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Review: The Germania Musical Society in Newport, RI

A review of The Germania Musical Society in Newport, RI, a multimedia digital exploration of an influential immigrant orchestra, directed by Brian Knoth

Published onMar 25, 2024
Review: The Germania Musical Society in Newport, RI

The Germania Musical Society in Newport, RI: A Digital History Exploration

Project Leads
Brian Knoth, Rhode Island College

Project URLs

Project Reviewer
Nancy Newman, University at Albany - SUNY

Project Overview

Brian Knoth

The Germania Musical Society in Newport, RI: A Digital History Exploration is a project I created for Newport, Rhode Island. I was the director and creative producer for this project and brought over 20 years of experience as a multimedia artist and producer to the work. I combined that expertise with a more recent interest in historical research and storytelling with a music focus.

The focus of this project is an influential immigrant orchestra, the Germania Musical Society, and its role in shaping the summer culture during Newport’s pre-Gilded-Age “hotel period” boom era (circa late-1840s to 1850s). The project led to a peer-reviewed article in Newport History, a multimedia experience available through the Curatescape-based Rhode Tour platform, and an episode for a popular regional podcast produced with a National Public Radio affiliate. So far, the audience for the project has been people from the region already familiar with the journal Newport History, the Rhode Tour platform, the Mosaic Podcast, and listeners of Rhode Island Public Radio.

This project commenced with fellowship funding from the Preservation Society of Newport County (PSNC). I was awarded a full year research fellowship, which included $24,000 in funding, accommodations in one of the PSNC’s smaller mansions (or summer cottages as they were referred to during the Gilded Age), and additional resources as needed.

One of my main findings during that background research phase was that music and dancing were not just routine pastimes but integral features of Newport as it rose to significance to become known as “The Queen of Resorts.” Music in Newport was not just considered sonic wallpaper then, and one could easily argue that it still is very central to the summer experience of visitors today (including three world-class music festivals). The background research phase concluded with a presentation hosted by the PSNC. This public lecture of my initial findings included research extending from the hotel period (mid-19th-century) into the Gilded Age (late-19th/early-20th centuries). The lecture was presented at the Rosecliff Mansion in August of 2016, and was titled, “Music and Dancing at the ‘Queen of Resorts.’”

From there, I collaborated with the Newport String Project in April of 2017 on a public event titled, “Perspectives on the Germania Musical Society.” It was a unique collaboration in partnership with the Newport Historical Society, illuminating my research. I was joined by Newport String Project musicians for a special lecture-recital in the historic surrounds of the courtroom at Old Colony House in Newport. The event featured a lecture and discussion (led by me) and performances of music closely associated with the Germania Musical Society’s time in Newport (based on my research), including Newport-themed dance music of the era. The recordings I captured from that event would become instrumental to the work ahead. These efforts resulted in my peer-reviewed journal article in Newport History, "Music and Dancing at the ‘Queen of Resorts’: The Impact of the Germania Musical Society on Newport’s Hotel Period.”

I meticulously adapted this research for a multimedia documentary-style delivery format. I used the innovative public history platform Rhode Tour, “a statewide, multimedia mobile application and website for the interpretation of and engagement with local, place-based thematic history.” Rhode Tour was developed in 2014 by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, and the Rhode Island Historical Society. It is an editor-reviewed mobile app and website that uses text, sound, and images to bring Rhode Island history to life in place-based narrative form, and it uses the Curatescape framework.

The Rhode Tour app is available for both iOS and Android devices (through the App Store and Google Play, respectively) and requires a reliable mobile internet connection. The app also has a related website, and the content on both the app and site are the same, but the visual appearance is somewhat different. My multimedia project, “Music and Dancing at the ‘Queen of Resorts,’” was accepted for publication and presentation on the Rhode Tour platform.

A podcast episode based on my original research was also produced for the regionally popular podcast program Mosaic. Mosaic features regional immigration stories produced by Rhode Island Public Radio (or The Public’s Radio), which is a National Public Radio affiliate for the state of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. The episode produced was entirely based on my research and article about The Germania Musical Society’s impact on Newport’s “hotel period” in the mid-1800s. The episode was broadcast regionally and is also available for streaming and download with an accompanying webpage that incorporates imagery and links to other published works associated with the project.

Project Review

Nancy Newman

As the podcast associated with The Germania Musical Society in Newport, RI project claims, Newport was an important site for music-making over a centry before the city’s iconic Folk and Jazz Festivals began and decades before expensive mansions dominated the shoreline. During the mid-19th century, performances by the Germania Musical Society provided a focal point for thousands of seasonal visitors. Project director Brian Knoth makes this cultural moment vivid with the three complementary components of his project. In addition to the podcast, which is hosted by Rhode Island’s NPR affiliate, he has created a multimedia exhibit for current Newport visitors and published a scholarly article in the journal, Newport History. Together, these components permit users an aurally — and visually — rich immersion in the historical musical culture of this seaside resort. They are also a welcome addition to our understanding of the Germania’s extensive influence on US musical life.

One of the most important features of this project is its focus on dance. While conventional disciplinary boundaries tend to segregate concert and dance music,  Knoth’s research demonstrates their interrelatedness in a specific time and place. Such work provides a model for future inquiries and their multimedia treatment. By drawing upon local newspapers, visual collections, music repositories, memoirs, and diaries, Knoth shows that social dancing and concerts were mutually reinforcing activities as the creative economy transformed Newport into an attractive tourist destination during the 1840s. The town’s much-needed economic revival was led by entrepreneurial hotel owners and the musicians who served their guests.

As Knoth’s article details, three major hotels were in operation when the Germania Musical Society took up residence in summer 1849. For nearly a decade, the ensemble provided seasonal dance music and full-length concerts in various combinations and subsets at these and other venues. The project provides historic images of the hotels (which no longer stand) Chateau-sur-Mer (an early grand private residence) and Fort Adams, now a state park hosting the Folk and Jazz Festivals. Knoth’s multimedia project, accessible on the Rhode Tour website and app, includes detailed maps that helpfully link to Google Maps. The app also has links to sheet music for some of the dances composed by Germania members specifically for the Newport scene. Their published piano arrangements functioned as souvenirs for listeners. Another of the project’s special features is the Newport String Project’s recording of several Germanian compositions arranged for string ensemble, which neatly evoke the period. All of this is accompanied by Knoth’s lively interpretive text on dancing and music at Newport.

The podcast emphasizes the Germanians’ experience as immigrants from “war-torn” Europe during the Revolutions of 1848 and their explicit desire to exercise their musical skills in a democratic republic. The 16-minute episode takes the form of an interview with Knoth by Mosaic’s two hosts. Both the transcript and the article incorporate additional images, such as programs of the Germania’s “Grand Instrumental” concerts.

One limitation of the project is that its components are not integrated into a single, easily reachable site. The app and article can be accessed from the podcast’s transcript, and all three can be accessed through Knoth’s website under the “Research” tab. A single site with all three, perhaps hosted by Rhode Island College or one of the historical societies that has supported this work, would facilitate engagement with these valuable resources. No doubt this limitation can be readily overcome. As it stands, Knoth has found exciting, creative, and sophisticated ways of making important scholarly work widely accessible. He provides a model for public historians to disseminate research in an evolving technological landscape.

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