Ben Horch Prologue

In the days and weeks following Benjamin Horch’s unexpected death on 2 July 1992, his wife Esther received hundreds of cards and letters from friends and well-wishers around the world. Their words of sympathy were usually combined with expressions of gratitude for the meaningful way in which Ben had touched the lives of countless numbers of singers, musicians and ordinary church members. These cards combine to produce a veritable “symphony of memories” in tribute to Ben:

Ben was one of the finest men I’ve known in my entire life. I respected him and believed in him…He had a gift for friendship and supporting all aspiring musicians with his words of encouragement and continued interest…I became caught up, as many others have, by Ben’s charisma, his musical flair in conducting, his sense of humour and, from my perspective, his inexhaustible knowledge of music…I remember his dashing sense of humour and learned to appreciate the depth of his sincerity. He has touched and enriched the lives of many…what a wonderful, generous and lively man he was – a very special person to me and to so many others. He will always be loved and very much missed…

Many years ago he came to the country churches with his laughter and fun and his deep love of music. His gift of inspiration enriched and enlarged our world and awakened the love of music and singing. We are thankful for his life, so richly shared…His excitement about music-making was absolutely contagious…He was such a challenging and fun music teacher and choir conductor. He believed in us. . . He gave me a confidence I had not experienced before in myself…He was so much fun to sing for and yet so excellent in drawing the best from his singers…He also had the gift of remaining contemporary. The young people still loved him…His ability to interpret and to bring music to life was exceptional… I recall the ease with which Ben moved from technicalities, to humour, to spiritual intensity. I had never ever been so moved by a piece of music. Time and again Ben drew us to the text and through it to a profound soul experience…

Ben was a bridge and built a bridge for many of our heritage. Other Mennonite conductors may have rallied the musical talents of Mennonites within their communities, but Ben through his years at CBC and CFAM, his work with the Mennonite Orchestra and ever so many other activities, took us into the larger Canadian and world arena…

The name ‘Ben Horch’ is synonymous with enjoyment of life, a marvellous sense of humour, great musicianship, a love of people – and much more…It may be decades before the massive musical legacy which Ben has left with the Mennonites and other ethnic groups will be properly recognized! Ben Horch – inspiring teacher, exhilarating conductor, explorer and initiator, humorist and actor, trusted friend and encourager to hundreds, above all, a faithful Christian and one of God’s most joyous troubadours!

For many of his generation, Ben Horch was a larger than life figure, a musical saint, an icon; yet he was only a man. His dear wife of 60 years, Esther (Hiebert) Horch characterizes Ben best in these words:

It is said that the person who makes no mistakes usually does not accomplish anything. One learns to skate by staggering and progresses by making a fool of oneself. Ben was not afraid to experiment musically and he was a marathon worker forging ahead in spite of failures and opposition. Sometimes people thought he was an admixture of genius and madness. He was the musical prophet of his era and found it necessary to exaggerate his musical ideas and thus become the Mennonite musical prophet of the future.

One of his friends told him he was born too soon and the Mennonites were not ready to receive him, but this did not deter him in his purpose, even if he was not always understood and appreciated. His musical ambition for the Mennonite brotherhood didn’t ask “why?” as much as “why not!?”

His innovative musical ideas followed him into retirement and sometimes the ideas tumbled over each other in such fast order that it was difficult for him to sort them out systematically…

Sometimes his impatience with progress got the better of him, illustrated typically a-la-Ben Horch style while listening to a program on the radio and cut off before the end of a classical number for a station break. Horch walked over to the piano and finished the piece himself. To him a commercial was entirely out of line at the expense of musical performance. As one friend expressed it, “Ben is a dreamer and he doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Ben was convinced that convictions cannot survive if one does not fight for them. He can see through situations that to me seem insurmountable and his long-range optimistic projection is incredible. Defending an unpopular course is not always rewarding, but Ben figured being too cautious was the greater risk. However, opposition to his musical ideas also accumulated into a feeling of insecurity. He always wanted my approval for what he intended to do or wrote about, and when I felt he was pushing an idea too soon, or too fast, we were able to discuss it; but he insisted: “let me die fighting, no one ever knew me differently, and I may have enemies but I also have convictions!”

His rapport with people and his leadership ability also made it possible for him to excite others for his cause, so that in turn others did what he wanted done, too…

Ben was obstinate, prejudiced and contentious for his convictions. He was also unswerving and became a musical voice of not only the M.B. [Mennonite Brethren] Church in Canada and beyond its borders, influencing the G.C. [General Conference] Mennonite’s music making and in some instances, even the U.S. Mennonite churches. He always saw further than he could reach and knew more than he could explain.

Moderation was hardly in his vocabulary. It was all or nothing. He was a marathon worker. If he was on a project he hardly needed sleep and his nights were restless. Ideas came to him and he’d rush into his study at any time of the night to jot them down so they would not escape him. When a project was completed he would relax, sleep ten hours a night and get caught up on resting. There were times when he could watch TV six hours a day and then not turn on the set again, except maybe for a news broadcast, for weeks on end.

Ben loved the outdoors and in the summer the yard absorbed practically all of his energy… We could boast one of the best cared for yards in our area and he couldn’t stand unfixed things in the house.

Ben did not share my curiosity about people. He got all mixed up in trying to identify as to who belongs to this or that relationship. It just didn’t matter to him. He liked people but could never keep their genealogy in order.

He felt that accuracy in conversation was a handicap and made for dull conversation. When one of his grandsons related an incident dramatically and the other grandson said, “Opa, that’s not the way it was,” his reply was, “Let him tell it his way. It would be boring if he told it the way it really happened.”

He went on to inform me that the imagination needed to be cultivated, not curbed, and that accuracy is not an essential of conversation. Probably it was this characteristic that strengthened his intuition which rarely went awry…

In 1937, after a workshop in Brotherfield, Saskatchewan, when Ben was beginning his career as a Kurseleiter, a correspondent for the Mennonitische Rundschau wrote: “We all had the feeling that before us stood a leader with outstretched arm pointing us to a fabulously beautiful landscape and saying: all that will be yours, but you must master it yourselves; the way requires serious and strenuous effort, by all of you.” The allusion to Moses, pointing the way to a new land, was particularly apt for Ben, and he applied it to himself many times during his career. Like Moses, Ben was a reluctant, yet dedicated leader who often felt inadequate for his calling.

For over 60 years Ben offered his unique musical gifts to the Mennonite community and remained true to his calling. Ben had a vision of where he wanted Mennonite music to be within his lifetime – and he lived to see this vision fulfilled.

Yet the achievement of this vision did not come without struggle and criticism. In the end Ben convinced even his critics about the rightness of his vision. During his retirement years he received numerous letters and visits from former students and colleagues offering words of appreciation for his work. One prominent church leader wrote: “Your influence in our brotherhood has been most significant. It came at a very crucial time when our brotherhood was in the beginning stages of acculturation. These changes could have been more unsettling than they actually were. To have people like you present to guide with sympathetic understanding helped to bridge the gap between two cultures.”

On another occasion a former colleague telephoned him to apologize for his earlier critical stance and said, “How could we have misunderstood you so!” Ben received both compliments and apologies with the same humility, grace and good humour.

A prayer, written in his later years, sums up some of the major aspects of Ben’s vision for Mennonite music: “Lord, nourish my musical intuition aright, for I have a tongue like Moses, and cannot verbalize adequately for our people. Let me find those things in music that will preserve the values of our forefathers even though we may change outwardly, and the whole world about us. And let our voices be heard in this beloved land in songs full of hope, for a land and world so full of hurt.”

This reminds one of Moses, who at the end of his life is commanded by God to “write this song, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me…For when I have brought them into the land…they will turn to other gods and serve them…this song shall confront them as a witness for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their descendants…” (Deut 31:19-22).

For Ben this song was the Mennonite Kernlied. Through all the struggles of his life Ben found encouragement and consolation in his beloved Kernlieder. They were for him a very personal expression of life’s hurts framed in the context of faith and hope. It is this joyful hope that shines through in Victor Davies’ Mennonite Piano Concerto and Thomas Jahn’s Kernlieder Cycle – two significant musical works that owe their existence to Ben Horch’s hope and vision for Mennonite music.

Ben Horch did die working, “Still tackling plans unfinished, tasks undone.” The purpose of this biography is to keep alive his memory; to challenge and encourage succeeding generations of Mennonite and Canadian musicians to understand and realize his goals, his undone tasks and to “dream new dreams” (Joel 2:28).