A brief history of . . .Music in Wisconsin

Wausau Liederkranz in Sheboygan, 1913, from a postcard. Visual Materials Archive of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, (X3)17708, CF904. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Beauty Galop by C. H. Bach for piano, title page. Milwaukee: H. N. Hempsted, 206 Main St., 1865. Americana Collection 06.31.

One of hundreds of examples in the collections of Mills Music Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, of social dance music for piano, this piece is by a noted Milwaukee orchestral conductor, composer, and arranger.

Click on above image to see a larger version.

Das deutsche Lied: 55 ausgewaehlte Maennerchoere / herausgegeben von Hugo Kaun(German Lied, or Song: 55 selected men's choruses / edited by...). Milwaukee: Rohlfing Sons Music Co., [c. 1899], title page, foreword, contents, and Franz Schubert's Der Lindenbaum arranged for four-part men's chorus. Mills Music Library, Wisconsin Music Archives, M1580D39K3.

As mentioned in the German foreword, Kaun edited this volume of men's choruses derived from classic German art songs specifically for use by groups in America.

The title page of Odin Redding's Joy and peace, op. 2, no. 3, from Norwegian folk life for piano (Wisconsin Sheet music database call no. 1464, Mills Music Library), published in Milwaukee by Wm. A. Kaun (brother of Hugo) Music Co. in 1906, illustrates the musical landscape of early 20th century Wisconsin with its titles in Norwegian, German, and English.

Part of the appeal of this suite to potential buyers had to do with Norwegian independence from Sweden, declared in 1905.

Folklorist James Leary has called Wisconsin "the most European of the United States." It is the ongoing influence of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, especially those from Central, Northern, and Eastern Europe, which defines the musical culture of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.



The settlement of Wisconsin by whites in the 1830s and 1840s coincided with the rise in popularity of social dancing based on new forms popular in Europe, like gallops, schottisches, waltzes, and polkas. A form that entered Bohemia from Poland, the polka is a slower version of the gallop, a dance with two beats to the bar that imitates a horse trot. It swept over the United States, coincidental with the presidency of James K. Polk, arrived in the Midwest, took root, and never left.


In Milwaukee, large-scale German immigration in the 1840s soon gave rise to an active intellectual and cultural life centered in the German-American community that earned the city the nickname, "Deutsche Athen," or German Athens. For the last fifty years of the Nineteenth century German immigrants strove to reproduce in Milwaukee the lively and varied musical fare typical of regional centers in Germany. Organizations like the Milwaukee Musical Society put on concerts including overtures, symphonies, concerti with internationally known soloists, large-scale choral works with orchestra, and a variety of small ensemble music, as well as fully-staged opera in German. The world premiere of German Romantic composer and recent immigrant Eduard von Sobolewski's Mohega, die Blume des Waldes, on a theme from the American Revolution, was given by the Society in 1859. Important personalities in the history of German-American concert life included the founder of the Milwaukee Musical Society, Hans Balatka, who moved to Chicago in 1860 to create a forerunner of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Christopher, or Christoph Bach (1835-1927); Eugen, or Eugene Luening (1852-1944), a Milwaukee-born conducting student of Richard Wagner's who led the Milwaukee Musical Society for many years before becoming acting head of the University of Wisconsin at Madison's School of Music in 1909; and Hugo Kaun (1865-1932), founder of the Milwaukee Maennerchor, who resided in Milwaukee during the 1890s, putting on concerts of large-scale choral works with orchestra, before resuming a career as concert composer in Berlin.



German immigration to Milwaukee and to east-central and central Wisconsin coincided with massive immigration by Scandinavians, especially Norwegians, to south-central and western Wisconsin. In many rural areas of northern Illinois, northern Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the eastern Dakotas, the German-Norwegian mix was dominant into the 1980s (pace A Prairie Home Companion). Into the early 20th century, the success of Norwegians in Wisconsin made them an important voice in state politics as well as the backbone of support for the Progressive movement, and a voice of continuing significance in Wisconsin culture. The brief residency of Norwegian violinist and celebrity Ole Bull in Madison during the 1870s was saluted by local Norwegians with torchlight parades and mens' choruses. Today, Madison is home to both an active Norwegian mens' chorus, the Grieg Club, and the German-American Madison Maennerchor, testifying to the enduring influence of these groups.

Wisconsin music in the 19th century embraced more than German concert music, Norwegian patriotic choruses, and parlor piano music. The Anglo-American genteel tradition was well-represented from the 1840s to 1870s by the songs of Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875) of Elkhorn, composer of In the sweet by and by, and from the late 1890s into the mid-20th century by those of Carrie Jacobs-Bond (1862-1946), composer of A Perfect Day. While Webster was the bard of the morbid mid-century, enjoying popularity on both sides during the Civil War, Bond's songs reassure, trusting that everything will work out for the best. This bland public image conceals the reality that Bond was extraordinarily successful in the music business, ending her days in Hollywood.

Today the world of Upper Midwestern polka music preserves the 19th century strands of popular dance forms like the polka, once staples of classical music, genteel songwriting as it has influenced American country and gospel music, and male singing in harmony, while blending German, Scandinavian, Slavic and Baltic melodic and instrumental traditions. In this sense, the 19th century of music has never ended in the state of Wisconsin.


Scanning by Steven Sundell, UW-Madison, Mills Music Library, and Andrew Kraushaar, Visual Materials Archive, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.


Appelstein, Aaron. Joseph Philbrick Webster: Nineteenth-Century American Songwriter. Madison: unpublished M. A. thesis, Musicology, University of Wisconsin, 1975.

Cook, Susan C., ed. A Century of Making Music: a documentary scrapbook of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, 1895-1995. Madison: the University, 1995.

Corenthal, Michael, comp. The Illustrated History of Wisconsin Music 1840-1990: 150 years of melodies and memories. Milwaukee: Yesterdays Memories; MGC Publications, [1990].

Leary, James P. A Beginning Fieldworker's Guide to European Ethnic Music in Northern Wisconsin. North Country Press, 1981.

_____. Polka Music, Ethnic Music: a report on Wisconsin's Polka traditions. Mount Horeb, Wis.: Wisconsin Folk Museum, [1991].

Luening, Otto. The Odyssey of an American Composer: the autobiography of Otto Luening. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980.

New Grove dictionary of American music. 4 volumes. Edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan, 1986 [articles on European-American popular music, Hans Balatka, Ole Bull, Carrie Jacobs-Bond, Hugo Kaun, Milwaukee, Polka, and Joseph Philbrick Webster].

Reagan, Ann Bakamjian. Art Music in Milwaukee in the late nineteenth century 1850-1900. Madison: University of Wisconsin, Ph.D. thesis in Music, 1980.

Wisconsin Federation of Music Clubs. Wisconsin Composers. The Federation: 1948 [commemorates the Wisconsin State Centennial, 1848-1948.]

Further resources

Created on: April 17, 2000