Bach, Brahms and Wagner are three of the big names of the Golden Age of Classical Music, but another prominent German-American composer had roots in Hermann.
His name was William H. Pommer and he was the grandson of German immigrants who arrived in the Missouri River Valley in the early 1800s. He was the youngest son of Fredric Pommer, one of the six children who moved with their widowed mother, Caroline, to Herman in 1839.
William Pommer’s father and grandfather were piano makers. He began his music studies at an early age in St. Louis, traveling to Germany to study at prestigious music conservatories and work with some of the great classical composers. He was a prolific composer who wrote everything from piano solos to operas.
Deutschheim State Historic Site is hosting “The Music of William H. Pommer” on April 4-5 with two concerts of his music on Friday and Saturday evenings and a symposium on his life and works on Saturday. The event is free and open to the public. It will be held in Hermann’s Festhalle at 237 E. First Street.
“He was well known in his day – this was during the heyday of Liszt, Wagner and Brahms,” said Cynthia Browne, administrator of the historic site. “This is the music of the time, the classical era. People cared about this music and listened to it and appreciated it.”
Born in Prussia, Caroline Pommer came to the United States as a child in the early 1800s. She married Charles Pommer, who was on the board of the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia, whose members settled Hermann in 1839 with the goal of preserving their language and culture.
Charles was a piano forte maker, which is a smallish, rectangular piano that was part of the evolution from a harpsichord to a grand piano. The historic site recently acquired a piano forte made by Charles in about 1830 in Philadelphia, where he died. His name is engraved in mother of pearl above the keyboard.
“There wasn’t much demand for piano fortes in what essentially was wilderness in the 1840s,” Browne said.
Frederic’s son, William, was a classically trained musician who studied in Vienna and Leipzig, Germany, before returning to St. Louis as a composer and performer. His legacy in music education extends from the St. Louis public school system to Columbia College and the University of Missouri.
After serving as supervisor of music for St. Louis public schools, and serving as a judge of music competitions at the 1904 World’s Fair, Pommer began a new career in 1907 at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He rose from assistant professor to professor and chair of the Department of Music, and developed the music program as a credited degree.
Pommer retired in 1922 at the age of 70, and died in 1937. His wife, Stella, died in 1939. The couple had a daughter, Sibyl, who donated their family home in Columbia to endow a music scholarship still awarded by the University of Missouri.
Talks on Pommer’s Life and Work
The April event in his honor grew from a chance meeting at the historic site in 2011 between Browne and Lisa Feurzeig, a musicologist and professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Browne told Feurzeig about Pommer’s musical heritage, and that led to a student at the school, Holly Cassell, choosing Pommer for her senior project.
The project benefited from collections at the Missouri History Museum and the State Historical Society of Missouri, as well as from the work of Janice Wenger, a professor at the University of Missouri, who had catalogued Pommer’s compositions as part of her master’s dissertation.
The Festhalle concerts will begin at 8 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday and feature musicians from Grand Valley State University, University of Missouri-Columbia and Columbus State University in Georgia. Wenger, Cassel, Feurzeig and Browne will speak on Pommer’s life and work in a symposium that begins at 3 p.m. Saturday. The historic site will be open for tours both days.
“There will be an exhibit area with images of Pommer in his youth at Vienna and later at Missouri University,” Browne said. “We’re hoping people will come out and spend the day in Hermann.”
The handbills printed to advertise the event include a German proverb from Gasconade County. It says, “Music washes the soul of the dust of daily living.”