Institute for Studies In American Music
Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York



No. 1       Fall 2003

Inside This Issue:

Music of Williamsburg by Carol J. Oja

Germania Musical Society by Nancy Newman

Music of Carl Ruggles by Stephen Slottow

Scorsese's Narratives of Blues Discovery: Review by Ray Allen

Eric Porter's What is This Thing Called Jazz?: Review by Salim Washington

Roger Sessions and Arthur Berger: Review by Anton Vishio

Sondheim's Bounce: Review by Gayle Sherwood and Jeffrey Magee





The Germania Musical Society and Other Forty-Eighters
By Nancy Newman

In July 1853, Dwight’s Journal of Music printed an “open letter” that had appeared recently in Leipzig’s Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.1  The subject of the letter was the Journal’s own accounts of musical activity in Boston during the previous year.  The letter’s author, Richard Pohl, described these accounts as “truly astonishing,” and compared the excitement of learning that orchestral music was thriving in the United States to the discovery of “a new tract of fertile soil or a rich gold mine.”  An ardent advocate of symphonic music generally and Wagner specifically, Pohl proclaimed that Boston’s latest season proved that the American contribution to the progress of art could no longer be ignored. 

Pohl’s appraisal was drawn from tallies of the 1852-53 concert season that had appeared in Dwight’s Journal that spring.  He commended the fact that all Beethoven’s symphonies had been performed multiple times, noting especially that the Ninth had been presented twice by the Germania Musical Society and the Handel and Haydn Society.  “By this one fact Boston raises herself to a musical rank, which neither Old England, nor many highly celebrated German chapels [sic] will dispute with her.”  Boston also surpassed England in appreciation of newer composers, namely Schumann, Berlioz, and Wagner.  Pohl prophesied that America would attain artistic perfection quickly, leaving Europe behind.

Perhaps we shall, within a shorter time than we ourselves imagine, meet again “over there,” to witness the first performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Boston, and to cry out with newly confirmed conviction to the land of the Future: WESTWARD MOVES THE HISTORY OF ART!  [Emphasis in the original.]

The focus on Tannhäuser was not accidental, as the Germania Musical Society, Boston’s foremost resident orchestra, had given the U. S. premiere of the opera’s Finale in autumn 1852.  As if in response to Pohl, the Germanians offered a “Wagner Night” the following December that included selections from Tannhäuser, Rienzi, and Lohengrin, interspersed with works by Rossini, Bellini, and Paganini.

The notion of the “westward movement” of art was not intended metaphorically.  As Pohl penned these words, many musicians were literally moving west, part of the transatlantic immigration that brought at least one and a half million German-speakers to the United States in the period 1840-1860.2  Those individuals who left Europe as a result of political or economic difficulties in the decades straddling 1848, the “year of revolutions,” have become known collectively as “Forty-Eighters.”3  It was during 1848 that the members of the newly formed Germania Musical Society emigrated from Berlin to escape the constraints of aristocratic
patronage and worsening conditions for musicians.  For six years, the Germania’s two dozen members concertized in North America, offering upwards of  900 performances in dozens of cities and towns along the eastern seaboard and as far west as the Mississippi.  The Germanians brought the “sounds of home” to many immigrants in these places, appearing “as a renewal of artistic bonds between the old and new homes.”
4  Their influence went well beyond nostalgia, however.  Like many Forty-Eighters, the Germanians embodied a cosmopolitanism that superceded political boundaries.  And like other Forty-Eighters, their experiences were gathered from disparate sources, part of a transatlantic exchange whose ramifications are still felt today.

Musically active Forty-Eighters who performed with the Germania include Otto Dresel and non-Germans such as Teresa Parodi and Edouard Reményi.  Other “refugees of revolution” include Hans Balatka and the sometime-impresario, Henry Börnstein.5  Still others came to visit, displaced by the disruptions that followed the failure of the revolutionary movements: Henriette Sontag, Giovanni Mario, and Giulia Grisi.  The conductor Joseph Gungl, with whom most of the Germanians had worked in Berlin, arrived in September 1848.  Many of Gungl’s musicians, like those of the Saxonia and Steyermark Orchestras, decided to remain in the U. S.6  Pohl’s colleague at the Neue Zeitschrift, Theodor Hagen, immigrated in 1854 and became a writer for the Mason Brothers’ New York Musical Review.  An ardent Wagnerian, Hagen fulfilled Pohl’s dream and witnessed the first complete American performance of Tannhäuser, conducted by former Germanian Carl Bergmann,
in 1859.

                                                                           * * *

As important as the performance of individual works was to American cultural life, it was just one aspect of the profound changes transforming the experience of instrumental music at mid-century.  Concerts of the Germanians represent an entirely new era in the history of the public concert.  Beginning in the 1830s, conductors such as Johann Strauss Sr. in Vienna and Philippe Musard in Paris broadened the audience for orchestral music by offering frequent, low-priced, mixed-repertory programs.   During the following decade, charismatic  leaders such as Gungl in Berlin and Louis Antoine Jullien in London expanded these events into the “mass orchestral concert.”7  Their programs were designed to attract audiences numbering in the thousands—rather than the hundreds that had previously comprised the audience for individual concerts of instrumental music.  To accommodate the diverse expectations inherent in such large gatherings, their repertory ranged from the new, popular dance genres (such as waltzes and polkas) to opera selections (overtures, arias, and finales), from virtuoso variations and medleys (“potpourris”) to complete symphonies.  Concerts were held frequently, often in series.  Instead of the four to nine annual concerts typical of court orchestras and philharmonics, the new-style ensembles offered dozens of programs each season.

The Germanians brought these practices to the United States, probably the best place at that historical moment for the realization of the artistic and entrepreneurial spirit that had inspired such ensembles.  Their careful programming of substantial compositions and lighter works, low ticket prices (lower still at public rehearsals), and extensive series (twelve to thirty concerts per season) were all in keeping with the phenomenon of the “private orchestras.”  The Germania’s conductors, Carl Lenschow and (from 1850) Carl Bergmann, used the publication of original works arranged for solo piano to promote the orchestra.  More than sixty compositions were intended as souvenirs for the domestic market, such as Bergmann’s twelve-title series, “A Choice Collection of Waltzes and Polkas as performed by the Germania Musical Society,” or “The Season in Newport,” a set of polkas whose titles recall the large hotels where the Germanians performed during their summer residency at the Rhode Island ocean resort.  The abundance of such compositions demonstrates that a mid-century musician could advocate for both the symphony and the commodification of culture, for a “classical” repertory and “modern” composition.  Furthermore, what we identify today as the techniques of mass culture—marketing and inexpensive reproduction—helped secure the position of an instrumental music that was secular and autonomous, controlled by musicians rather than church and state.8

The democratizing tendency of the mass concert was not lost on the Forty-Eighters and their contemporaries.  Audiences in the European capitals averaged 2,500, despite conservatives’ suspicion of large gatherings.  The Germania’s audience in Boston often exceeded 3,000.  On both sides of the Atlantic, these events provided ample evidence of the commercial potential and social meaning of the middle-class public, a multifarious population that did not necessarily recognize itself as something other than a collection of competing interests. The process of coming together for concerts afforded the middle-class an opportunity for self-reflection that helped changed the nature of public life itself. 

Critical theorist Jürgen Habermas has noted the importance of cultural, seemingly non-political activities to the formation of a new “public sphere” that operated outside the boundaries of traditional authority.9  The situation of the Germanians and other Forty-Eighters offers an opportunity to explore the United States’ role in this development.  Certainly Dwight perceived the potential relationship between aesthetics and political ideology when he characterized the annual festivals of German singing clubs in the U. S. as “popular mass-gatherings so brimming with the sentiment of liberty.”10  Implicitly acknowledging the failure of the 1848 Revolutions, Dwight observed that, “music-loving Germans must seek out a republic for the free continuance of their musical existence.”

According to Germanian Henry Albrecht, it was “the free continuance of their musical existence” that the orchestra members sought in coming to the United States.  In the only known memoir of the ensemble, Albrecht described their idealistic attitude toward relations between musicians. The Germanians worked cooperatively.  Neither conductor nor soloists were accorded rank; the integrity of the ensemble was always emphasized.  As Albrecht noted, the organization was founded on “the communist principle,” a term synonymous with democracy in some quarters.  In their quest for “a completely independent, truly free life,” the Germanians agreed to share equally in rights, duties, and rewards.  Their motto, “One for all and all for one,” was an allusion to the French social utopianism that flourished in the 1840s.11


                                                                                * * *

Fifty years have passed since the publication of H. Earle Johnson’s article, “The Germania Musical Society,” and it is still a good introduction to the orchestra.12  Not surprisingly, however, aspects of the Germania that were less intriguing in the 1950s are of greater interest now: the ideological and historical developments that shaped the members’ experience; the mix of “highbrow and lowbrow” compositions that filled their repertory; the orchestra’s origins in the private orchestras of Europe and their legacy in the Symphony Orchestras of Boston and Chicago.  This is not to diminish what the Germania is most well-known for, the premiere and repeat performances of compositions that became part of the standard repertory, especially works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn.  Nor should their frequent performance of Italian and French opera excerpts be neglected.  But we can now consider the Germanians’ activities in the context of a new perspective on 1848.  Instead of focusing on the failure of the Revolutions to alter the political landscape, historians have begun to emphasize the social and cultural shifts that precipitated the uprisings.13  Paramount to these shifts was an exchange of ideas that transcended national boundaries, made possible by the movement of people on an unprecedented scale.  For evidence of such an exchange, we need only to consider the cosmopolitanism that blended a German predilection for instrumental forms, pan-European programming practices, French social theory, and the American marketplace in an ensemble called the Germania Musical Society.

—Nancy Newman

Wesleyan University


Editors’ note: This essay is drawn from Newman’s Ph.D. dissertation, Good Music for a Free People: The Germania Musical Society and Transatlantic Musical Culture of the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Brown University, 2002).



1“OPEN LETTER TO MR. J. S. DWIGHT,” as printed in Dwight’s Journal of Music (30 July 1853), 133-34.  Originally published as “Ein Blick nach dem ‘fernen Westen,’” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (17 June 1853), 269-73,  and signed with Richard Pohl’s pseudonym, “Hoplit.”  

2 Bruce Levine, The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War (University of Illinois Press, 1992), 15.

3 Beginning in January 1848, popular uprisings inspired partly by the French and American Revolutions engulfed continental Europe.  The outcome varied according to place, but in the German lands the movement toward democracy failed completely.  In mid-1849, the Prussian king rejected the constitution offered him by the first pan-German parliament, leading to a period of reaction.  For a succint account of events, see Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions, 1848-1851 (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

4 Frederic Ritter, Music in America, 2d ed.  (Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1890), 342.

5 On Balatka and Börnstein, see Carl Wittke, Refugees of Revolution: The German Forty-Eighters in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1952), 289 and 295.

6 On the ensembles, see Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Strong on Music, vol. 1, Resonances (Oxford University Press, 1988), 545 and 598.

7 The term is borrowed from William Weber, Music and the Middle Class: The Social Structure of Concert Life in London, Paris and Vienna (Holmes and Meier, 1975), 109-13.

8 William Weber, “Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770-1870,” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 8, no. 1 (June 1977): 5-21.

9 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (MIT Press, 1989), 27-43.

10 Dwight’s Journal (2 July 1853), 101-102.

11 All quotations are translated by the author from Henry Albrecht’s Skizzen aus dem Leben der Musik-Gesellschaft Germania (King and Baird, 1869), 5-6.

12 H. Earle Johnson, “The Germania Musical Society,” Musical Quarterly 39, no. 1 (January 1953): 75-93.

13 See, for example, Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions, cited in note 3.