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This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Peter, John Frederick

by Frank P. Cauble, 1994

19 May 1746–19 July 1813

John Frederick Peter, musician, composer, teacher, and minister, was born of German parents in Heerendyck, Holland, where his father, John Frederick Peter, was a Moravian pastor. His mother was Susannah Peter. Before coming to America, young Peter received excellent musical training, and while a student at the theological seminary in Barby, Saxony, from 1765 to 1769, he began his lifelong habit of copying the works of noted German composers. Some of his beautifully written transcripts are now the only existing copies.

By 1770, when he joined the Moravian colony at Bethlehem, Pa., Peter was a brilliant and accomplished musician; that summer he composed a solo for strings and organ. He later directed performances of works by Bach, Handel, and Graun and developed a full orchestra which played symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, and their contemporaries.

Peter went to Bethlehem as assistant superintendent of the unmarried men. After the Brethren's House was turned into a Continental hospital, he was called to Salem, N.C., where he arrived in June 1780 and was ordained as a Moravian deacon on 16 September. He preached and performed many other duties in addition to his musical activities.

Under his leadership, the Collegium Musicum Salem was organized in 1786 and soon became the foremost musical society in the early history of North Carolina. It had at its disposal one of the largest and most diversified libraries of secular music in America. Peter's six quintets for two violins, two violas, and cello, composed at Salem in 1789, have been acclaimed as the earliest extant chamber works written in America and the most important compositions in the history of early American music. Although these works followed the classical tradition, they displayed considerable harmonic freedom and boldness in modulation. During his ten years at Salem, Peter also composed thirty interesting and effective anthems and four soprano solos. He left Salem in August 1790 and in 1793 again took charge of the musical activities in Bethlehem, Pa. There he directed in 1811 the first complete American performance of Haydn's Creation.

For more than a century after his death, Peter's musical compositions were largely forgotten, but in recent years they have received national recognition on account of scholarly research and publications in the field of early Moravian music. He now occupies a prominent position in American musical history.

He married Catharine Leinbach (1755–1830), a soprano singer of Salem, in 1786. There were no children. Peter continued his musical career until the day of his death; he was buried in the Old Moravian Cemetery at Bethlehem.


Adelaide L. Fries, ed., Records of the Moravians of North Carolina, vol. 4 (1930).

Donald Mc. McCorkle, "The Collegium Musicum Salem: Its Music, Musicians, and Importance," North Carolina Historical Review 33 (October 1956).

Moravian Archives (Bethlehem, Pa., and Winston-Salem, N.C.).

Additional Resources:

Grider, Rufus A., n. 1817. Historical notes on music in Bethlehem, Pa., from 1741-1871. Winston-Salem, N.C., Moravin Music Foudnation. 1957. (accessed September 17, 2014).

McCorkle, Donald. The Moravian contribution to American music. Winston-Salem, Moravian Music Foundation. 1956. (accessed September 17, 2014).

Moravian Music Foundation. Newsletter of the Moravian Music Foundation vol. 1. Winston-Salem, N.C.: The Foundation. 1985. (accessed September 17, 2014).

"Personal Papers - Memoirs - John Frederick Peter." Bethlehem Digital History Project. (accessed September 17, 2014).

Peter, Johann Friedrich, and Fred Clem. iSix Quintets, By John Frederick Peter. Decca Dxsa 7 197. 1955. (accessed September 17, 2014).

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