A musical father he is for Hawaiians to this very day. When they chant “Hawaii Ponoi,” their state’s anthem, they sing a tune Heinrich (“Henry”) Berger has written for them, borrowing heavily from “Heil dir im Siegerkranz,” the hymn of imperial Germany, which sounded exactly like “God save the Queen” and the national songs of assorted other countries, including the principality of Liechtenstein.
How Berger, the former bandleader of the Second Guards regiment in Potsdam, came to be the premier musician in the history of Hawaii, is a wonderful tale, for it is the high point in the love affair between 18th- and 19th-century German speakers and the people of this faraway cluster of Pacific islands. This love affair had its origins in the South Sea romanticism, which gripped some of Central Europe’s most significant thinkers and poets of that time, including philosopher Immanuel Kant and poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and French-born Adelbert von Chamisso who visited Hawaii on the Russian brig “Rurik” in 1815-16, and then wrote the first grammar of the Hawaiian language – written in German and published 1838 in Leipzig.
As Niklaus R. Schweizer related in his book, “Hawaii and the German Speaking Peoples,” cultured Germans poured into Hawaii in the early 19th century, founding companies and serving the public upon whom they made such a favorable expression that King Kamehameha III wrote King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia in 1846: “No foreigners in Our realm are more orderly and behave more correctly than Your Majesty’s subjects and other Germans.”
The romance between German speakers and Hawaiians took a distinctly melodious turn when in 1869 the Austrian frigate “Donau” (Danube) limped into Honolulu harbor with engine trouble. Being an Austrian military vessel, it had of course an excellent orchestra on board. So as the ship was waiting for engine parts to be sent from Europe these musicians delighted the public with brilliant performances around Honolulu and particularly on Emma Square. But when the “Donau” finally left in 1870, Hawaiians became disgruntled with the comparatively low quality of their own royal band. So the people petitioned King Kamehameha V to “revitalize” his own band, directed by a German by the name of William Merseburgh but consisting of merely 10 instruments, including a flute, a clarinet, a bassoon, a French horn and drums, according to “The History of the Royal Hawaiian Band,” an MA thesis by David Wayne Bandy.
And Kamehameha V obeyed his people. He asked Wilhelm I, Emperor of newly united Germany and King of Prussia, to send him a conductor, and so Wilhelm loaned him for four years Heinrich Berger, the bandleader of one of his favorite regiments, a tuba and double bass player by training but also a brave veteran of the Prussian wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870-71), a man who had played with orchestras led by Johann Strauss, the “king of the waltz.”
On June 3, 1872, Berger arrived in Honolulu on board the steamer “Mohongo” and one week later conducted his first public concerts. It took him just two months to receive this accolade from the “Pacific Commercial Advertiser”: “The Band, under the able direction of Mr. Berger, has resumed the practice initiated two years ago by the band of the Austrian frigate Donau… The neighborhood of Emma Square looked quite lively for an hour or so on Thursday afternoon where lots of people in carriages and on foot had assembled to hear the really fine sounds of the ‘Hawaiian Military Band.’ As was remarked by one of the Honolulu delegation in the Assembly when the appropriation for the support of the military was under discussion: ‘The band is by far the best part of the army.’”
After four years, Berger returned to Germany, had himself released from his duties in the Prussian military and then came back to Hawaii for good. He gave 32,000 concerts, composed 250 Hawaiian songs, some of which are still being sung around the world, and 1,000 other tunes. He wrote down indigenous hymns that had until then only been passed on orally. And on Sundays, taking turns with his friend, Queen Lili’uokalani, he played the organ in Kawaiaha’o Congregationalist Church. Lili’uokalani was a formidable composer in her own right. Her song, “Aloha ‘Oe” (Farewell to Thee), became world-famous. Berger had arranged it for her.
Henry Berger was by no means the only high-ranking German in Honolulu in his day. Queen Lili’uokalani’s finance minister, Hermann Adam Widemann, was German, as were her attorney-general Paul Neumann, and Maj. Henry Bertelmann, her adjutant. But she was so fond of Berger that she made him commander of the Royal Order of Kapi’olani and commanded her subjects to honor him on his birthday every year, an order their descendants are following to this day. Every year, the Royal Hawaiian Band still gives concerts in his memory.
Berger died in 1929, three decades after the former kingdom of Hawaii had been annexed by the United States. But the musical arc he has created between Europe and Hawaii is still there. In Coswig near Wittenberg where he once lived, a school of music has been named after him. And in Bordeaux, France, an American classical guitarist and composer by the name of Mark Billam-Walker, is trying to emulate him. He is the great-grandson of Henry Berger and his wife Leilehua, a New Zealander. Reached by telephone in Bordeaux, he said he was in awe of the way his ancestor composed. “He did not actually write complete scores for his compositions, but instead jotted down the notes for each musician individually. Then he handed every player his notes, raised his baton, and they all played. This is brilliant. I could not do that.”
Billam-Walker is now editing his second symphony. He says he hopes that the Royal Hawaiian Band, his great-grandfather’s old ensemble, will one day accept and play this work.