The Singing Muse? Three Centuries of Music Education in Germany

By Kertz-Welzel, Alexandra | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, October 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Singing Muse? Three Centuries of Music Education in Germany


Kertz-Welzel, Alexandra, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


In the nineteenth century, music education in Germany (1) had a significant influence on the establishment of music education in the United States. Lowell Mason and other pioneers of music education traveled to Germany to learn more about the way music was taught to young people in the schools of Berlin and Stuttgart. They were impressed and sought to learn and adapt German pedagogical approaches in singing classes to develop and improve upon music teaching in schools and community organizations in the U.S.

By the late twentieth century, the direction had changed. In 1969, Walter Gieseler wrote the first scholarly book in German about a foreign system of music education, explaining the historical development and current methods of American music education. (2) At a time when German music education needed to once again prove its value--following its misuse for political purposes during the Third Reich--American music education was viewed as an example of an effective other system to study and emulate.

Despite these American-German connections, music education in Germany appears to be almost unknown in historical research, compared to English-language studies of education in other nations. There has been nearly nothing (3) published in English since the two papers of Ernest F. Livingstone in 1969 and 1971, which describe early developments in German music education up until 1600. (4) The German tradition, which inspired Carl Orff to develop his approach, seems almost to be a secret, and the successes and challenges of instrumental, general, and choral education in Germany are virtually unknown outside the nation itself. (5)

After exploring multiple world cultures of music and music education in Africa, the Americas, and Asia in recent decades of research, it is an appropriate time to return to Europe to unveil some of the unique characteristics of a seemingly traditional system. The German tradition of general music education is particularly different from general music education in America, and has developed as the result of specific historical conditions and movements in Germany (6) over the last three centuries.

Music Education in the Eighteenth Century: From the Enlightenment to the Discovery of the Child

By 1600, an effective system of music education had already been established in Germany for centuries. The different levels of education, from the primary grades through middle and high school levels, offered an assorted variety of music courses. (7) There were well-organized music programs of highly respected cloister schools (or later Lateinschule, Gelehrtenschule, Gymnasium) where students were gradually introduced to the theory of music and the art of polyphonic singing. But there were also schools in smaller villages where only a single class was given by a retired soldier or a failed manual worker who taught instead of a trained teacher. (8)

Religious reasons justified music education in German schools during this period: Different performing groups, e.g., the Chorus Symphoniasticus or the Kurrende, (9) provided music for liturgical ceremonies such as masses, weddings or funerals. It was the responsibility of schools, such as the Thomasschule in Leipzig in the first half of the eighteenth century, to support the liturgy and the general musical culture of the German cities. Usually, the Kantor was the teacher; a prime example was Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig.

In smaller village schools, students learned the basics of their faith by singing important chorales and were thus able to support the congregational singing on Sundays. The usual approach was singing by rote, in which songs were learned by listening and without notation. Above all, singing was a usual part of school life; students sang at the beginning and at the end of each day and sometimes in special lessons. (10)

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several laws were established to organize educational systems and music education in every school.

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