By Frank Whelan
Bethlehem’s Bach Choir has been around for over 100 years. Like
a monument to another time it blends community spirit with high art
in a way that few organizations do today. And most of it is owed to
a man named J. Fred Wolle (1863-1933).
Wolle (pronounced Wally) had roots deep in the Moravian musical
tradition. His ancestors had first come to Bethlehem in the late
18th century. His grandfather Peter Wolle began the family’s sacred
music tradition. He composed a great deal of sacred choral music
and was best known for the creation of the Moravian hymn book. He
was also the first Moravian bishop consecrated in America
Peter’s son Theodore stayed involved in music but in a different
way. Teaching music in the South in the 1850s he became a
dyed-in-the-wool Confederate, even playing in military bands.
Needless to say, his northern Moravian family members were furious
with him. But apparently forgiven in 1865, he returned to Bethlehem
where he lived out the test of his life until 1885.
Theodore’s cousin J. Fred Wolle was the son of Francis Wolle, an
academic with a passion for the study of spiders and a tin ear
where music was concerned. Convinced that his son’s interest in
music was the path to church mouse-like poverty, he encouraged him
to go to college and then into business. But J. Fred’s mother
recognized her son’s talents pointed to a career in music and his
father quietly relented.
But getting an education in music was not simple in those days.
Thanks to his brother, a middle management type at the Bethlehem
Iron, later, Steel Company, J. Fred was able to go to Germany the
fatherland of Bach to study. Under Joseph Rhineberger, one of the
great organists of the day, he was saturated in the classics. And
not just Bach. It was here that he developed a passion for Wagner
that was to last the rest of his life.