Music, theater, and the visual arts were not only central to German-American life, they often were the easiest way for new immigrants from all backgrounds to connect, thus helping forge new communities in the young state.
There was hardly a Wisconsin town that didn’t have a music group, a Liederkranz (singing circle), folk ensemble, brass or polka band. Germans loved to sing, play instruments, perform, or simply join in at sing-alongs and dances. Organizations such as the Milwaukee Liederkranz, the Madison Männerchor, and the Freistadt Alte Kameraden band, continue the tradition to this day. Many German immigrants also arrived with classical music training, turning Milwaukee into a center for professional music performances, while works by Milwaukee composers such as Hugo Kaun (1863–1932) and Otto Luening (1900–1996) gained popularity around the nation.
Among the many festivals that Germans organized, the North American Sängerbund (choral society) Festival, hosted by the Milwaukee Musical Society in 1886, stood out: 85 groups from across the nation participated in the five-day event, performing among other works Mozart’s Requiem with a chorus of 1,200 singers and an orchestra of 120 musicians for 12,000 spectators.
German theater was equally popular. Amateur groups staged plays in small towns, while a professional theater scene developed in the cities. Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater, in particular, became famous for world-class productions by European, American, and German-American playwrights. Plays specifically written for the Milwaukee audience, sometimes in a mix of German and English, brought Germans and their neighbors together. In April 1918, however, in the midst of World War I, “The Pabst” found it prudent to cancel all German-language plays.
Stage sets are ephemeral, but the visual arts have left us many examples of Wisconsin’s cultural and artistic evolution across time, place, and creative media. There are the landscapes of Henry Vianden (1814–1899), an academy-trained artist from Bonn, who is considered the “Father of Wisconsin Art.” There are the cycloramas, giant 360-degree installations painted in the late 1880s by German artists at Milwaukee’s American Panorama Company. Victims of their own size, only one cyclorama is still open to the public today: the 49-foot tall and 371-foot long Civil War Battle of Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia. And there is the whimsical folk art of Ernst Hüpeden (ca. 1850–1911), an itinerant artist who – for room and board – covered the entire interior of the former Modern Woodmen of America lodge in Valton, Sauk County, with a magical Painted Forest.
Additional Reading on “Music, Theater, and Visual Arts”
Land without Nightingales: Music in the Making of German-America, by Philip Bohlman and Otto Holzapfel, eds. Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2002
German-American Music: Wisconsin’s Tradition – A Virtual Exhibit, Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
German-American Urban Culture: Writers & Theaters in Early Milwaukee, by Peter C. Merrill. Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2000
German-American Artists in Early Milwaukee: A Biographical Dictionary, by Peter C. Merrill. Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, WI, 1997
Ernest Hüpeden Beyond the Forest, by Lisa Stone and Leslie Umberger. Edgewood College Gallery, 2012