.  He may have been Pittsburgh’s first full time professional musician.  The Harmonist Society commissioned W.C. to write orchestral works.  Peters wrote several short pieces for the orchestra in1827 and 1828.  Peter then arranged longer overtures taken from the music European composers such as Mozart, Rossini and Handel.  Peters directed the orchestra in rehearsals of his pieces, traveling by steamboat from Pittsburgh.  Peters wrote sixty pieces for the orchestra. 

With the compositions of W.C. Peters, Charles von Bonnhorst, and Dr. Mueller the repertoire of the orchestra grew to 300 pieces by 1830.  In preparation for concerts the orchestra would practice new pieces for several weeks.  Important political leaders, such as governors, and business leaders visited Economy frequently and attended the Harmonist Orchestra concerts.  Non-society neighbors from towns near Economy also attended the concerts.  The concerts were formal affairs with printed programs held in Feast Hall.  During the summer months concerts were held outdoors.  The orchestra gave 22 performances in 1829.  It continued to perform frequently in 1830 directed by Dr. Mueller and Jacob Henrici.  Sometime in 1831 the orchestra gave a performance of W.C. Peter’s two movement “Symphony in ‘D”.  According to some historians, it may have been the first performance of symphony composed in America.    Mueller directed his final orchestra performance in November of 1831. 

In 1831 Count Leon, a self proclaimed Messiah from Germany, arrived in Economy with forty followers.  The Count, who claimed he could turn base metals into gold with a special philospher’s stone, found support among the society members with his opposition to George Rapp’s celibacy policy.  In March of 1832 the Count and 358 followers left the Harmonist Society to establish the new town of Phillipsburg (now Rochester, Pa).  They received $105,000 as their share of the Harmonist Wealth.  Mueller, who was impressed by Count Leon’s cultural tastes, left with the separatists.   The society kept his violin and flute.  Several other key members of the orchestra also left Economy to join with the Count.  The Count’s followers soon became disillusioned when they determined that he did not possess the Philosophers stone.  The Phillipsburg community was dissolved after a year and a half.  The Count and a few followers moved to Louisiana to found another community called Germantown.  The Count died in 1834 before he reached Germantown.  Dr. Mueller, who became disillusioned with the Count in 1833, moved to Bridgewater, Pa. where he became a physician and died in 1845.   

The orchestra continued to play under the direction of Jacob Henrici, but without Mueller’s leadership its golden age ended.  Jacob Henri, educated as a teacher, emigrated from Germany to join the Harmonist Society in 1826.  Henrici was also a violinist, pianist, singer, and composer of hymns.  After Mueller left in 1832 Henrici changed the orchestra’s repertoire to shorter instrumental pieces and hymns.  The orchestra performed for another 30 years, but concerts were held less frequently and the older more talented instrumentalists dropped out.  When George Rapp died in 1847, Henrici rose to become the leader of Economy. His involvement in the orchestra dwindled.  The repertoire was reduced to waltzes, polkas, and marches.  The orchestra was dissolved in 1865 when members of the society’s young brass band, jealous of the more talented older orchestra players, smashed the orchestra’s cellos, bassoons, and double bases.  The brass band carried on the society’s music tradition.  The brass band of Harmonist member John Duss became nationally famous during the 1890’s.

The Society’s wealth continued to grow after Rapp’s death with investments in coal mines, two railroads, the town of Beaver Falls, and 6,000 acres of oil and timber in Northwestern. Pa.  But as time moved on the society’s population dwindled due to the practice of celibacy.  After the split in 1932 few new members were accepted into the society.  By 1874 there were only 110 society members living in Economy.  Work in the society’s factories was performed by hired laborers and adopted apprentices.  By the 1900’s the population of Economy had declined to only a few elderly members.  A set of financial claim law suits was brought against the society by former members and the airs of former members.  To settle the law suits the society was formally dissolved in 1905.  The lands held by the society were sold to the American Bridge Company where the town of Ambridge was built.  The state of Pennsylvania took ownership of the six acres of the village and several of its buildings. The village of “Old Economy” is now state run museum open to the public.  The Feast Hall, the orchestra practice room, the classrooms, and the music library survive.

Harmony Village Founded 1805
  Reenactment of Harmony Society Performance

Feast Hall in Economy

Economy Orchestra Performing in Feast Hall

Feast Hall
Orchestra Practice Room
George Rapp
Composer Charles von Bonnhorst