The Ben Horch Story
Peter Letkemann. Winnipeg, MB: Old Oak Publishing, 2008. 490 pages.
You can judge this book by its cover. Ben Horch is the cover and the content. He gazes out at the reader with a quizzical grin. His brow is furrowed, announcing a man of thought. One eyebrow is raised as if he has just played a trick on the photographer. The slightly shaggy hair belies the long-haired musician. The carefully etched mustache accentuates his mischievous grin. His left hand wears a well-worn band of gold, reminding everyone of the important role his wife, Esther, played in his life.
From his birth near Odessa in 1907 until his death in Winnipeg in 1992, Horch lived a fascinating life. He was an emigrant in Canada, he was an ex-patriot in California, but he is today primarily remembered as a teacher. He was not so much a classroom teacher as a teacher by example. One of his students was Peter Letkemann who, as the author of this biography, has done a masterful job in telling Ben’s life story.
Letkemann is a thorough researcher. He has visited the place of Ben’s birth. He has visited the various locations where Ben taught and worked. And he has studied the printed materials associated with concerts Ben conducted and even those he attended. Hardly a character is introduced into the narrative without some background information. If there can be any criticism of the book, and it would be a minor one, it is that it has so much detail that the flow of the story is sometimes interrupted.
But Letkemann had help in gathering information. Esther Hiebert Horch, Ben’s wife for nearly sixty years, was an inveterate collector of Horch materials. The many photographs in the book are a credit to her voluminous collection. And she kept and organized printed programs from every concert Ben attended and every concert he conducted.
George Wiebe, another of Ben’s students and a gifted musician in his own right, writes in the foreword, “Once in a generation or two, a gifted, charismatic leader emerges within a religious and ethnic community to leave an indelible cultural and spiritual legacy . . . Ben Horch was such a leader in the sphere of music.”
Letkemann not only writes a biography with hundreds of names and dates, but he also writes the emotional and human story of a man. He spent many hours interviewing Ben and Esther and was able to clarify details. He writes with passionate detail about the automobile accident in which Esther lost an arm and nearly lost her life. He writes of the tragic death of Ben and Esther’s only daughter in a traffic accident. He describes the several emotional breakdowns Ben experienced as he struggled to bring a new level of artistic awareness to the immigrant Mennonite community in Canada.
Esther characterizes Ben in the prologue as a man who had “rapport with people” and was able to “excite others for his cause.” But she also admits that “Ben was obstinate, prejudiced and contentious for his convictions. . . . He always saw further than he could reach and knew more than he could explain.”
Two aspects of Ben’s life mission are featured in the biography. First, Ben was convinced that a certain body of music could define a people. For the Mennonites, in his opinion, this music was hymnody, but not just any hymnody. It was certain familiar hymns that he called Kernlieder. This German term, which literally means “kernel songs,” signifies the foundation or original fountain from which and by which an ethnic group is identified. If Ben “knew more than he could explain” as Esther proposes, then this is a term that proves her point. In a sense Kernlieder referred to whatever Ben said it referred to.
The second major achievement of his life was an outgrowth of the Kernlieder concept: bringing into existence the Mennonite Concerto. Ben solicited funding, Ben contacted the composer Victor Davies, Ben selected the many tunes (Kernlieder) that he wanted woven into the music, Ben contacted the piano soloist Imgard Baerg, and Ben organized the premiere which included new works by several Mennonite composers and culminated in the performance of the Mennonite Concerto.
I had the good fortune to know Ben and Esther Horch. This biography portrays them with affection, respect, and honesty. It is more than the story of a musician. It is the story of a time and place in history that is unique and beautiful. And it is fitting that it was published on the one hundredth anniversary of Ben’s birth.