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Books German American and Russian German American Song

Lotte Lehmann
Lotte Lehmann. [n.d.] George Grantham Bain Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-85657

Germans and people of German descent constitute one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States. Germans began emigrating to America in the seventeenth century. More people came to the United States from Germany in the post-colonial period than from any other country, with the largest waves arriving in the 1850s, 1870s and 1880s as a result of economic woes at home due to the import of too many foreign products, antiquated inheritance laws that caused land holdings to be continuously divided, and famine. Writers like Gottfried Duden, who wrote a best-selling book in 1829 about Missouri, also greatly inspired Germans to seek their fortunes across the Atlantic Ocean.

First- and second-generation immigrants constituted 10 percent of the U.S. population in 1900. However, German immigration dropped considerably during the 1890s. Most of the people who emigrated from Germany before 1847 were religious exiles, farmers and landless peasants from southern and eastern Germany. Political exiles arrived after the 1848 revolutions. The earliest communities of German settlers were in New York and Pennsylvania, with Pennsylvania attracting a particularly large and varied German population. The Pennsylvania German-speaking people (called Dutch, as a result of their language Deutsch), who were Amish and Mennonite, were among these early settlers. Other popular areas for settlement were Virginia, Maryland, and parts of the Midwest. A large group of German immigrants also settled in what is now Louisiana.

Distinctions between sacred and secular vocal music among German Americans have long been hazy. Hymns are sung at home as well as in church, and folksongs are sung in church as well as in secular settings. This blurring can also be seen in the German American choral society tradition. Groups of male singers, called sängerbunds, established themselves in the 1800s to instill a sense of ethnic pride in their memberships and communities. The first such society in the United States was The Philadelphia Männerchor, founded in 1836. Song festivals, or sängerfests, were also held in many parts of the United States beginning in the 1830s, and included both male and female singers. The Cincinnati May Festival is an example of a sängerfest that began in the 1840s and has continued its tradition through to the present day. The choral societies thrived in American urban centers. The choirs performed complex arrangements of German folksongs and music from the western classical cannon by German composers at everything from civic functions to opera productions to church services. An example of this style of singing is a Victor recording of the folksong "Wenn alle Brünnlein fliessen," performed by the Kromer Sextet, directed by Carl Kromer in 1922.

In addition to songfests, German Americans founded beer halls across the country, enjoyed by patrons with and without German heritage. These popularized traditional German drinking songs, called trinklied such as "Im tiefen keller sitz'ich hier," (Down deep within the cellar), published in English and German in 1872, and "The Rat-Charmer of Hamelin," published in English and German in 1881. German breweries also became a familiar source of beer, with German-style brewing becoming the American standard. During the battle for prohibition, German breweries advertized what they saw as the healthful properties of beer in an attempt to have beer exempted from any prohibition laws. These efforts were sometimes lampooned, as for example, "The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous (Made Old New York Drunk)." Although the breweries lost this battle, some were able to reestablish their businesses after prohibition.

During and after World War I anti-German feeling arose and as a consequence displays of German nationalism, such as choral societies and beer halls, went into decline. Yet many survived and are still performing today.

Religious vocal music in the Lutheran tradition (the main faith of the German American population) has played a key role in the development of German American culture. Beginning in the 1840s, the Wisconsin and Missouri Lutheran synods (assemblies) published sacred and secular music for home use including American patriotic songs and hymns in English translation.

Lotte Lehmann
Ernestine Schumann-Heink, 1861-1936, three-quarters length portrait, standing, facing right. c1899. Photo copyrighted by Aimé Dupont. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-62630

The Mennonite and Amish sects (groups of Germans who settled in the United States who had broken away from the mainstream Lutheran church in Europe to follow more conservative ways of life) developed their own approaches to sacred and secular song. Mennonite hymns, melodically ornamented versions of old Protestant chorale tunes, are sung in unison with no harmony or metric pattern. Amish church music is monophonic and lacks instrumental accompaniment. Amish slow hymns are monophonic, highly melismatic versions of fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century secular songs, Gregorian chants and chorale melodies. Amish fast hymns, meanwhile, are based on German and Anglo American folk tunes, and Lutheran and American Protestant hymns. Secular folk songs are also sung in Amish communities in the home and on special occasions.

Secular vocal music thrived in non-religious German American communities. These included traditional German songs as well as songs composed in German by German Americans. For example, listen to "Lach" or "The Laughing Song" composed and sung by Carl Frischer, recorded on the Victor label in 1916. Many German American songs were heavily influenced by other European American folksong traditions. Polka bands that primarily perform instrumental dance music may include English or German lyrics, or a combination of both. Popular Vaudeville performances of German dialect song, usually comic, were created by some of the immigrants themselves, an example is "O were my love a sugar-bowl" composed by August Waldauer (sheet music). Waldauer immigrated to the United States from Landau, Germany in 1843, eventually settling in Missouri, where there was a German community.

A distinct musical tradition within the German American ethnic group is that of the Russian Germans, who migrated to Russia in the late 1700s and from there immigrated to America between the mid-1800s and World War I. Communities of Russian Germans settled in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas. They developed a style of music known as "Dutch Hop," which was primarily dance music performed at weddings and other celebrations, including waltzes and polkas. Dutch Hop bands, consisting of the hammered dulcimer, bass and a varying combination of clarinet, violin, accordion and brass instruments. Song texts are often in English and relate to the American immigrant experience. For example, see the video of the River Boys Polka Band performing a the Library of Congress. This performance begins with instrumental works, followed by some examples of dance tunes with lyrics.

Germans also played a key role in the development of the western classical vocal music culture and repertoire of the United States. Arthur Von Eweyk, who was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was an internationally acclaimed baritone. In this recording he performs "Der Wanderer" by Franz Schubert, recorded on the Victor label in 1912. Eva Leoni was a popular soprano early in the twentieth century. She sang in some of the earliest films to include an audio track. Here she sings "Herr was dächten Sie von mir?" from Die Fledermaus. Ernestine Schumann-Heink was a successful international opera contralto, having already performed many times at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, when she formally declared her wish to immigrate to the United States from Austria in 1905. She later entertained the U.S. troops during World War I. Listen to her recording of "Frühlingszeit" recorded on Victor in 1907. The operatic soprano Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976), who was especially associated with German repertoire including lieder and the operas of Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven, moved to the United States just before Germany annexed Austria in 1938 in order to protect her Jewish stepchildren. In America, Lehmann sang at the San Francisco Opera and Metropolitan Opera. After retiring as a singer in 1951, Lehmann taught master classes around the world. For her contribution to the recording industry, Lehmann has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. However, her first name is misspelled as "Lottie." [1]

The composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) made a significant impact on both American classical and popular music culture with his musical works for the stage. Weill fled Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s, eventually seeking citizenship in the United States with his wife Lotte Lenya (who originated many of her husband's most important female roles.) Works like "The Threepenny Opera," "Happy End" and "Lady in the Dark" have entered the mainstream repertoire and are frequently revived in the United States, in both musical theatre and operatic settings. Meanwhile, American singers and composers working in numerous genres from classical to jazz to rock continue to turn to the Weill songbook for inspiration. [2]


  1. There are many recordings by Lotte Lehmann in the Library of Congress collection at the Recorded Sound Reference Center. Here is a link to the catalog record for a song recital performed by Lehmann in 1936 [back to article]
  2. Materials relating to Kurt Weill can be found, among other places within the Library of Congress, in the Moldenhauer Archives and the George and Ira Gershwin Collection . The Library of Congress also houses recordings of Kurt Weill's stage works such as a 1958 Columbia Masterworks recording of The Threepenny Opera. [back to article]


  • "Central European Music" by Mark Levy in Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 884-891
  • German Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture. Library of Congress Finding aid.
  • Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. The Harvard Encylopedia of American Ethnic Groups p405-430. (Harvard, 1980; Second printing, 1981)
  • See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.

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German American and Russian German American Song
Subject Headings
-  Immigration and Migration
-  Songs and Music
-  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
-  Articles
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