[Reprinted with permission from the Broad Street Review]
They’re Germans, I just know it, these four standing on the Ben Franklin Parkway at Cherry Street. That they’re tourists is obvious, scrutinizing a map. But something about their posture, or their sturdily breezy clothes, says “German.”
As I approach, and before I can hear them talking, I watch their mouths forming words, and there’s no doubt now. In my mind I practice, “Kann ich sie… no, ihn, ihnen… helfen?,” because I’m going to speak to them.
What draws me to Germany?
I’ve forgotten most of whatever high-school German I learned, which pangs me whenever I dust it off. I chose it, rather than French or Spanish, because my mother’s side is fully German.
My great-grandmother came to Philadelphia from Germany, and for the rest of her life that’s what she spoke. Her son William, my grosspop, grew up at Third and Brown around the Eastern Europeans who populated Northern Liberties; Germans then lived largely in North Philly, later branching out to Feltonville and Olney.
The Kaiser’s shadow
William was born in 1906 and consequently got beat up by kids who called him Kaiser Bill. Thus he jettisoned his immigrant language as quickly as he could. Except for my mom’s German Lutheran upbringing in St. Michael’s and Zion on Franklin Square, the family became as American as any. But German culture has always appealed to me, especially when I find myself wincing at American culture.
Later, my wife would direct the music at a German Lutheran church in Feltonville. These congregants have been our friends; and through them, we have friends in Germany. I sing with them. I know how their mouths move. I love the sound of the language and the sound of the music.
As a composer, I try to make my music strong because I like strong music, whether it’s a riot of Afro-Cuban rhythms or the piercing textures of the Japanese royal court. But what I feel deepest is Germany, of wild-men Meistersingers such as Wolkenstein, of Luther’s trombone-like chorales and those chorales spun by Praetorius.
It’s Freischütz. It’s Mozart stuffing too many tunes into one piece. It’s the “Ode to Joy” and it’s the Overture to Rosenkavalier: music that’s too big, written by composers who ought to play outdoors before they break something.
OK, Mozart’s Austrian. And it’s Bach—oh my, Bach.
Mine is a romantic view, I know. German music is also oom-pah with lederhosen. But seeing a live Schuhplattler dance wiped that lederhosen smirk off my face.
For one thing, there’s more spirit of Freischütz in oom-pah than I’d realized. And for another, any one of those guys in short pants could beat the crap out of you.
Understand, I love America above all countries. It’s a country built on an idea: liberty, the greatest of ideas for a country. But it’s not a bloodline. Waves of different immigrants built America, so its musical heritage isn’t just diverse, it’s atomized.
The manufactured suburbs
To be sure, some musical cultures—like Appalachian or blues—are uniquely American. But mostly, whatever music we have, we’ve manufactured ourselves. Nobody bequeathed it to us.
I’m from the manufactured suburbs, where culture was “Let’s Hang On!” by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. American oom-pah. So how can I make my music without a unified tradition? I could choose Appalachian as my model, or blues, or German, but I’d be picking off the rack. I’ve no more right to them than to “Edelweiss” or Rapsodie espagnole.
That’s the joke, of course. Rapsodie espagnole was written by Maurice Ravel. He came by his southern strain honestly, through his Basque mother. But who is more French than Ravel?
Negro spiritual, or Bohemian folk song?
“Edelweiss,” that most Austrian of folk songs, was a last-minute invention of Richard Rodgers for The Sound of Music, because he needed a solo for Captain von Trapp. Rodgers wanted a tune that sounded just like a folk song, so he sat down and composed one.
Is the big “Going Home” tune in Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, the “New World,” a real spiritual sung to the Bohemian composer by his New York student Harry Burleigh (later to become one of the finest arrangers of the Negro Spiritual), or is it a melody he wrote to sound like a spiritual? To me it’s immaterial. It sounds like Dvořák. Many now say that his tune is, in fact, more Bohemian than anything else.
Meanwhile, on the Parkway…
What’s that word for “may”? Oh, yes… “Darf ich ihnen helfen?” I announce my willingness to help as I walk up to the tourists. I’m sure it’s wrong—or, if correct, correct in the way that no German would say it.
Broad smiles quickly turn toward me. “You… speak Cherman?”
“Ne, ne, nur ein bisschen, und sehr schlecht,” I respond, again probably wrong, and deciding I’ve pushed it far enough. “What are you looking for?”
I got them to where they wanted to go. And I’ve hoped, since then, that they’d think fondly of America—in small part—because some guy with ein bisschen Deutsch pointed them down the right Strasse.
Whether my own Vespers, inbreathed by chorales, sounds German, I have no idea. Whether it or any of my music sounds American—again, no idea. I know that America is independent. We fought a Revolution. (The other half of me is British, but that’s another story.)
Debt to von Steuben
It’s no stretch to say that we Americans won the War of Independence—in no small part—because of Baron von Steuben, who turned George Washington’s men into soldiers. That’s American culture: unbequeathed, helped by foreigners, and independent.
Any guy in lederhosen would tell me to get on with it. Or words to that effect.
While I’m working out my own sound of music, I’m lucky to have Bach and Freischütz, along with Franklin Parkways and Squares, and suburbs, and American oom-pah. I should stop worrying about where my music comes from, and maybe once in a while even listen to Frankie Valli:
Let’s hang on to what we’ve got
Don’t let go, girl; we’ve got a lot…