Popular song in America, part 4: the influence of German songs

German-speaking people began to emigrate to America in modest numbers as early as the late seventeenth century. Generally, they got on well with the Anglophone majority and willingly adopted American habits and viewpoints. Settlements in Pennsylvania and North Carolina by the Moravian Church featured musical practices inherited from Germany, but had little influence on the surrounding culture.

Things began to change by about the 1830s. The rate of immigration from Germany increased rapidly. This new influx brought German culture not to isolated settlements, but to major cities. Simply examining census records over the course of several decades of the nineteenth century to see which cities had the largest German population gives a pretty accurate indication of which cities first had their own resident orchestras, oratorio societies, and other features of German music.

Even the musical institutions that existed before this wave of German immigrants began to branch out from performing only such music as was commonly done in London to include more German music.

Thus far, I could be describing the tremendous German influence on classical music in this country. Quite independent of trying to appeal to a new class of consumers, a Boston publisher issued a set of Gems of German Songs, including songs of Schubert and Weber, all fitted with English texts. In fact, the set first appeared before the scope of the coming wave of immigration became apparent. That set was the first of many the same publisher issued over the next decade or so. Other publishers soon followed.

By this time, a distinction between “classical” and “popular” music was already evident, both in Europe and in America. Here, however, as far as vocal music was concerned, the distinction depended largely on language. In Europe, a Mozart opera was “classical” and a Rossini opera was “popular.” Here, either one was part of what H. Wiley Hitchcock called the “cultivated tradition” if performed or published in Italian, but accepted on equal footing with any other popular song if presented in English.

Therefore, an edition of songs by Schubert, Beethoven, or any other “heavyweight” with English texts did not represent “classical” music. It offered only another style of song that customers could buy for their own entertainment, or enjoy when they went to hear performances of their favorite professional singers. Home piano benches and public programs alike contained a mixture of English, Italian, American, and German songs without any particular consciousness of artistic distinctions.

The piano plays a much different role in German songs than in those from any other country of the time. It is an equal partner with the singer. Very often, it has its own melodic material, while the singer has something entirely different. Harmonies tend to be  more daring and chromatic in than any other song tradition. German songs also demonstrated a melding of song with dance rhythms, something other nationalities had kept separate.

German songs had a lesser impact on American song writers than the waves of influences described in earlier installments of this series, primarily because plantation songs and other truly American song styles had developed before German songs became readily available in large numbers. And yet many very successful American songs could never have been written if their composers had not known a variety of German songs.


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