The history of musical taste in the United States has a Germanic flavor. The symphony orchestras in Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston were founded by German-Americans. The impact of Richard Wagner’s operas is still apparent. A patch of the Bronx contains locations such as Lohengrin Place, Siegfried Place, Parsifal Place, and Valhalla Drive.
Music and Beer
The first American-German male choir (Männerchor) was formed in 1835 in Philadelphia, followed a year later by the Baltimore Liederkranz (singing society; garland of song). Between them, starting in 1837, they inaugurated the first festivals of song (Sängerfeste) that were organized to perpetuate German musical and singing traditions. Many of the participants were first-generation and German-speaking immigrants. From 1849 onward, the festival became a national celebration in which choirs competed which each other.
In January 1847, twenty-five immigrants founded the Deutscher Liederkranz der Stadt New York. By 1861, the choir was invited to sing with the Philharmonic Society Orchestra. Piano maker William Steinway served intermittently as its President from 1867 until 1896. He initiated the push for funds to build a “clubhouse.” Located at East 58th Street, east of Park Avenue, the Liederkranz Hall’s cornerstone was laid in October 1881. The choir’s performances of excerpts from Richard Wagner’s operas were among the first staged in the United States.
In 1894, the seventeenth Festival of German music was held at Madison Square Garden. It turned out to be a grand occasion for which a huge semi-circular stand was created. The area was decorated with flags and banners portraying composers and poets. The festivities included prize competitions and public concerts (the Sunday concert attracted 16,000 visitors). The four-day party concluded with a grand picnic at Ulmer Park, Brooklyn. At least 25,000 people attended the feast for which a reported 6,000 kegs of beer were procured. The might of German music was at its height, but the First World War brought an end to its dominant position. In terminal decline, the choir was renamed Liederkranz of the City of New York in 1919.
Bayreuth in New York
During the 1880s, the Deutscher Liederkranz was conducted by Theodore Thomas, founder of the first American Wagner Verein in 1872. He was also music director of the New York Philharmonic.
During the 1884/5 season he gave a series of spectacular Wagner concerts in all principal cities in which the Liederkranz choir participated. Thomas stood at the beginning of a period of passionate Wagnerism.
By the 1850s, the Austro-German repertory had taken control of musical life. Between 1850 and 1900, some 5,000 Americans studied music in Germany (the majority of them at the Leipzig Conservatoire). Ever since the 1876 opening of the Bayreuth Festival, Richard Wagner had a strong American following. In 1882, the day after the premiere of Parsifal, it was reported in the New York Times that “America was largely represented at the performance.” Less than five months later, the work’s Prelude was given its American debut in New York by the Academy of Music under the direction of Walter Damrosch.
Founded in 1883, the Metropolitan Opera (Met) opened that year in a new building on 39th Street and Broadway. For its second season, Damrosch was engaged to lead the company in an all-German language routine, performing work by Wagner and other prominent composers. Damrosch died only months into his first season. The Met’s six German seasons were noted for performances by Anton Seidl who became America’s leading interpreter of Wagner’s music. In 1903 Austrian-born theatre manager Heinrich Conried was appointed the company’ new director. He immediately made his presence felt by announcing a production of Parsifal. As America was not a signatory to the 1886 Berne Convention which protected intellectual property in Europe, he felt free to ignore Cosima Wagner’s wish that Parsifal would not be performed away from Bayreuth. Wagner’s widow took him to court, but she lost the case.
The Met’s stage had to be rebuilt in order to present the spectacle. As the opera deals with themes central to Christianity, a heated debate took place between different church factions. Some tried to have the production banned, but more liberal minds pronounced Conried’s production a triumph. An article in Scientific American (February 6, 1904) exclaimed that “thanks to the new stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, we have our own Bayreuth in New York.”
The beginnings of jazz and blues were met with contrasting expressions of hostility and admiration. The shock of the new turned traditionalists against trailblazers, teachers against students, parents against youngsters. The ship of musical culture appeared adrift once jazz had lifted its anchor. Ironically, the revered Liederkranz Hall played an important part in the introducing waves of alternative forms of musical expression.
During the 1920s the Hall was transformed into a recording and broadcasting studio, first used by RCA Victor and later by Columbia records. With its wooden floors and solid walls, the spacious L-shaped room offered phenomenal acoustic conditions. It gained distinction as New York’s finest recording space and remained so throughout the 1940s until CBS took the controversial decision to turn the Hall into television studios. In 1948, all equipment was removed to an abandoned Greek Orthodox Church on East 30th Street, Manhattan, that (eventually) would earn the reputation of the “Stradivarius” of studios. Some memorable recordings were made there, from Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations to Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue.
In 1927, RCA Victor started its first test session at the Liederkranz Hall with the vocal duet Sometimes I’m Happy (Victor 20609) by Charles King and Broadway star Louise Groody, accompanied on piano by Frank Banta. Having mastered the apparatus and measured the acoustic opportunities, the recording process took off at pace. During three weeks of sessions in May 1927, recordings were produced of Paul Whiteman, Vernon Dalhart, Johnny Hamp, Nathaniel [Nat] Shilkret (Victor’s Director of Light Music from 1915 to 1945), and others. Significantly, all early efforts were those of white performers.
Americans were introduced to blues and jazz through records by white performers, particularly those of Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. Most of the so-called race records, made by and exclusively marketed for African-Americans, were produced away from New York. It was not until the second half of December 1927 that black musicians entered the Liederkranz Hall with the majestic appearance of Duke Ellington and his ten-piece band. Having entered the studio, he recorded three titles: Brown Berries, East St Louis Toodle-Oo, and Blue Bubbles.
One of the earliest musicians to be recorded at the Hall was Roger Wolfe Kahn. Born in New Jersey, he was the son of the immensely rich German banker Otto Kahn. Not in the least concerned about finance, young Roger learned to play a variety of instruments, and chose music as his career. At an early age he formed his own orchestra and family wealth allowed him to engage the best musicians and vocalists money could buy (Joe Venuti, Tommy Dorsey, and others). For many years his orchestra performed at New York’s iconic Biltmore Hotel.
Kahn was also passionate about flying. In the mid-1930s he gave up his orchestra and became a test pilot for Grumman Aviation. The company was responsible for producing the Hellcat, a high-performing aircraft that changed the Allied fortunes by securing air supremacy across the Pacific Theatre. It successfully took on the German Luftwaffe during Operation Dragoon which led to the invasion of southern France.
Kahn was a transitional figure in more than one sense. Born into a family of immigrants, he was actively engaged in the Allied battle against German and Japanese military forces. Although educated in the classical German repertoire, he helped liberating music from (what Erik Satie once called) “Sauerkraut supremacy.”
Within half a century the Liederkranz Hall, once a fortress of Teutonic tonal power, had let down the drawbridge to those who would turn music into a melting pot of styles and rhythms. This metaphor of cultural integration had been popularized by Israel Zangwill in his 1908 play The Melting Pot. Significantly, its main character is a Russian-born composer whose main ambition is the creation of an “American symphony” to honor his adopted homeland.
Photo of full house at the old Metropolitan Opera House in 1937 courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.