Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 5: The Germania Musical Society, Europe's First Invasion

Artist, suffering.
“On the morning of the 2d of August, 1848, the good packet ship “Diadem” sailed out of its London dock, bearing to the New World, in the midst of much other more or less precious freight, a group of German musicians.”
That group of musicians included 24 members. They called themselves the Germania Musical Society, and they took the United States of America by whatever counts as the 19th-century equivalent of “by storm.” But that story starts with a back-story. And a premise.

It’s safe to call the United States of America, as a country, self-assured. That better-than-healthy ego has spurred its shares of accomplishments and atrocities, but it has carried the country through a lot and generally left it whole and, let’s face it, fat and wealthy. Americans like to think of themselves as leaders – or, if not that, sort of “alpha people,” better than your average [insert name/nickname of nationality of your choice] (also, keep it clean, dammit).

Inevitably, there are areas where that self-belief trips up a little. I’d say classical music, as an art, sits at the heart of one of those areas. I don’t know much about classical music, certainly not enough to state with any confidence that the U.S. has never produced a classical composer of any renown. I’m also reasonably confident that only a vanishingly small number of Americans could name an American composer in a street-ambush interview, never mind one of any real consequence. Even as several American cities have resident symphonies, classical music doesn’t move the zeitgeist so much these days, and, if it ever did, I don’t know about it.

At the same time, Richard Crawford’s, America’s Musical Life: A History (as well as its “lightly” annotated version, now owned by the author, An Introduction to America’s Music) makes clear that classical music mattered. A proud lineage of, frankly, cultural high-brows has championed classical music since the U.S. has been a country. Crawford wrote a brilliant line about one of America’s more idealistic evangels, Theodore Thomas:
“Where most performers were obliged to respect audience taste enough to gratify it, Thomas worked to elevate public taste to a point where it would be worth gratifying.”
That’s as eloquent a way as I can think of to describe the specific tension between lowbrow and high in just about any art form. Because this series focuses on popular music, I don’t want to write much about classical music. I also believe that classical music counts as a clear and particular manifestation of the argument that Europe has “culture” whereas America does not. Not a little of what I read in Crawford, annotated or otherwise, confirms that. At the same time, classical compositions lent some artistic spine to what live performances occurred in mid-to-late 19th century America – and those performances, being live and attended by some amount of the public therefore count as “popular.” Because what is popular, after all, if not something people pay to listen to and look at?

And now I’m back to the Germania Music Society.

I pulled the quote up top from a Scribners Monthly article I found online, and I’d encourage anyone interested enough to read it. I’m also going to borrow another passage, because it gets at a couple key concepts – among them, how and where people found live music (i.e., the only kind available) at the time, but, more importantly, the going state of musical attainment at the time the Germania arrived:
“It would be difficult to attempt a description of musical affairs in America at that period, which would be intelligible to one who knows only the standards of the present. Very few virtuosi, either singers or instrumentalists, had yet visited the “States.” Even the opera was almost a novelty, although at this very period Madame Ladborde, with a meager troupe, was performing in New York. Jenny Lind, who occasioned the earliest general furore in regard to music, did not arrive till nearly three years later. There was not even a decent opera house in America. Dingy theaters and barren public halls were the sole provision for accommodating public gatherings.”

“The condition of orchestral music was even still lower.”
Look past all the passive verb tenses, and you've got a fantastic frame for both the state and the sense of cultural inferiority Americans felt in relation to Europe’s musical heritage. It doesn’t go so far to argue that the (aka) Old Germania Orchestra sailed across the sea to fill a void. And, as just about any indie band in the world can relate to, these guys struggled to find an audience, especially a paying one – they had to pay 24 musicians, they had the gas shut off at shows, etc. Even before arriving in the States (they had a detour in London), these guys busted ass, starved, scrambled and shilled, but, again, like any good indie band, they also found ardent fans. Or, as Scribners framed the pattern, “Artistic success, immense; pecuniary success, infinitesimal.” They even broke up at one point, only to have a fat plum of a gig in Washington, DC drop in their laps. That was the beginning of the beginning in some ways, too.

They eventually found their crowd, or vice versa, with more or less permanent homes between Baltimore, Boston, and a standing summer gig in Newport, Rhode Island (from Scribners: “…it would not be too much to say that the popularity of Newport was quite as much due to their presence as to any other influence”). Outside those spots, the Germania’s musicians toured like maniacs and held together remarkably well throughout (after five years, 14 of that original 24 stuck with the band). In the end, just about all of them settled in the States, married, bred, found straight jobs, spread the gospel about classical music and forms, etc. They also invited competition…and one of those guys was sort of a trip.

Louis Jullien came over from Paris, France about midway through Germania-Mania. By all (and few) accounts Jullien – or, to his friends, “Louis George Maurice Adolphe Roche Albert Abel Antonio Alexandre Noë Jean Lucien Daniel Eugène Joseph-le-brun Joseph-Barême Thomas Thomas Thomas-Thomas Pierre Arbon Pierre-Maurel Barthélemi Artus Alphonse Bertrand Dieudonné Emanuel Josué Vincent Luc Michel Jules-de-la-plane Jules-Bazin Julio César Jullien” (long story) – was a master showman, a conductor in the rockstar vein, theatrical, dramatic, etc. The image of Jullien up top compares nicely to the few Crawford snuck into his book.

Like the Germania – and I really did fail to stress this enough above – Jullien knew what he was doing, classically trained and all that. That was an enormous piece of their appeal, not least to the musically-educated persons of the American public. As implied in the paragraph quoted above, that Scribners article spoke from a time when Americans had, to some extent, caught up. By way of setting a sort of bar, the Germania and Jullien inspired the establishment of symphonies and “musical societies”; people and organizations started organizing regular live performances that exposed the public to not just classical music, but to just music. As noted in earlier chapters, technological improvements gave a big assist in that, and all this…“musical infrastructure” grew up alongside the parlor songs people played in households and (again, ew) minstrelsy.

I bring in the last two because, per a couple things noted above, the American musical market impacted Jullien and the Germania, even as it was impacted by them. Jullien, in particular, wasn’t shy about adapting popular ballads and parlor songs to suck in his audience a little deeper. If you’re not familiar with the quadrille – which, as I see it, looks more like an annoying social ritual than dancing – Jullien was a master of it and, per Crawford, he adapted American then-classics like "Yankee Doodle," "Hail Columbia," "Hail to the Chief," and, the minstrel classic, “The Old Folks at Home” to the quadrille “format.” The Germania followed suit with a song called “Up Broadway,” a musical series of vignettes about one of Manhattan’s more famous streets, which I’m pissed off to report I can’t find.

I stuffed a lot into the above, not too much, hopefully, but the assertion I’m striving for is basically this: at least one strain of American popular music – or at least music that was reasonably popular with Americans – drew from American sources and, now that it was available, classical music in the European tradition. The bands that played these in various venues – e.g., gradually upgraded versions of the “dingy theaters and barren public halls” noted above, as well as the so-called “promenade concerts” – played a mash-up from those sources. So, in a sense, that was hip.

In the complete version of his work (American Musical Life), Crawford noted the program for a public performance around the immediate middle of the 19th century. That’s below with links to some version of the song where I could find one – and sometimes a version that, at least from what I gather, sounds close to what people of the time might have heard (or, in one case, a specific instrument they might have heard) at the time. And it would have been played by a band heavy with the “valve-less” horns described in an earlier post.

And that’s where I’ll leave this. enjoy the songs if you want to. Now, the programs:

American Band of Providence, Rhode Island, Repertory Season 1850-51
1) Elfin Quickstep
2) Song of America [NOTE: Stunned I couldn’t find this one.]
3) Pas de Fleurs (composer: Leo Delibes)
4) Romanza “Sounds So Entrancing” (an iteration, via classical guitar - adorbs!)
5) Overture, Donna del Largo (composer: Rossini)
1) Grand Wedding March (horned version!) [NOTE: crazy popular tune, btw]
2) Midsummer Night Dream (composer: Mendelsohn) [NOTE: The “Freebird” for the Germania?]
3) Let the Bright Seraphim (composer: Handl) [NOTE: Check out the horn. That’s what I mean.]
4) Rest, Spirit Rest (composer: Rooke)
5) Polka (of some sort) [NOTE: Oompa-oompa, oompa-oompa, oompa-oompa]
6) Twas No Vision (composer: Verdi)
7) Evergreen Gallop (composer: Labitsky)

That’s all for this chapter. Wait, no, I want to plug a group called the Yankee Brass Band, because, from what Crawford describes, I'm guessing they're pretty close to what one would have heard around the time I'm talking about (see above, Part II, No. 4). At any rate, the next couple chapters will track the development of classical music in America, mostly through the lens of some American originals. After that, I’ve got a chapter on marches (and the America’s “proto-Lalapalooza”) sketched out. A series of chapters after that will look at the most popular songs from 1840-1930, as judged by a single Youtube video…

…and after that…holy shit, I might have to finally dive into the unholy mess that is genres. Boots trembling, and this many months ahead.

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