German Music

By: Theodore Albrecht

Type: Overview Entry

Published: January 1, 1995

Updated: January 11, 2017

The earliest reference to music among Texas German immigrants dates from 1834, when the elder Robert Justus Kleberg imported a piano and music books to Harrisburg. In 1837 Mary Austin Holley enjoyed the informal singing of some Germans on a boat trip between Galveston and Houston. Two years later German musical soirées were held at Kessler's Arcade in Houston, and in 1840 Emil Heerbrugger gave recitals on violin, horn, and guitar, with piano accompaniment, at the Capitol.

With colonization by the Adelsverein after 1844, German music began to flourish in Texas, and German musicians became more influential, even in the centers where the population was not primarily German. Johann N. S. Menger was active in San Antonio as a piano teacher in 1847, and Franz Xavier Heilig became a music teacher for the city's public schools in 1853, to be joined later by Christoph Plagge and Henry Grossmann. Likewise Joseph Petmecky, and later Udo Rhodius, J. Messner, and William Besserer taught in Austin, and other Germans taught in Houston, Galveston, Dallas, and other cities. About 1879 Julius Weiss, from Saxony, went to Texarkana, where he taught a young student named Scott Joplin, destined to become "King of Ragtime."

Singing was among the earliest leisure activities, first with informal groups in Galveston, Houston, and New Braunfels in the mid-1840s, and then with formal male singing societies, including the San Antonio Männergesang-Verein (1847), New Braunfels Germania (1850), Austin Männerchor (1852), and Houston Männer-Gesangverein. In 1853 the societies held a Saengerfest (singers' festival) in New Braunfels and formed the Texas State Sängerbund (singers' league). Throughout the years other singers' leagues followed, such as the Houston Sängerbund, founded in 1883. The German singing societies ultimately became the prime promoters of serious music in Texas before World War I.

Other leagues served their respective locales: the Hill Country, Gillespie County, Guadalupe Valley, and South Texas. Singing societies existed at one time or another in roughly ninety Texas communities. The oldest surviving singing society is the Beethoven Männerchor (San Antonio), founded in August 1865. Mixed choruses were begun outside of church settings: the New Braunfels Concordia (1860), San Antonio Mendelssohn (1872), Houston Philharmonic Society (1872), and Austin Musical Union (1888), for instance. These often signaled increased participation by non-German Texans and wider musical education throughout the community.

Opera arrived early in Texas in one form or another; Emil Heerbrugger's 1840 Houston recitals contained overtures and potpourris of popular operatic airs. Musical immigrants brought opera scores and selections with them from Europe and often sang them around the family piano. Frederic Law Olmsted heard excerpts from Mozart's Don Giovanni during a social gathering in Sisterdale in 1854, and operatic choruses were standard repertoire for singing societies before the Civil War. Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (or extensive portions of it) was reputedly staged by the Casino Club in San Antonio in the late 1850s. Dallas saw a complete local production of Friedrich von Flotow's Martha with piano accompaniment in 1868 and again, with orchestra, in 1875. San Antonio opened its Grand Opera House in 1886 with Gaetano Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, performed by the Emma Abbott Opera Company, and later witnessed Richard Wagner's Lohengrin in the same theater. The final State Saengerfest (1916) before World War I included extensive selections from Wagner's Die Meistersinger, which was not performed whole in Texas until 1974.

Musical instruments among the Germans in early Texas were often of high quality: Heinrich Backofen, son of a prominent Darmstadt clarinet maker, brought "a whole chest" of instruments with him to Bettina in 1847. A piano trio consisting of the violinist Listich, cellist Scheliche, and pianist C. D. Adolph Douai was active in San Antonio and New Braunfels in 1852–53. Bands ranged from a single fiddler playing for dances in the 1840s to full concert ensembles by the 1880s and were often connected with the conductor's teaching activities, either in school or private studio. The German band tradition survives today in the American Legion bands of Seguin and New Braunfels, as well as the Beethoven Concert Band of San Antonio. In the 1870s the Germans were responsible for the first symphony orchestras in Texas.

The Texas German population included a number of composers. Gottfried Joseph Petmecky (New Braunfels), Adolph Douai (San Antonio), Simon Menger (San Antonio), and C. Wilke (La Grange) all wrote works for male chorus in the 1850s. The last also composed and arranged the music for Texas Fahrten, a song pageant written by Friedrich Hermann Seele. Adolph Fuchs wrote and composed several songs in the 1840s and later. Menger wrote a few piano pieces, as did Gabriel Katzenberger and John M. Steinfeldt in the 1880s and 1890s. W. C. A. Thielepape of San Antonio left twenty-seven compositions dated from 1840 to 1899, and conductors Carl Venth and Arthur Claassen were already noted composers when they arrived in Texas during the decade before World War I.

In Victoria, the Hauschild Music Company, owned by German descendant George Hermann Hauschild, established itself as one of the largest publishers of sheet music throughout the Southwest from 1891 to 1922.

In 1937 in Merano, Italy, Max Reiter became acquainted with Richard Strauss, who arranged a symphonic suite of waltzes from the opera Der Rosenkavalier at Reiter's suggestion. The friendship between the two men later led Reiter to premiere many of Strauss's works with the San Antonio Symphony and in radio broadcasts. Reiter was advised by the Steinway family to go to Texas, which he believed to be one of the areas least affected by the Great Depression; more Steinway pianos per capita had sold in Texas than in any other state. In Texas, Reiter first went to San Antonio, where, in spite of initial encouragement, he made little immediate progress in establishing an orchestra. A series of concerts in Waco led to the establishment of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, with Reiter as the orchestra's founding conductor and music director. Under his baton the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, which began with amateur players as well as professional musicians, grew and prospered.

Popular German folk music and dances, such as the polka and schottische, and the use of instruments such as the accordion, not only imparted the German musical influence to younger generations but also influenced other musicians who incorporated some of these sounds into their own musical styles (such as Texas-Mexican conjunto).

The long-term impact of German musical culture throughout Texas is also present through the numerous dance halls constructed across the state. Some of these early community centers remained throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first as popular music venues for a variety of genres, from country to blues to Tejano to rock. Gruene Hall, Anhalt Hall, Dessau Dance Hall, and Luckenbach Dance Hall are all examples of buildings constructed by German settlers in German communities.

For a time, World War I and World War II led to a decline in the open display of German customs and music. Some dance halls closed, and singing societies and other music organizations folded. During the latter part of the twentieth century, however, German Texans made efforts to preserve the history of their music. Numerous festivals, including Wurstfest in New Braunfels, Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg, and Maifest in Brenham, paid homage to German music and dance, as Texas maintained its German music heritage into the twenty-first century.

Theodore Albrecht, German Singing Societies in Texas (Ph.D. dissertation, North Texas State University, 1975). Theodore Albrecht, "Heinrich Backofen, Sohn: Musical Instrument Maker of Darmstadt and Bettina," The Clarinet, May 1976. Theodore Albrecht, "The Music Libraries of the German Singing Societies in Texas, 1850–1855," Notes: The Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association 31 (March 1975). Gary Hartman, The History of Texas Music (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008). Ottilie Fuchs Goeth, Was Grossmutter erzählt (San Antonio: Passing Show Printing, 1915; trans. Irma Goeth Guenther as Memoirs of a Texas Pioneer Grandmother, Austin, 1969; rpt., Burnet, Texas: Eakin Press, 1982). Oscar Haas, A Chronological History of the Singers of German Song in Texas (New Braunfels, Texas, 1948). Hermann Seele, Travels in Texas, trans. Theodore Gish (Austin: Nortex, 1985). Lota M. Spell, Music in Texas (Austin, 1936; rpt., New York: AMS, 1973).


  • Music
  • Peoples
  • Germans

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Theodore Albrecht, “German Music,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 08, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995
January 11, 2017

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