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A History of Musical Instruments

Musikinstrumentengeschichte

Giesbrecht, Agnes. "A History of Musical Instruments." Volk auf dem Weg, November 2004, 16-17.

Translation from German to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


Aunt Lena was my mother's school chum. I attended school with her oldest daughter Nelly Neufeld, and her youngest son Daniel happened to be one of my first students after I had completed studies at the Orenburg Pedagogical Institute.

They are a very musical family. Whenever they gather, they love to sing and make music. Three generations play various instruments, and at Christmas, to their grandparents' delight, they combine to form a family orchestra unde the Christmas tree.

This is a tradition. For nearly a hundred years, the family kept a harmonium that Lena's grandfather Wilhelm Janzen had ordered all the way from Berlin.


He was one of the founders of the German daughter colony settlement of Neu Samara in the Orenburg region who resettled to Podolsk from the Molotch/Ukraine mother colony, which had been founded by East-Prussian Mennonites. The newly claimed land of the village of Neuland in South Urals ended up being very fertile, and following a good harvest or perhaps the sale of a calf slaughtered in the fall, Johann had apparently fulfilled three dreams of his: during the beginning of the former century, he ordered a gun for himself from Berlin in order to be able to defend against hungry wolves in the steppes; also a bicycle -- at that time an absolutely unique thing; and something for the soul -- two harmoniums, one for himself and one for his son Peter. The latter were to become constant companions of divine services and of celebrations within the family, as well as at weddings.

Peter Janzen took his harmonium along when he and his family moved to yet another daughter colony in Siberia. In the 1920s, he emigrated from there to Canada, and the harmonium came along. Today the instrument that was treated with such care is owned by Peter's 75-year-old daughter Margarite who lives in British Columbia in Canada. In 1995, when Nelly and I, along with a traveling group of former Orenburg residents, came to Canada, she played old German songs and country music for us. Not only her diminutive figure and her smallish size, but even her way of laughing and singing, and her beaming eyes -- all were similar to "Aunt" Lena even though the two had never met.

The second harmonium had been part of the Neufeld family until their emigration to Germany following the highly celebrated 100th anniversary of the founding of the Neu-Samara colony in 1990. At the time, Nelly Neufeld had graduated as a musical pedagogue and teacher of geography, and her brother was a degreed choral director. They invested much time and energy into this celebration. German choirs from various settlement areas, even from Siberia, came for the festivities, and at their conclusion Nelly directed songs sung by the massed choirs. The concert was aired by an Orenburg region television station. It was one of the first instances of public recognition of the accomplishments of the German settlers in Russia. The old harmonium was forced into the background by modern instruments, but maintained as a relic, and before their emigration to Germany the family decided to donate it to the German museum in Podolsk.

After I had lived in West Germany for some time, I was happy to learn that the Neufelds were living in Rotenburg on the Fulda river. I was told that Aunt Lena and her husband had become well used to the place, but that they were really missing their harmonium that had not made the journey and was now with their great-grandson Wilhelm Janzen, who had managed to acquire it.

One of the finest memories of my childhood has to do with this harmonium. Aunt Lena loved animals very much. Once when I arrived there on my bike from the other end of the village, she was just coming from the chicken coop and, with some eggs in her hands, was entering the kitchen. She took off her dark apron, washed her hands, and sat down at the harmonium to play a difficult piece for Nelly, who was practicing it at the time. After that the ten-year-old daughter willingly sat down at the instrument herself.

I had known Nelly as adventurous: she loved climbing trees, knew how to ride a bicycle well, and commandeered her brothers around at play.

When she began to play [the harmonium], the world stood still for me. It was the magic of the music and the final rays of the sinking sun which transformed the groete Stuw (Lower German dialect for the great room or living room) into a concert hall and Nelly into a prodigy and, for me, into the greatest pianist I had ever known. Her eyes beamed just like her mother's while playing the instrument. Her thin braids and her serious facial expression somehow made her seem more grown up. She leaned her head slightly to the right and listened into herself and to the sound her small, quick fingers were producing.

[Later] when I ran into the 75-year-old Aunt Lena by accident, I asked her how she was doing and what had happened to the harmonium. She allowed that she couldn't complain, she was living with her daughter on a farm and was spending her time feeding the chickens and goats, but that she was also playing the harmonium often.

She recounted: "Saying good-buy to the [old] harmonium before emigrating was difficult for me. It was too old to take it along to Germany. I gave it to a relative in a neighboring village. It is still there. A few years ago I was there for a visit and purposely drove to Peter Janzen's in order to be able to play on the old harmonium once more. It was like making a wonderful re acquaintance, like visiting my own youth again. Who knew, it might be the last time ... I did miss it much here in Germany. But then my children saw to it that I got different one. They got it from a local woman, and it was in good condition. I play music every day -- it keeps my soul young."

I asked again and was assured that this was not the same instrument that I had located in a cousin's run-down barn (which he had transformed into a wonderfully furnished living space) and which I had traded for in exchange for a large aquarium for his small daughter. The harmonium had been sitting, dust-covered, under a staircase and had to be refinished. The bellows had a tear in them. I thought that Nelly and Daniel would certainly get it back into shape and thereby help overcome their mother's melancholy. Aunt Lena had been happy about it, too, but somehow the refinishing project did not happen right away, and they had found a newer one. My own harmonium was then taken to Aunt Lena's brother-in-law, Isaak Braun, who managed to get it into shape again. He had collected musical instruments all his life, and his fondest dream was to build a harp by himself. When Nelly visited the then 86-year-old in 1984, he proudly showed her the harp he had made.

He had given the poor harmonium to his son David, who still has it and which still gladdens its listeners with its good sound.

Musical instruments are like people -- each has its own unique and interesting story.

The Literary Circle of Germans from Russia desires to collect these kinds of stories and will, in cooperation with Dr. Luzian Schiwietz, who at the Univsersity of Bonn offers a seminar on musical instruments, publish them. If there are instruments in your family that your ancestors brought to Russia or you have brought to Germany, please write down their histories and send these to Agnes Giesbrecht, Suedstr. 140, 53175 Bonn; e-mail: _litkreis@gmx.de_ . Your contributions can be written in Russian -- we'll get them translated. Musical instruments are a part of our history and tuneful witnesses for the fact that there have been many talented people among the Germans from Russia, that there was a German-Russian culture, and that it was a true enrichment for Russia, and now for Germany as well.

Agnes Giesbrecht -- Bonn

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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