We are now on the 6th country that makes up my DNA heritage! If you’ve missed what I’ve done so far, I had my DNA tested to find my heritage, then I started researching the music of each country I’m from. So far I’ve done Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine and France. Now we’re on Germany!
German Music History
Before I get started, I just need to say that this is a very condensed post and I’m sure there’s enough German music to cover multiple blog posts. So, it’s likely I’ve missed quite a few people. If you know of a German artist I should check out, please let me know!My favorite German artist: Click To Tweet
According to Wikipedia, Germany is the largest music market in Europe and the third largest in the world. My issue with that statement is that literally anyone can claim that. How would we verify it? In my French post (link), it said French was the fifth largest music market, but says nothing about any other countries. Anyway, I just thought it might be interesting trivia.
Hildegard von Bingen
Let me introduce you to an interesting lady right off the bat. Hildegard was a composer born in 1098. She was a nun and Christian mystic, which is kind of like a witchy-Christian? Do those still exist? Anyway she wrote a lot of hymns and her work is the oldest-known German music in existence. Her most popular work is “Ordo Virtutum,” or “Order of the Virtues.” It’s a “morality play,” and/or musical drama. There are quite a few of these online in full, but they are over an hour long. If you want to check one out, here it is:
Hildegard had many talents, including inventing her own alphabet and founding monasteries at Rupertsberg and Eibingen. She is a saint and “Doctor of the Church,” and her feast day is September 17th, the day before my birthday (but not the year, obviously). She died September 17th, 1179 and at her death the nuns said they saw two large streams of light come into the room as she died. So…the sun? I mean, I get that people need to believe in signs, especially when they’re grieving, but let’s not go nuts here.
There is a huge list of German composers, most of whom are well-known. Instead of my usual schtick where I choose two or three and give you their full history, I’m going to rapid-fire name a few and tell you some interesting tidbits about each.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach was the youngest of eight children, and after his parents died he moved in with his brother who taught him basic music. He was the organ player at a church in Arnstadt, and although incredibly gifted, he made several enemies. He thought the other musicians were not talented enough, and called one of them a “Zippel Fagottist.” That second word seems terribly offensive by today’s standards, but it actually translates to “weenie bassoon player” which is pretty great. This weenie bassoon player then beat Bach with a stick to the point where authorities had to get involved. He married his second cousin. After he went blind, he had eye surgery by John Taylor, who is well-known for doing a terrible job on many others including Georges Handel. He died from complications of the surgery.
Ludwig van Beethoven
I think we all know him as the composer who went deaf, but he had a lot of heartbreak in his life. He fell in love with several women who were of ‘higher class’ than he, and although they may have liked him as well, their families wouldn’t allow them to be with him. Several of his most famous songs including “Moonlight sonata,” “Für Elise” and “Immortal Beloved” were thought to be dedicated to one of these women. He also forcefully took custody of his nephew after his brother died. Beethoven claimed his sister-in-law was an “unfit mother” due to having an illegitimate child. He was so hard on his nephew that he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. The child ended up going back home to his mother, where he recovered. Beethoven and his nephew did reconcile but never lived together again.
Quick note: Bach, Beethoven and Johannes Brahms are known as “the three B’s” of music. I looked for some juicy gossip about Brahms but unfortunately for him he seemed like a decent and scandal-free guy, so I don’t have a lot to write about.
Clara and Robert Schumann
You may have heard of both, but it was actually Clara who got Robert into music. She was so gifted and he so impressed by her talent that he begged his parents to let him stop studying law and start studying music. Clara’s father hated him and would not give permission for them to marry, so they sued him. The judge ruled in their favor and they were happily and musically married, keeping a joint musical diary. They had eight children.
Robert was prone to bouts of depression, and was hospitalized with “psychotic melancholia” after a suicide attempt. He never recovered and died two years later.
Clara was very opinionated on fellow composers, either loving or hating them openly. She developed neuralgia in her arm which hindered her piano playing in the later years of her life, but she remained well-known until her death.
Buckle up, because this dude is a wild ride. Wagner was a revolutionary and a supporter of the socialist movement. Due to massive debts, he and his wife spent most of their lives running to various European countries. However, he was loyal to Germany and always considered it home. Wagner was exiled from Germany after a revolution. While exiled, he began an affair with the wife of a friend who was supporting him financially. The husband found out and cut off financial support. He then began another affair with German poet Mathilde Wesendonck. That affair was ended when his wife found a letter from him. Wagner and his wife separated and moved to different countries, and when she died, he did not attend her funeral.
So here’s where even more drama ensues: Franz Liszt (a Hungarian composer I mentioned here) was good friends with Wagner. They maintained contact throughout his exiles and Liszt even helped Wagner when he could. Wagner started a new affair and fathered a child with a married woman. That woman WAS FRANZ LISZT’S DAUGHTER. She was 24 years younger than Wagner, and her husband was the composer of Wagner’s new music piece. She begged her husband for a divorce, but he refused until she had TWO MORE children by Wagner. Liszt did not approve of this relationship, although he and Wagner remained friends.
How is this not a movie? Or a trashy reality drama? Show idea: Reality shows based in the 1800s. It’s probably already a SNL skit, but it could be funny.
Also known as “The Magic Flute,” this is considered to be the beginning of German opera. It was written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was Austrian, not German. His sister-in-law, Josepha Weber, was a well-known German soprano who sang the role of “The Queen of the Night” (although let’s be real, Whitney Houston will always hold that title). Here is a video of her role:
I also highly recommend the movie Amadeus. It’s not German, but Mozart travelled often so he could be considered from anywhere. Plus it’s just a great movie.
Musicians Who Were Nazis
Listen, Germany has a great history with a lot of great people. However, we can’t ignore this part of its history. Germany doesn’t ignore it, so I won’t either. Much like America is today, Germany was divided on the Nazi movement. Many composers fled to America. Others (such as Richard Strauss) were privately against the movement but played along to avoid punishment. Still others (such as Herbert von Karajan) were actually in the Nazi movement. It should be noted, however, that Karajan was Austrian and not German. Obviously, this whole entire area (including countries I’ve already covered) were involved in World War II. I just felt that I had to mention it because how could I not? This is part of my heritage, and although my grandfathers fought for America in the war, this part of history remains part of all of us.
One performer who was vehemently against the Nazis was Marlene Dietrich, a singer and cabaret (or “kabarett” in German) actor. She renounced her German citizenship and moved to America during the war, refusing to come back when the Third reich offered her a lucrative deal. Dietrich donated over $450,000 (which today would be the equivalent of almost $8 million!) to help Jewish refugees in exile. She then toured America, performing and selling war bonds. She is known to have sold more war bonds than any other source.
Like me, Marlene was a contralto. Here is a song of hers, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
Although she should be considered a hero today, she had a tough time returning to Germany. Her shows were often booed relentlessly and she got terrible press. It’s tough to do the right thing in the moment, but hopefully this great lady will inspire us all.
Another interesting note: She was bisexual and frequently enjoyed the gay scene and drag balls in 1920s Berlin. She only married once to a man and had a daughter, who wrote a book about her that I would love to read. There is also a movie about her called Marlene.
Swinging Against Nazis
During the Nazi takeover, the young Germans who opposed the movement found an outlet through underground swing music. The Nazis sought to recruit aryan youth to their movement, but a great deal of them rebelled. Instead of joining the Hitlerjugend, or “Hitler youth,” they formed the Swingjugend, or “Swing youth.” The Nazis tried unsuccessfully to put an end to this. There is a SUPER racist and offensive poster the Nazis made against jazz. I don’t feel comfortable posting it on my blog, but it’s here if you want to check it out and read more about the movement.
Newer German Artists
This post is getting way longer than my others, so I’m going to wrap it up here quickly. One duo that I don’t remember myself but remember hearing my parents discuss is Milli Vanilli. I didn’t know much about them other than they were lip-syncing, so it blew my mind to know they were also German. Their story is quite interesting; I recommend reading the article above if you have time!
Hans Zimmer is one of the most well-known film composers, having won countless awards and scored so many movies I can’t list them all. A few include Inception, The Dark Knight Trilogy and Rain Man. He had an interesting childhood: he would often attach chainsaws and other machinery to pianos, which horrified his pianist mother but delighted his engineer father. He also teaches a MasterClass that I plan on taking (you can see my reviews on Christina Aguilera‘s, Reba McEntire‘s and Deadmau5‘s MasterClasses here!)
Cascada is a group I used to really like and recommend you check out. I thought it was just the one woman, but apparently it’s a group and she’s the face of it. Here’s one of their hits:
Obviously, I could go on for a million years about all the great German artists in every genre. I recommend exploring for yourself in the genre you like best. I’m sure you’ll find a ton.
Here is my video on today’s post:
Thank you for reading and please let me know who else I should check out!