Thoughts on the Musical History of the Germans in Bessarabia: An Attempt to Approach a Life's Topic

Translation from German to English by Dr. Elvire Necker-Eberhardt, edited by Dwayne Janke

Article appeared originally with German text written by Karl F. Hasenfuss in the Jahrbuch der Deutschen aus Bessarabien: Heimatkalender 2005, Pages 119-128.

In searching for documents on the history of music of the Germans in Bessarabia, we find in the book by Jakob Becker, Bessarabien und sein Deutschtum (1966), this sentence (on page 153): “You cannot talk about art at all.” A little later: “Music had to conform to similar conditions. The area of music too lagged behind other parts of the world.”

However, at the end of the paragraph, surprising statements are found which contradict this assumption: “Besides community and church choirs, brass bands also have to be mentioned. Pastor Bienemann, Arzis (1859-1868), deserves credit for his work with church choirs. As far as folk songs are concerned, nobody undertook as much as Director Albert Mauch (Principal of the Wernerschule). It was he who introduced song weeks in schools for our teachers’ association, and organized song festivals (in Arzis on Sept. 23, 1892, in 1923 and 1924 in Tarutino and Kischinew). He gave us the text and melody to our Heimat song: “Gott segne dich, mein Heimatland. . . . ” Some communities had orchestras with violins, guitars, mandolins and balalaikas.”2

After mentioning Herbert Irion from Klöstitz, Jakob Becker states that harmoniums were more widely used than pianos; then he concludes: “The Bessarabian Germans were, and still are, music-loving people, maybe because they are so emotional” (ibid page 154).

This latter statement caused us to research the various village books for this topic because local memories will help most in this area. In H. Weiß’s book, History of the Community Teplitz (1931), we find on page 295 the following notice: “The Teplitzers always showed great love for music.” The next sentence states: “In the years 1860-61, some music fans founded a brass band with 15 instruments.” The German Volkskalender for Bessarabia (DVK) proves this to be true for other communities too. Some of the editions I consulted mention under “Music,” brass bands and string orchestras.

There communities, the number of instruments—when known—and their conductors are mentioned. In 1928, nineteen brass bands and eight string orchestras are listed; in 1938, this rose to 20 and 10. In the DVK of 1938 on page 49, under “1936-1937 in the German communities of Bessarabia: Important Events from Oct. 15, 1936-Oct. 17, 1937,” and under May 23 (1937), the following announcement is found: “Johann Krause‘s 50th Singer’s Anniversary (Tarutino).” Individual’s musical interests like this prove that continuous work with choirs must have been done.

Culture in Bessarabia
In the course of our presentation, we want to answer the question about what the Bessarabian Germans did or understood by “cultural achievement” or “art.” In my opinion, everyday objects also have to be considered, which have been documented in photos and belong to the area of practical art and design. We consider here altar crosses, chandeliers, organs, cemetery crosses or useful objects like blankets, kerchiefs or tablecloths, as well as carriages or machines.

In the DVK of 1930, machines, books, material, dye industry and cattle feed are advertised, as well as bells, harmoniums or brass instruments. On page 167, we find an advertisement by a Transylvanian company whose instruments have won prizes at the World’s Fair in 1862 at London; in 1867 at Paris; in 1873, 1888 and 1892 at Vienna; in 1876 at Philadelphia; in 1890 at Graz; in 1893 at Chicago; and in 1906 at Reichenberg.

The DVK of 1930 shows how important it is to look at presentations of various communities. Sexton Friedrich Rüb writes on page 76 in his article, “Die Gemeinde Gnadental”: “Presently there are 23 harmoniums in our village and 4 pianos.” He poses the question, how an enthusiasm for them started, how keyboard instruments were taught or learned and what was played. Naturally the question arises whether sheets of this music still exist such as those we have for the “Heimatlied.” Maybe an oral tradition existed for texts, melodies and accompaniment, as is still the case for accordion music.

To better understand the musical history of the Bessarabian Germans, I shall quote from Wilhelm Mutschall’s book, Geschichte der Gemeinde Tarutino—von 1814-1934. Mutschall states that his written treatise for the community of Elisabeth (later called Tarutino) goes back to 1912 because it was planned to be ready for the anniversary year of 1914.

It was Mutschall’s intention to show the community’s rise from poverty, and partly also the moral decay, to the existing culture obvious in the anniversary year.

Mutschall states that a schoolroom had been added next to the prayer house. “We have to give the community a lot of credit when the families employed a teacher, even though they had only been able to find protection in mud huts.”1 We have to remember that before the French Revolution, schooling and science were under the auspices of churches, monasteries, princes or trade unions. The community of Tarutino tried to establish—according to Lutheran tradition—reading, writing, arithmetic and religion (page 24) in their village situation. Mutschall summarizes the efforts of the first teacher this way: “In one word, he achieved culture to a considerable degree.”

Musical Training and Choir Work
Mutschall also quotes Pastor J.S. Helwich, who had become the 4th pastor in 1831. He states that sextons and teachers could neither write nor sing. Only 3 or 4 hymnbooks were used in the village. Since pastors looked after schools, Pastor Helwich developed curriculum for 2 and more classes, with detailed instructions on how to teach the material. In a supplement, he even provides teaching methods.

Christian Fiess’ Heimatbuch Sarata: 1822-1940, which came out in 1970, confirms this. On page 216, we find printed “Veygels Entwurf zum Schulprogramm” (“Veygel’s Plan to an Educational Program”) of 1831. I am pointing out those under 12h); here subjects are mentioned which were supposed to be thoroughly learned in the church schools. I quote: “12h) Church Music, Choir Singing, Piano and Organ Music.”

This could be the reason why in the 1840s, Tarutino received a harmonium for the prayer house under the 6th pastor; it was later substituted by an organ (page 23). In connection with the building of the church in 1862, we find references on page 74 to the organ builder Karl Engelmann from Odessa and the royal court organ maker Keller from Darmstadt. The organ itself is described: “The organ has 2 manuals and 16 registers and cost 2,000 rubles.” A photo of the organ is found on page 224 of the photo supplement. It also has to be mentioned that in Karl Roth’s Heimatbuch, i.e. Lichtental-Bessarabien—Geschichte einer schwäbischen Gemeinde (published in 1969) their organ is described on page 185. There are references to the various registers.

At the end of the report of July 25, 1865, about the “solemn act of dedication,” we find the notice that “the divine service continued according to the agenda.” Mutschall continues: “The service was embellished by the contributions of the men’s and mixed choir” (page 77).

We find additional news about these choirs on page 108. In 1863, Gustav Hoffmann from Oderwitz in Saxony had begun his service as sexton. Mutschall writes: “Hoffmann earned his greatest merits with his attending to singing in schools and church. Even though nature had not provided him with a special voice, nonetheless he was a great friend of singing and practised a lot hitherto unknown children’s songs with the help of a violin. Its content and melody appealed to a child’s emotions. The mixed and men’s choir he started ranked first among all German church choirs. He produced the notes for his 20-30 choir members with tireless patience. Whatever he wrote was neat, appealing, and beautiful, joyful for everybody. At the dedication of the church, all guests were surprised about the magnificent choir music. Even in his earlier years he dared to perform parts of Haydn’s Creation (“The Heavens Declare. . . .”) with organ accompaniment. But when he wanted to start string music in church, many shook their head, and several men left the church.”

If Bessarabia’s cultural work is to be evaluated, in my opinion we have to consider what the settlers—including those who arrived later—brought along in experiences and knowledge from their homeland as far as social, professional, church and cultural areas are concerned. We also have to consider each influence that every new pastor introduced into the existing mother colonies. In one place, Mutschall states Bessarabia had been a mission field. We have to add that this mission field continued growing internally. Therefore it has to be distinguished between actual quality and somebody’s personal opinion.

It is certain that much musical knowledge was introduced from the outside into Bessarabian communities through the purchase and use of organs, so much so that the organ courses offered in the 20th century logically followed. As far as I know nobody ever researched organ building in Bessarabia.

Mutschall mentions that Hoffmann—coming from Saxony—introduced a lot of children’s songs that were unknown until then. In a similar way, the deaconesses from Neuendettelsau, or Bessarabien Germans studying abroad, must have influenced their communities. Wilhelm Mutschall himself is an example of this. He tells us in the appendix to his book that he had spent

3 years of his training in the mission school of Neuendettelsau. He returned on Easter 1873. Neuendettelsau had a brass band.

At this point in our report of past achievements, I would like to add that the Protestant Brass Service in Germany (EPiD) published in its sheet music by Haydn of “Gloria—Let us play to the Honour of God 2004,” a work by Hoffmann from Tarutino of 1865, for 2 brass bands and drums (i.e. “The Heavens declare. . . .”). Hoffmann performed works of culture.

Songs and Singing
We are approaching the question of the cultural value of a musical work, a question important not only for Bessarabia. Is only a church hymn of cultural value? Mutschall mentions that pastors had to approve dance music at weddings. Erwin Heer writes in his report of 1980 (on page 109), about the “Material for Instruction and Learning in Bessarabian Elementary Schools,” that some communities had refused to allow the “Liederstrauß” (bouquet of songs) in their schools because it was too worldly. This “Liederstrauß” was a collection of folk songs put together by Pastor Beck.

An additional question exists whether there is cultural value to songs with stanzas, several stanzas with differing content sung to a single melody, or songs where every stanza has its own music. It has to be remembered that the concept of “song of art” was coined. When Becker talks about the Bessarabian Germans as being music lovers because they are so emotional, in my opinion this is referring to when they used songs with stanzas and such great power was emitted that their influence reached beyond the mind into the area of the emotions. When Luther in his song, “Mine is the best time of the year,” cites two verses of the Old Testament where therapeutic power emerges from music, this can also be proven for the songs used in Bessarabia.

I conclude that in Bessarabia, the area of music was a cultural development. A further proof of this we find in Mutschall, when he says that the divine services proceeded according to accepted custom (i.e. the congregations had found a way to sing songs acceptable in a church service despite any individual’s opinion of how it should be sung).

The song festivals mentioned by Becker are additional proof. In the Heimatbuch Sarata, we find a picture of a choir, which shows the great number of people interested in music. In one place I found a notice telling of the existence of a community choir. After I attended a service in September 2002 in the renovated church of Sarata, I tried to imagine how the hymns must have sounded earlier in the crowded “Dome of the Steppes.”

Late in 2002, a condensed report of the history of brass bands in Bessarabia was published in Pastor Schlemm’s book, Brass Band Work in the East before 1945, with the help of Mr. Isert and Mr. Häfner from the Bessarabian Heimatmuseum. I witnessed the composition of this article. Whoever has access to Bessarabian sources will quickly realize that we lack a report of the overall work of the choirs. The notice in Mutschall, that Hoffmann’s choir was first among the German church choirs, indicates that around 1865 other choirs must have existed in other communities too. I also want to point out that in an earlier Heimatkalender, two concert programs were published (i.e. in 1994, page 61). If you purchase one or the other, you will notice that the quality of music of the Bessarabian Germans is worthy to be heard. Obviously we are dealing with an earlier period, but the history of music teaches us that quality surpasses time and is discovered continuously.

To better evaluate the development of music in Bessarabia, it is important to provide further examples. In a biography of the sexton Friedrich Rüb, we find the notice that he wanted to further the singing in their houses through his students. Obviously his intentions were successful. Erwin Heer mentions in an article in the Heimatkalender that he remembers songs from the organ book and also melodies from the time when he attended the Wernerschule in Sarata. A new edition of the pieces which parents and grandparents remember hearing at church would allow their grandchildren to hear them again. As is the case with the village plans, these editions would help people recognise musical pieces.

In 1968 Friedrich Fiechtner from Gnadental, for many years editor of Heimat, the supplement to the Mitteilungsblatt, published the collection of songs entitled, “Ich bin das ganze Jahr vergnügt” (All year long I am happy). Shortly before his death in 2003, I learned from Georg Hermann from Gnadental, who had completed the Wernerschule, that he had wished Fiechtner had published the melodies to his songs for more parts.

Through conversations with Bessarabian Germans I learned that they love to sing. Therefore it is desirable, in my opinion, to offer weekends in North and South Germany for singers and instrumentalists, where Bessarabian German music would be practised. The “Foundation for the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage of the Russian and Black Sea Germans” in North Dakota, USA, has published two song books. The table of contents may aid to stir up the “community memory” (Gemeinde Gedächtnis) in order to collect the songs which have been sung in the different communities. Surely such music could be included at the bigger conventions of the Bessarabian Germans.

To refute the argument that a rich musical culture is unusual for Bessarabian Germans, I want to point out the book by Richard Baumgärtner and Artur Kräenbring from 1968, Das höhere Schulwesen der Deutschen in Bessarabien (The System of Higher Learning of the Germans in Bessarabia). In it we find: “The History of the Russian Werner-Zentralschule in Sarata from June 25, 1844, to June 25, 1894 (published for the 50th anniversary of the school by its teacher, W. Mutschall, which was first published in Odessa in 1894). On page 83 (according to the page numbering on the upper margin), we read: “These musical instruments we find in the school: 1 physharmonium , 1 pianino,3 6 brass instruments.” The high number of brass instruments indicates that they must have been used in class with the intent to make music together. A photo in an older edition of the Heimatkalender proves this, since it shows a group of about 14 brass players of the Wernerschule.

To conclude, I would like to encourage the comparison of the different reports of culture in Bessarabia in the 60 years after Resettlement. In the Bessarabian Heimatkalender of 1950 (on the pages 130-132), a plan for a “Book on all of Bessarabia” is introduced. Contributors are asked to help. In 1966, Pastor Albert Kern’s Heimatbuch der Bessarabiendeutschen was published. The articles “Kirchspiel Sarata,” pages 393-414, and “Pfarrgemeinde Gnadental,” pages 233-238, fail to mention singers and instrumentalists.

In the same Heimatkalender of 1950, Ilse Meyer publishes two articles. Ilse Meyer is the wife of Pastor Rudolf Meyer and the daughter-in-law of Pastor Alfons Meyer, who was pastor in Sarata for 36 years—from 1882 to 1918. The two articles are “Weihnachten in Bessarabien” (Christmas in Bessarabia), pages 40-43, and “Ostern” (Easter), pages 48-49. On page 48 we find: “The choir embellished the celebration; trumpets accompanied the congregational singing.” Original photos from Bessarabia in the Heimatkalender 1951 show brass instrumentalists ahead of the procession of Tarutino confirmants of 1938, page 79 (picture taken by Artur Kräenbring), and on a funeral procession in Sarata, page 84.

You may find this Heimatbuch in the local library. It portrays an incomplete picture to outsiders, however. Even in this Heimatbuch der Bessarabiendeutschen, a notice could have been included like the article about Alt-Elft. In three lines on page 118 we find the following text: “The cultural needs of the community were taken care of. Besides the ladies club an educational club, a church choir and a brass band exists.”

This compilation of existing dispersed sources completes the picture of the musical history of the Germans from Bessarabia.

Brass band in Eigenheim 1928/29 led by Teacher Johannes Gäßler
Caption: Church choir of Lichtental in 1893 under the leadership of Sexton Jakob Heer
Brass band in Arzis in 1917-22 (Picture Archive of the Hilfskomitee)
Brass band Albota (Picture Archive of the Hilfkomitee)
Neu-Posttal’s brass band (Picture Archive of the Hilfskomitee)
Tarutino’s trumpet band (Picture Archive of the Hilfskomitee)
Gnadental Church Choir Picture archive of the Hilfskomitee


Translator’s Notes:

1 Mutschall is referring to the primitive dwellings that the Germans had to construct when first establishing the first mother colonies in Bessarabia.
2 This is a Russian lute.
3 The nature of these two previously mentioned instruments is unknown to the translator.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller