“Moses” of MB artistic achievement eulogized

The Ben Horch Story
Peter Letkemann
Old Oak Publishing, 2007.
490 pages.

When Ben Horch, the legendary musical pioneer of the Canadian MB church, died on July 2, 1992, I hoped that someone would write his biography, thereby recalling not only the remarkable work of an outstanding individual, but also documenting a critical phase in the history of Canadian MBs. It has taken 15 years, but thanks to Winnipeg historian, musicologist, and organist Peter Letkemann, we now have such a volume.

Let me say from the outset that, while this biography is flawed, both stylistically and by its frequent redundancies, I was nonetheless fascinated from beginning to end. Growing up on a farm near the southern Manitoba town of Winkler, I experienced firsthand the electrifying personality of Ben Horch. I’ll never forget hearing Handel’s Messiah for the first time under his direction. His flamboyant conducting style sent me into paroxysms of musical ecstasy. For anyone interested in the history of music-making in the MB church in Canada during the mid-20th century, this biography is a real page turner.

Ben Horch was born into a German Lutheran family in the tiny village of Freidorf, about 80 km northwest of Odessa, Ukraine. As land became scarce and the political situation threatening, the Horch family arrived in Winnipeg, December 1909. They gradually found their way into the MB community and it became Ben’s spiritual home for decades.

The seminal influences in Ben’s life are highlighted well – his musical family heritage of the German Lutheran church, the Anglo-Saxon musical environment in Winnipeg, numerous friends and mentors who advised and cajoled Ben at critical junctures, and, not least, his wife Esther, a strong and gifted woman who helped Ben in practical ways and also saw him through some dark times. The picture that emerges is of a determined visionary, an impatient man considerably ahead of his time, and, to be sure, a man of wit and humour.

What is surprising, and indeed inspiring, is to discover what odds Horch had to fight in order to advance the cause of music. The usual reactionary biases against artistic expression were prevalent among MB church leaders, particularly in the fledgling years of the MB Bible College. Letkemann paints the portrait of a man unconcerned about his own financial well-being, pressing on to achieve what he believed was right, and never embittered by the many setbacks he had to endure.

Even late in his life, when he and Esther left the MB church and joined First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, he was generous in his assessment of the MBs. Whether he was conducting Sängerkurse (choral workshops) across the prairie provinces, or championing his beloved Kernlieder (“core” songs which he believed formed the basis of MB hymnody), developing a music curriculum for Winkler Bible School or MB Bible College, initiating a classical music format for radio station CFAM in Altona, Manitoba, or producing music programmes for the CBC, Ben was nothing if not courageous and creative.

What he lacked in formal technical training, he more than made up for in dedication, charisma, and sheer tenacity. Considering that he spent several years in the 1930s studying in California, one can’t help but wonder what might have resulted had he crossed paths with the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky and numerous other elite musical émigrés who left Europe and settled close to Hollywood during the years leading up to WWII.

Ben’s wife Esther, herself a person of considerable perspicacity, reflected on her late husband’s legacy, referring to him as a latter-day Moses, who “saw the burning bush, took off his shoes, but did not enter the Promised Land” of artistic achievement. That would be left to another generation of Mennonite musicians, many of whom would find their artistic and, indeed, their spiritual fulfillment beyond the church.

Peter Letkemann’s work is a valuable contribution to MB history and offers a comprehensive portrayal of a man whose pioneering musical vision helped shape the artistic sensibilities of an entire people. He was indeed a Wegweiser – one who pointed the way.

Howard Dyck is the conductor and artistic director of the Grand Philharmonic Choir (Kitchener-Waterloo), the Bach Elgar Choir (Hamilton), and Consort Caritatis. He is programme host of “Choral Concert” on CBC Radio Two.

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