Peninsula Music Festival and its Connection to the Moravian Church
The Peninsula Music Festival was founded by Lorenz Heise, Kay Wilson and conductor Thor Johnson – all Moravians. Thor Johnson was born in Wisconsin Rapids in 1913 and grew up in a family of Moravian ministers – his father was born in Sturgeon Bay. His life was filled with music that was cultivated in Moravian congregations. At the age of four, the family moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home of one of the largest settlements of Moravians in the United States. Before returning to his Wisconsin roots, Thor Johnson’s career took him to the podium of two major orchestras (Cincinnati and Nashville Symphonies) in addition to holding faculty positions at Northwestern University and the University of Michigan. He was an instructor at Juilliard and was the director of the Interlochen Arts Academy.
The Moravian Church has a liturgical form of worship that puts music at its center, therefore playing an important role in the service. The early American settlements (Bethlehem, Lititz, and Nazareth, Pennsylvania), incorporated solos and anthems that were often quite elaborate and performed with accompaniment, into the church services. In 1937, thanks to a grant from the American Philosophical Society, scholars could, for the first time, examine the entire musical material preserved in the libraries of the Moravian Church housed in Pennsylvania. The purpose of the study was to determine which pieces of music were composed in America and to finally catalog this music. Of course, by discovering the rich resource of American music, came the need to find an audience. Thor Johnson was more than happy to agree to serve as the director of the first Early American Moravian Music Festival. Thor Johnson continued to serve as music director of the next ten Early American Moravian Music Festivals including the last one he directed before his death that was held in De Pere, Wisconsin at St. Norbert College in 1974.
A Wisconsin resident, Lorenz Heise, who was also the son of a Moravian pastor, happened to attend that very first Early Moravian Music Festival. A native of Green Bay, Lorenz Heise’s father was the pastor of East Side Moravian Church. On a business trip to Cincinnati, Lorenz Heise stopped by the symphony offices and introduced himself to Thor Johnson. They became lifelong friends. Lorenz asked Thor if we would consider coming to Door County to create a similar music festival. Thor Johnson agreed. The year was 1950.
August 6, 1953, the Peninsula Music Festival began in the gymnasium of Gibraltar School. Its traditions, founded in the Moravian Church and the model of the Early American Music Festival, have continued, giving performances of many great works by American composers and numerous Czech composers.
Though the Peninsula Music Festival has grown in size, stature, artistic quality and has a new home in the Door Community Auditorium, it is important to remember the history and roots that have created an organization of such great artistic quality.