The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 5: From Prussia With Love

royal hwn band

One of the most influential people on the sound of Hawaiian music came from an unexpected place. Having being chosen by the king of Prussia to be sent to Hawaii by request of King Kamehameha the Fifth, Henry Berger changed the face and direction of Hawaiian music for many generations to come. After the death of his father when Henry was four years old he went to live with a talented musician uncle. Under the tutelage of this uncle who was well known as the preeminent village musician and exposure to music in church, Henry went on to join the German army where he was trained in military marches. It was through this schooling that he gained the skills that impressed the king enough to choose him over ten other applicants to fill King Kamehameha the Fifth’s request for a band leader.

Soon after arriving in Honolulu in 1872 Henry went immediately to work. It is reported that he gave a piano recital the very next day and conducted a band concert within a week. He quickly befriended future queen Liliuokalani and by 1877 and assumed full leadership of the “King’s Band” which was to later renamed as the “Royal Hawaiian Band.” In 1879 he became a naturalized Hawaiian citizen of the Kingdom. He worked closely with Liliuokalani helping her arrange her songs. Later, starting 1893 he started the band program at Kamehameha Schools. And he also started what was to be later known as the Honolulu Symphony. During his time as band master he conducted over 32,000 concerts. The Royal Hawaiian Band is still functioning today and is the oldest municipal band in the United States. (For more information on the history of the Royal Hawaiian Band go here for a detailed history by David Bandy).

But these posts are not history lessons though. Rather, I would like to look at how the outside cultures influenced the music that was being made in Hawaii and how these elements influenced modern Hawaiian music. First if we look at the German military march of the mid to late 19th century we hear music set to a strict tempo with an oom-pah beat-like quality. A bass drum or a low brass plays the down beat with a high snare and the alto brass playing the off beat. The final strain is extremely lyrical with a blustery ending.

We do know that Henry worked very closely with Liliuokalani during the 1870s and 1880s. It was during this time that she composed a large number of her songs. If we compare her compositions before and after the arrival of Henry Berger we can hear a marked difference. Compare for example the songs “Pauahi O Kalani” and “Ka Hanu O Hanakeoki” Now, I know we are comparing a choral arrangement and a recording by the Sons of Hawaii, but I choose these two because they are faithful reproductions of the original. One, a choir from the Kamehameha Schools and the other by the leading Hawaiian music group playing an arrangement carefully researched by leader Eddie Kamae.

“Pauahi O Kalani” was written in 1868 before the arrival of Henry Berger. The melody is lofty and lyrical. It is full of romanticism and lofty ambition. This is the type of song that shows signs of influence from the church and their hymnal culture (see my previous post “The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Muisc Part 2: The Church). In comparison “Ka Hanu O Hanakeoki” written in 1874 is driving, with a fixed rhythm. The melody builds from a secure start in the lower registers and constantly rises to the upper registers, finally the song ends with a flourishing crescendo. These elements line up well with those found in the German military marches that were so familiar to Henry Berger and that he surely shared with Liliuokalani.

This is not to say that Liliuokalani’s compositions before Berger’s arrival didn’t have elements of European marches. Through the church and European cultural influences before Henry Berger, Liliuokalani had exposure to musical elements found in the European marches that had seeped into to much of the music created on that continent. Also, Liliuokalani did continue to compose beautiful songs with hymnal qualities after Berger’s work with her. The point is through working with Liliuokalani, Berger made these elements more formalized in her composing. Through his work directly arranging her compositions for the Royal Hawaiian Band, Berger had his direct hand on her songs. It is Liliuokalani herself that called him “The Father of Hawaiian Music.”

One song in which we can point at a direct correlation to a European march is in what was to become Hawaii’s anthem “Hawaii Ponoi.” It is documented that the lyrics were set to the melody of the Prussian hymn “Heil Dir Im Siegerkranz which was loosely based on the English anthem “God Save the Queen. Hear the similarities?

It can’t be underestimated either the influence Henry Berger had on the direction of Hawaiian music through his work with the Kamehameha Schools from 1893-1903. By now Henry Berger had made formalized arrangements and standardized sheet music for many many Hawaiian songs. It was now during his work at the Kamehameha Schools that he taught and spread these standardized arrangements. During his time there he taught hundreds of students of Hawaiian ancestry how to read music and to play various band instruments. Many of these students went on to perform with the Royal Hawaiian Band and further more many of these musicians were some of the first Hawaiian music recording and touring musicians in the 1910s and 1920s. And on top of that just to show the extent of Berger’s influence, many of the off spring of these musicians went on to enroll at the Kamehameha Schools and continued this tradition. Ask any professional Hawaiian music artist of today and almost all of them have some connection to music through the Kamehameha Schools. I cannot site all the examples here as that would take up an entire blog post in itself.

So I don’t feel Liliuokalani was exaggerating when she called Henry Berger the father of Hawaiian music. From Berger’s work with Liliuokalani, to the arranging of the Hawaii state anthem, and his tireless dedication to song documentation and teaching at Kamehameha Schools, his hands are all over the development of Hawaiian music in the 20th century. We can still hear the steady tempos, low down beat with high off beat and bombastic endings in Hawaiian music today. And all these elements originated in the military marches of 19th century Prussia. By the 1920s there existed in Hawaii a unique melding of American Hymnal church music, romantic Mexican Ranchera ballads and the European March. All played on Spanish guitars and the newly invented Hawaiian ukulele which was based on Madeiran folk instruments. Rather amazing don’t you think?

This all set up the next change in Hawaiian music as Hawaiian musicians began to travel around the United States and spread this newly created blend of modern music. Next the sound of Hawaii continued to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries as it began to incorporate elements of American Ragtime and Jazz, American Big Band Music, American Country and Folk Music and Caribbean Reggae Music. Those things will be covered in my next posts. Keep coming back!


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