Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

You are at: Home - > Reports -> 2017 AGM - Singing by the Numbers

Upcoming Events
Our Society's Calendar
On Events page: Help Identify Students in the Venice School Photo

Singing By the Numbers - 2017 AGM Report

The Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan (MHSS) had its Annual General Meeting on March 3 and 4, a weekend of informative guest speakers, including a workshop for audience participation.

Wesley Berg, musicologist

Wesley Berg's presentation, Singing by the Numbers; Mennonites and the Ziffernsystem proved his extensive research and grasp of the Ziffernsystem, known as the number system.

Some have said that the singing we have have heard in our local Old Colony churches evolved from the Gregorian chants of old Catholic orders a choral music that has soft, gentle notes floating on the air. Berg disagreed. He played samples for us as he told of the history of the Ziffernsystem. It grew over hundreds of years, being passed on from generation to generation as an oral tradition with no written notes.

Naturally then, they lost the variety they may have had at the beginning and are reduced to six or so melodies, which the Old Colony Mennonites now apply to all the hymns in their Gesangbuch.

Wesley Berg sought out Vorsünger (cantors) who would be willing to sing for him, and give him opportunity to transcribe their singing to a written form.

There are other ethnic and closed religious groups which use Ziffern as well. The Amish have an oral tradition of more than 450 years, dating back to the Ausbund of the middle 16th century.

The Hutterites (Dariusleut), like the Amish, have their oral traditional singing going back to the 16th century as well. So does a Pennsylvania German Mennonite group.

There is a primitive Baptist congregation in the southern USA that keeps to themselves, and sings by numbers. (Dolly Parton comes from this background and one may detect some influences of that style in her singing).

Other non-Mennonite German groups in Russia have been found to have 434 melodies collected from prisoners of war. Furthermore, a Swedish colony found in a Russian village, were from a Swedish religious group that disappeared in Sweden, but whose singing style had survived in these isolated colonies abroad.

Berg heard this Ziffernsystem singing in the Scottish Hebrides, where he recorded two brothers singing Psalms in this manner.

In a Copenhagen archives, he found recordings of a congregation singing by the numbers. His conclusion: the Ziffernsystem is not to be scoffed at. It is a unique way of making music, coming from isolation, and reflects a desire for isolation in these religious groups. Yet, it is valid and worth learning to sing.

A Question and Answer time followed.

Before the meeting was closed, Dick Braun called for an offering to be received, while he referred to special events that we will likely celebrate this year. These include: 500 years since the Reformation, and a book launch (perhaps with several authors).

Draws were made for 5 reference books, and then Leonard Doell made the closing remarks. He told of an instance when he was a child and came upon his recently widowed grandmother and other widows sitting together in the living room and singing in the Old Colony way to comfort one another. He saw that it meant something special to her, and thus inclined him to value their music too.

Ben Buhler leading a musical Devotional

The Annual General Business meeting took place at 9:30 on Saturday morning. Ben Buhler shared the stages of his life in music and had us join him in some of the songs, from German hymns in his childhood, then English ones, and some rebellious teen choruses from the 1960s, then back to songs like Joy is Like the Rain, and, Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song.

Jake Buhler was glad to share some Happy Announcements. Since the Saskatchewan Valley News closed after 110 years of publication, the owner, Terry Jenson, has donated to our Archives the whole collection of past issues. This includes about 1000 negatives, photographs, and bound copies of the newspaper going back to the 1930s. It will take a while to catalogue them all, but then this collection will be available to anyone coming to the Archives to do research.

1st Publication of 1800s
Journals -Sponsored by Anabaptist Foundation

We received two Grants in the past year. The Mennonite Brethren Heritage Commission gave us $2000 for improvements and Archives upkeep. The Anabaptist Foundation in BC gave us $350 for the publication of the Penner Diaries from the 1800s. (See cover story in this issue).

Elmer Regier's financial report added that we have received $1000 as a memorial gift upon the death of Al Mierau, who began a cemeteries data-base on the internet for us when websites were quite a new thing. (That is now transferred to our main domain site). Vera Falk, secretary, handles book sales that come via the book lists on the website, and has been keeping the Dundurn post office open for postage to send out the orders.

Ruth Friesen fielded some discussion on her reports on the website, the excellent STATs for visitors from around the world, the Historian, and the Cemeteries Project. Also, the E-Updates email mailing list by which we announce coming events.

Kathy Boldt, who is in charge of the Archives volunteers, gave a glimpse into the work that goes on there, often unseen and unsung. She named the faithful volunteers; Peter Adston, Lois Block, Elva and Jack Braun, Jack Driedger, Helen Fast, Verner Friesen, Deanna Krahn, Mary Loewen, Erna and Elmer Neufeld, Esther Patkau, Linda Unger, Hilda Voth and Victor Wiebe, who is always welcomed when he comes as he solves problems. Jake Buhler has also helped recently with building more shelving space.

Vera reported on book sales, commending her husband Werner for all the books he packages for mailing. There are more German book sales of late.

Susan Braun reported on our 375 members. 170 copies of the Historian are mailed out, while 105 are hand-delivered to Bethany residents, and churches to be distributed to members there. One disappointment comes when issues are returned undelivered; please notify us of your change of address!

Board Elections. Susan Braun's and Elizabeth Guenther's terms were up, but both were willing to accept new terms. With no further nominations from the floor, both were re-elected for three further years.

Susan presented the Constitution changes, to be ratified by the membership present. Simply stated, it was a separation of the Constitution and Bylaws so the latter can be updated as needed through the year. Second, to increase the number of days to notify members of official business meetings, so that this can be handled through announcements in the Historian, rather than by extra mailings. Her motion was passed promptly.

Elmer Regier presented the Projected Budget for the coming year, and it passed swiftly too.

This closed the official business meeting, and we went to a coffee break before the next meeting.

Anabaptist Interpretive Centre, Rosthern

George Epp, describing the
Anabaptist Interpretive Centre, in Rosthern

At 11 a.m. we returned to our seats to hear George Epp tell of the Anabaptist presence in the Saskatchewan Valley needing interpretation.

They found that their museum was crowded with an excess of stuff in every display and room. Their Board felt that it would be better to put it all away and focus on arranging displays that would tell our stories in more attractive ways. They wanted to help the artifacts tell their story.

Another development was that the little white Mennonite church that had been sold years ago to the Swedenborg congregation, has now been donated to the museum. It is being retooled for a new age.

They want to start bringing in school classes for tours this year. George, himself, and Oliver Friesen, try to be available so they can be open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays – all day, plus Sunday afternoons. They can be available any other day too, if people call ahead.

In a Question and Answer time, Leonard Doell said that the principle of this is a wonderful idea. But he wondered if the First Nations will be incorporated into the Mennonite story.

George replied that they have started working with Beardy's and he had asked Oliver to prepare a timeline; already they noticed that the First Nations took up most of the width of the chart, while the Mennonites had only been here for less than one inch of space. There will be rooms for various historical themes, such as Medicine, Business, etc. They are working on one for the Ukrainians too.

Someone asked if they were still accepting donations, such as the travelling minister, David Epp's communion cup, which he used to have communion in host homes and churches?

George answered, "Yes, as long as it is not another pump organ; we have six already."

A question was raised about accepting "dirty money" (ie. from the provincial gambling commission); this bothers the conscience of some.

Another question asked whether they have gaps in donations, other than money?

George agreed that volunteers are needed to do much physical work. A glazier is needed to replace windows that broke when the little church was moved. Furthermore, they are looking for some of the earliest copies of the Valley News.

Leonard Doell suggested that while our MHSS Archives preserve historical papers - documents and books, our Mennonite museums preserve other objects and memorabilia; we need to develop better communications with them, so we can refer donors with their artifacts!

George Epp recommended that everyone get a passport at any one of our area museums, and get our passport stamped as we visit all the other museums. Those who visit all of them can get a prize. (He had suggested a pump organ, but was over-ruled).

After a delicious lunch, where the Summa Borscht was excellent, and much friendly visiting, we gathered again for the afternoon workshop with Wesley Berg.

Mr. Berg read a few quotes by people commenting on the sound of Old Colony Mennonites singing, most making subtle fun of the same. Particularly of the melisma. This is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving up and down between several different notes in succession.

A Condensed Ziffern History:

1837 - Heinrich Franz, a Prussian trained schoolteacher, introduced Ziffern singing to his class in Gnadenfeld, Molotschna.

1846 - Johann Cornies made Ziffern singing part of the school reform in Molotschna.

1860 - the Choralbuch was published, and Old Colony hymns in the Gesangbuch.

1865 - a version was published with melodies only, separate from the hymns. This is still how the Old Colony, and other conservative groups, sing their hymns. These have been popular enough so that D. W. Friesen printers in Altona, MB., has run a number of reprints.

Wesley Berg explained also, about shape notes, (squares, triangles circles and ovals), introduced in 1801, and popular in American singing schools to help singers quickly find their pitches within the major and minor scales.

Victor Wiebe explaining the archive's
collection of books with ziffern or numbers

We were reminded by Wesley, that Victor Wiebe had set up a display of books from the Archives, that had Ziffern numbers, over to the far side of the platform. It truly had a great array of books, so we could see what this music looks like, in four-part harmony as well as the single line style.

ziffern or numbers for singing

It was time for us to learn to sing by numbers. Mr. Berg introduced us to the music on the handout sheets we had been given; Welt Ade, ich bin dein müde (World, Goodbye, I am Weary). We began by singing the numbers, much as we would a scale. Then we sang it with the German words.

Jake Buhler and three
other volunteers singing Welt Ade

When we were done, Jake Buhler asked if he and some other volunteers could sing this song in the way with which they had grown up. Permission was granted, and three women, including the caterer, who had made our lunch, lined up to sing for us.

Dick Braun made the closing remarks, thanking our speakers, Wesley Berg and George Epp, and reminding us of the special celebrations that are coming up this year; 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, and the 100th year of Mennonite Trust, in particular.

Those interested in seeing the Archives were invited to go downstairs for a tour of the Archives.

[last updated - Apr/14/2022]
Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

Room 900 - 110 La Ronge Road,
Saskatoon, SK, S7K 7H8
Archive Hours: Monday: 1:30 - 4:00 p.m. Wednesday: 1:30 - 4:00 p.m. & by appointment on Wed. evening.