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.”
24 musicians sailed with Diadem. They called themselves the Germania Musical Society, and they took the United States of America by 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 countless of accomplishments (and a balance of atrocities), but it also carried the country through a lot and has generally left it, by world standards, fat and wealthy. Americans 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].

No matter the ferocity of that self-belief it can't possibly hold up across the board, and I’d drop classical music, as an art, somewhere near the places not covered by said board. I don’t know much about classical music (and now I have an excuse, a cultural one!), certainly not enough to baldly state that the U.S. has never produced a universally-lauded classical composer; it took some digging to find the candidates from later volumes. I can't imagine the number of Americans who could name an American composer in a street-ambush interview, and that could have everything to do with it being tiny in a level of pure mathematics. Classical music doesn’t move the zeitgeist much these days, even in American cities that shell out for resident symphonies. I don't have an answer for what causes that beyond calling us a nation of highly-individualistic pioneers, arguably unsuited to complex, group activities.

At the same time, Richard Crawford’s, America’s Musical Life: A History makes clear that classical music mattered. Classical music has had champions for as long as Europeans lived on U.S. soil, and Crawford had this to say about Theodore Thomas, a delightfully version of the species:
“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 low-brow and high in just about any art form. Because this is a series on popular music, I'm trying to contain what I write about classical music, but I also believe that classical music gets held up as some clear and particular manifestation of the argument that Europe has “culture” whereas America does not. To stick up for the homeland a little, that only holds when you limit the conversation - aka, even if you don't like America's contribution to music, a lot of people all over the planet do. Even on the classical stuff, it's not like this is a country of unreconstructed philistines. And that goes back to the Germania Society, and others, which American audiences flocked to, even if it took them a while. Moreover, what is popular,if not something people pay to listen to and look at?

Anyway, back to the Germania Music Society, which I'll shorthand as "Germania" going forward.

I pulled the quote up top from a Scribners Monthly article I found online, and I’d encourage anyone interested enough to read the whole thing. I’m also going to borrow another passage, because it gets at a couple key concepts – among them, how and where people found (the only kind of) live music 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.”
All those passive verbs put a fantastic frame around the sense of cultural inferiority Americans felt in relation to Europe’s musical heritage, at least in the relevant circles. One could argue the (aka) Old Germania Orchestra sailed across the sea to fill a void. Even with the class, they struggled to find an audience, particularly one that paid enough to provide for 24 musicians. Even before arriving in the States (they had a detour in London), these guys busted ass, starved, scrambled and shilled, but like any good indie band touring the country in a van today, they also found ardent fans, and made new ones. Per Scribners, they even matched the general commercial arc, at least in their earliest days: “Artistic success, immense; pecuniary success, infinitesimal.” The company actually broke up just before a fat plum of a gig in Washington, DC drop in their laps. That was the beginning.

After a couple years on the grind, The Germania 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”). Las Vegas before Las Vegas. They toured like maniacs in between their anchor gig(s) and held together remarkably well throughout (after five years, 14 of that original 24 stuck with the band). Just about all of them settled in the States in the end, married, bred, found straight jobs, and, through that, 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 a few others Crawford snuck into his book.

His persona aside, Jullien backed that persona capably with classical training. That was an enormous piece of his appeal and Germania's, not least to the musically-educated persons of the American public. That Scribners article spoke from a cultural space in which Americans had, to some extent, caught up. The Germania and Jullien inspired the establishment of symphonies and “musical societies” by establishing a kind of bar for achievement; musical societies and ordinary people organized 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.

Those last two come in because, even as American musical culture was impacted by Jullien and the Germania, American popular songs impacted each of 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, but the this is what I'm striving toward: at least one strain of American popular music – or at least music reasonably popular with Americans – drew from American sources and, now that it was available, classical music in the European tradition. As the venues gradually upgraded from the “dingy theaters and barren public halls” noted above into suitably beautiful concert halls, even as acts like Jullien and the Germania branched out into “promenade concerts” – they played a mash-up from all those sources. And it worked. Those suitably beautiful concert halls and those promenade shows give the clearest possible evidence that it worked: people invested in promoting them - and on the expectation of a return on profit. Again, whatever else it is, "popular" is what people will pay to see.

To drag this back to the artistic side, 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
PART I
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)
PART II
1) Grand Wedding March (horned version!) [NOTE: crazy popular tune, btw]
2) Midsummer Night Dream (composer: Mendelssohn)
3) Let the Bright Seraphim (composer: Handl) [NOTE: this is the horn referred to above.]
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)

Before wrapping up this chapter, I want to plug  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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