Thursday, 2 June 2011

Good Music for a Free People

During the revolutions of 1848 two dozen members of an orchestra left Berlin for America to bring their music to new audiences. With their repertory of symphonies, opera selections and social dances they helped shape an audience for orchestral music at a seminal time in the history of the public concert. In her new book, Good Music for a Free People, Nancy Newman looks at the history of the Germania Musical Society, as they called themselves, and their effect on their adopted land. In this piece, written specially for the Stave, the author describes how she came across the orchestra and their fascinating story.

My first encounter with the Germania Musical Society was through Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Lawrence Levine’s provocative book had ignited a debate across disciplines about the historical relationship between so-called classical and popular music, a subject that interested me deeply. The Germania Musical Society makes a brief appearance for having played a pivotal role in the emergence of the symphony orchestra as a regular feature of American musical life. Its members were a group of young Berlin musicians who immigrated to the United States in 1848 and presented nearly nine hundred concerts to approximately one million listeners over the next six years.

Although it’s widely acknowledged that German immigrants had a profound effect on American musical practices, what intrigued me was Levine’s characterization of this particular group’s motivations. The orchestra members wanted “to further in the hearts of this politically free people the love of the fine art of music through performance of masterpieces of the greatest German composers”? Why would their listeners’ freedom have mattered? What did political liberty have to do with appreciation of the foremost classical compositions during “the century of artistic autonomy,” as Carl Dahlhaus described it? The relationship between absolute music and political thought was also of on-going interest, and the Germania Musical Society offered a new perspective on this complicated topic.

Following Levine’s trail led me to Skizzen aus dem Leben der Musik-Gesellschaft Germania, a brief memoir by Henry Albrecht, viola and clarinet player for the orchestra. This little-known account raised more questions than it answered. For example, Albrecht describes the members’ departure during the 1848 Revolutions in terms of their adversarial relationship to patronage. The prevailing system in Europe did not produce ideal musical results because it encouraged currying favor. Although noble courts were musically sophisticated and employed “virtuosi of the first rank,” nearly all the musicians sought to exhibit themselves through “exceptional mannerisms.” Albrecht claims that as a result, “a performance rarely appears totally flawless.”

The Germanians, in contrast, were willing to sacrifice their egos for the sake of the ensemble. “In the performance of orchestral works, every member realized that it was his holiest duty never to exhibit an exceptional, individual artistic mannerism.” To me, this articulated a fascinating paradox: by coming to the cultural wilderness of the United States, the Germanians sought the freedom not to show off. Even more surprising, they gave their desire for an alternative to patronage a form that was explicitly political. Not only did they seek an environment that was democratic, but they organized themselves accordingly. They drafted a constitution and agreed to share equitably in rewards and obligations. Aware that in leaving Berlin the orchestra became their sole means of support, the members pledged to place the welfare of the group above self-interest. A social-utopian motto, “One for all and all for one,” was adopted.

Good Music for a Free People makes Albrecht’s fascinating memoir available in English in its entirety for the first time. It also chronicles the orchestra’s travels to the major cities and small towns of the Eastern seaboard, west to the Mississippi, and to southeastern Canada. The ensemble offered Americans first and repeat hearings of works by major composers—especially Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Wagner. They familiarized listeners with current opera repertory by playing overtures and excerpts by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Auber, and Verdi. The Germanians performed with many of the era’s traveling virtuosi, including singers Jenny Lind, Henriette Sontag, and Teresa Parodi; violinists Ole Bull, Camilla Urso, and Miska Hauser; and pianists Alfred Jaëll and Otto Dresel.

At the same time that they helped forge a “classical” canon, the Germanians varied their programs with lighter genres such as polkas, waltzes, and potpourris. A good number of these works were original compositions by members, especially conductors Carl Bergmann (who later conducted the New York Philharmonic) and Carl Lenschow. The diversity and eclecticism of the Germania’s repertory had not been explored previously, however. I analyze how their programs changed over time in response to audiences in Baltimore, Boston, and other cities. During the orchestra’s final year, debates over whether they should segregate their repertory into lighter and more demanding concerts were aired in Dwight’s Journal. The controversy affords unique insights into contemporary attitudes toward the social significance of the public concert as a place where heterogeneous audiences gathered. Ultimately, the Germanians’ manipulation of their repertory reflects a struggle to define the semiotic arena of the arts and leisure by those who served it.

Much of Good Music for a Free People is concerned with events of the 1840s, a remarkable decade in transatlantic history. The Germanians were part of a great movement of Europeans, dislodged by economic and political upheaval, to the New World. German-speaking immigrants became known as “Forty-Eighters,” so named for the Revolutions of that year. The merging of their diverse and often innovative practices with the dominant culture would have a deep impact on many areas of American life.

The 1840s also saw experimental forms of music-making by “private orchestras,” modeled after the touring ensemble of Johann Strauss, and in “promenade concerts” in Paris and London. In these forums, audiences for orchestral music grew from a few hundred to several thousand enjoying “mixed repertory” concerts indoors and out. Such democratization of musical experience helped solidify the middle class’s consciousness of itself. These first truly “popular” musical events led to the realization that the same processes of commodification and mass mediation—sheet music production, instrument sales, and journalism—worked equally well for both serious and lighter genres. And the image of the United States as a place where musicians operated exclusively within a market economy increasingly tempted individuals and ensembles to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing. The Germanians’ origin as a private orchestra situates it within a formative stage of the “culture industry,” the Frankfurt School’s term for the institutions and practices that shape the commodification of art.

In The Dialectical Imagination, Martin Jay posits that the intellectual ferment of the 1840s make it “the most extraordinary decade” of the nineteenth century. For the first time, abstract German philosophical thought began to be applied to social and political matters. Social utopians Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Étienne Cabet had embarked on a similar path, and their adherents pursued the implications of their systems in France and abroad. Music critic John Sullivan Dwight, for example, lived in the Fourierist community Brook Farm on the outskirts of Boston. Before he left Berlin, Albrecht read Cabet’s utopian novel, Voyage en Icarie. Shortly after the orchestra disbanded, he went to live in Cabet’s model community in Nauvoo, Illinois. The ideology of “Icarian communism” played an important role in shaping Albrecht’s idealized view—his utopian vision—of the Germanians’ attempt at self-determination.

In many ways, we are still living with the ramifications of musical, cultural, social, and political developments that occurred during the 1840s. It is my hope that the Germania Musical Society’s extraordinary story will shine new light on the possibilities unleashed during that eventful decade.

Good Music for a Free People by Nancy Newman is available now from your favourite bookseller. Excerpts will follow over the coming weeks in this blog.

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