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Nancy Newman on “Finding New Perspectives on the Germania Musical Society through the American Memory Sheet Music Collection”

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The following is a guest post from Dr. Nancy Newman, Associate Professor at the University of Albany. Dr. Newman’s lecture is a part of the LC/AMS Lecture Series. Please join us for Dr. Newman’s lecture on Tuesday, April 22 at 12:00 noon in Coolidge Auditorium.


The Germania Musical Society was a group of about two dozen instrumentalists from Berlin who immigrated to the United States at the time of the 1848 Revolutions. Linking their fates in the pursuit of music-making in a republic, they performed throughout the east for six years, offering nearly 900 concerts to about a million listeners. This was an extraordinary accomplishment for an itinerant orchestra, and the Germania exerted a tremendous impact on American musical life. Long acknowledged for their frequent performances of Beethoven’s symphonies, Mendelssohn’s overtures, and the introduction of Wagner’s music to the U.S., they also performed with renowned touring virtuosi such as Jenny Lind, Henriette Sontag, Ole Bull and Camille Urso. The unity of the ensemble was highly admired and widely emulated on the emerging American orchestra scene.

When I began researching the Germanians about 15 years ago, I was surprised to see that their repertory also included lighter genres such as waltzes and polkas, many written by the orchestra members themselves. The extent of lighter music on their programs had never before been considered seriously. I began collecting what might be called “small data” from libraries’ special collection catalogues, which were just coming online then. I supplemented this with data from archives collected the traditional way–in person–including the Library of Congress Music Division. I soon found a large number of original compositions that were played by the orchestra and published as piano arrangements. To keep track of pieces performed and pieces published, I created databases; ultimately, patterns began to emerge. This allowed me to see the full extent of the Germania’s engagement with this facet of mid-19th century “modern” music.

The Library of Congress’s American Memory website, which was just getting underway when I began my research, has been an essential resource in this process. Nearly 100 Germania-related compositions are now fully accessible online, providing a window into the rich social history of the period. My presentation will show how particular pieces illuminate the orchestra’s history, such as conductor Carl Lenschow’s “Betty Polka,” composed in honor of Zachary Taylor’s inauguration, and Carl Bergmann’s “Love Polka (Ach und Krach),” written as a souvenir of the orchestra’s summers in Newport, Rhode Island. Far from being a “less creditable” feature of their programs, the Germanians embraced such compositions for their ability to reach a broad listener base, contributing to the orchestra’s success and the flourishing of public concerts generally.


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