From the Archives: A Fitting Memorial

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by Paul Ganson

“Thank God for Michigan!”  That is what Abraham Lincoln said when volunteers from Michigan first appeared in our nation’s capital in response to his call for troops in 1861, following the surrender of Fort Sumter.  Among those volunteers were the troops of the Michigan Light Guard.  Prior to their departure they were photographed in formation on Campus Martius, at the heart of Detroit.  To their right in the photograph are the members of the Light Guard Band. 

The photography of that day required a very long exposure time.  So long was it that the ghostly image of a horse and carriage is all that appears in the upper right of the photograph because they departed before their image could be fully etched onto the receiving medium.  Also, to the left of the band one can make out the leader of the band and his own ghostly, first image.  Perhaps he thought it best, upon  reflection after the exposure had begun, to separate and to distinguish himself from the musicians on his left and, therefore, he moved to his right.  In a rising order of substantiality would be first, his decision to move; second, his initial, brief, ghostly image; and, finally, his fully fleshed-out form.  The record suggests that President Lincoln, alas,  remarked only on the latter.

Shortly after the Michigan Light Guard Band arrived in Washington, they performed on the White House lawn.  Despite their small size they were applauded and recognized for their high standards of performance.  Lincoln appeared on a White House balcony and enjoyed their performance.  Probably to the disappointment of those assembled, he announced that he would not make a speech; but he did invite them in for a reception.  After meeting the first citizens of Michigan and the officers of the Light Guard, he said that he also wished to meet the enlisted men and the members of the band.  When the leader of the band was presented, President Lincoln observed with characteristic humor:  “You must be the biggest blower in the Service” because at that time Mr. Heinrich (Henry) Kern weighed 350 pounds.

The next photograph in which Mr. Kern appears is that of the German Veteran Orchestra, taken in 1870 on the front steps of the Arbeiter Hall in Detroit.  He is standing, in singular image, at the right of the top row, proudly holding his bassoon.  These German Veterans of the Civil War were perhaps inspired by the fact that the Theodore Thomas Orchestra had performed Detroit’s first symphony concert only a few months before in November 1869.  That performance had taken place in the Detroit Opera House (referred to popularly as The Detroit), which had opened the previous Spring–also on Campus Martius.

Some fifty years later, during the 1920′s–an era commonly referred to as the Golden Age of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra–that photograph, which had hung for many years in the Detroit Turnverein, a gymnastics club, appeared frequently in Detroit newspapers.  The words accompanying the photo usually described the GVO as a precursor of the DSO.  If for no other reason than the substantiality of Mr. Kern’s role in Detroit’s early musical history, we should agree with those claims.

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One Response to “From the Archives: A Fitting Memorial”

  1. avatar Gail Mitchell on July 7th, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Dear Mr. Ganson,

    Thank you for the very interesting article about Civil War Era band and the German Veteran Orchestra. It was also very interesting to me that the Theodore Thomas Orchestra performed Detroit’s first symphony concert in November of 1869. In my American Music course, the students learn about Thomas and now I shall be able to point out a Detroit connection!

    Regards,

    Gail Mitchell, Assoc. Prof. Music/Performing Arts
    University of Detroit Mercy

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