As a child in the Alps, I did not know that the choir in our church, the brass band next to the priest’s residence, and the accordion on our mountain meadows were German or Austrian and that, by implication, they were anti-Italian. After all, we lived in South Tyrol, for centuries our Austrian homeland, and an Italian province since 1918. Yet precisely these forms of music gave me a love for different iterations of it as I moved from there to other places in Europe, and ultimately took up residence in the U.S. I still enjoy this music and other forms of it, but now I have the psychohistorian’s understanding that any of it can be, and is, readily used for nefarious purposes.

How My Relationship with Music Began

My relationship with music started in the mountains of northern Italy by listening and participating. I listened to the choir in the Catholic church of St. Georg in Afers/Eores as an altar boy and sang in it until the other singers discovered my lack of talent. Both listening and singing traditional kinds of church music, including those created by composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, began to shape my listening preferences for the rest of my life. Most of the songs rendered in the church were in German, Lutheran rather than Catholic, and they originated outside the village culture, even though they became part of it. (Perhaps my awareness of this

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is based on having been born a Lutheran whose mother converted us to Catholicism as a way of ensuring that I would get a good education.)

During the summer months, we listened to and participated in two additional and different forms of music, performed by the village band on special Sundays, and other times danced to one of our favorite accordion players in mountain huts up in Alpine meadows. The band mostly played traditional Austrian songs; the accordion player often rendered Johann Strauss’ waltzes and other favorites, like polkas and tangos.

We lived in Italy, but our music was Austrian and German; it still is. These musical traditions of the mountains were thus rooted in the affiliation with the Austrian Empire, a political, social, and economic link that lasted for centuries. That is why the area is to this day called South Tyrol and Alto Adige in Italian. Although the instruments for the three varieties of music-making were different—organ, brass, and accordion—it was mostly based on songs, which were passed down over centuries and in some cases modernized and still played and sung in churches and at festivals.

The link to the German-speaking areas of Europe may escape listeners or performers far away from the mountains. I am thinking of the accordion played by Spanish-speaking musicians and singers. While in one way it has remained linked to a counterstatement to Italian culture, in another way it left this context and became associated with a new one, losing its Alpine patriotic content. With this contextualization, I explore here the connection between local creating, singing, playing, and listening and what one might call these activities when they are removed from their original context and yet fit into another or others. My earliest musical experiences in a specific place prepared me as a psychohistorian to link my life story with what one may call music history.

Examples of How Music History Played a Role in My Life

One location that was very unique for me was a music class at New York University. Like most undergraduates at the time, I took courses in general education; this requirement became an opportunity to take music appreciation. I was fortunate enough to have as a faculty member a Mr. Bernstein (not the famous one), who was delightful and re-activated my joy with church music. When he asked us to write an essay about a particular piece of music, I chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Wachet auf ruft uns die

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Stimme” (“Awake, calls the voice to us”). Not having any equipment with which to listen to this creation, I visited the 42nd Street public library, pulled out the notes, and wrote the essay based on what I saw in them. In the back of my mind, I heard our church choir. It was a handwritten essay because I also did not have a typewriter. Professor Bernstein gave me an A-, with a note to “next time, listen to the music.”

In May 1957, on my trip to the United States, I heard jazz, a totally different form of music, in the movie High Society (1956). Aside from several famous actors like Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra, I saw and heard Louis Armstrong. Again, location made a difference. I associated Armstrong and jazz with America. The next time I heard him was during the winter of 1969 at a concert in Stuttgart. It was one of the most memorable performances ever. It became all the more significant during the rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar when our daughter was jumping around in my wife’s belly; we felt her excitement and were at home far away from home.

The next time jazz came into my life was during a concert of the original New Orleans Jazz Band at Appalachian State University. They played in a relatively small auditorium that burst with listeners. This concert seemed to last forever; every time the musicians rose to leave, we clapped and clapped some more. I bought a vinyl record and obtained the signature of each player. Later, now 40 years ago, my wife Joni and I enjoyed the very same band in their small space in New Orleans—a highlight of our lives.

What does jazz have to do with the choir, the brass band, and the accordion in Afers? Everything. If I had not heard these forms of music, I would not have been open to other varieties, including jazz. It in turn placed me firmly in the U.S.

Gustav Mahler and the Vanquished Empire

But if had not heard these forms, Gustav Mahler might have escaped me. (For more about him, see Jonathan Carr’s 1998 book Mahler: A Biography.) The composer temporarily conducted at the Royal Municipal Theatre in 1883 in Olomouc, then Olmütz, but I first heard him in St. Petersburg’s Philharmonic in 1994. A full orchestra and choir rendered his Die Auferstehung (Symphony No. 2 in C minor). (For an excellent analysis of the work, see Michael Steinberg’s 1995 The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide.) The splendid space was close to bursting, hot, and the cracks in the ceiling

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seemed to be growing larger.

Again, location matters. I am a Russian historian who accompanied a group to the erstwhile capital. I grew up in a former Austrian territory, and Mahler mostly lived in one. Joni and I taught in an international institute for ten years in Olomouc and drank our morning coffee in Cafe Mahler, a block from his residence. He became deathly ill in New York City (NYC) during a concert tour in February 1911 and died in May in Vienna. NYC was my point of entry to the U.S., a few days after having discovered jazz.

Mahler was almost forgotten as a Romantic composer after WWI, but also, musicologists seem to overlook this part of his past: He was the Jewish son of the fallen empire of Austria-Hungary. Now his brilliance reaches beyond this narrow margin; he is being played again. Rather than associate him with a failed regime, we listen to his inspired notes.

The Controversy Surrounding Carl Orff

If Mahler thrived under the late and troubled empire, Carl Orff aligned himself with the National Socialist (Nazi) regime. He came into my life because one of my students wrote about him in a music class. When the opportunity arose to listen to Carmina Burana in Austria’s Salzburg, I was completely surprised. The work fit into my past; the choir, the full orchestra, and two choirs performed brilliantly.

It is well known that the National Socialist elite admired and supported the work. The admiration began with Karl Georg Schmidt, the Lord Major of Cologne, who considered himself a major sponsor of the arts. Neither this nor other works had attracted much attention or financial rewards before the Nazi accolades. The financial rewards continued after WWII and his exculpation, but the controversy continues. Like others who survived in the shadow of a regime, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, they never knew when the ax would fall. In Orff’s case, having Jewish ancestors could easily have been used against him. (For a general review, read Oliver Rathkolb’s Carl Orff and National Socialism from 2021.)

Carmina Burana, Orff’s best-known work, connects him to my listening experiences and locational detail; Salzburg is part of the Tirol of which South Tyrol was once an integral part. Yet, the compromises he made to continue his career in the 1930s give me pause every time I hear this most famous and stunning work. Carmina

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Burana also reminds us that seemingly harmless mountain songs or cantatas, be they by Bach or Orff, can be used for nefarious purposes.

How can a boy who grew up with church, brass band, and accordion music embrace jazz, Mahler, and Orff, mentioning just one of my favorite forms of music and two of my admired composers? The answer partly lies in the variety of compositions and instruments in my humble beginnings. From there, different adventures, exposures really, often in different locals, intrigued me to an almost unimaginable point. The task of psychohistorians is to explore the link between their own backgrounds and histories, including artistic ones, and the subjects and topics they encounter as they live their lives. It may mean exposing the writer’s discomfort or objection to abuses of music, and art in general. The beauty of it must not close our ears and minds to those who would turn it to their nefarious purposes.

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Peter W. Petschauer

Peter W. Petschauer, PhD, Dr hc, is Professor Emeritus of European History from Appalachian State University. He is also an author and a poet. Some of his most recent works include An Immigrant in the 1960s: Finding Hope and Success in New York City (2020) and Hopes and Fears: Past and Present (2019). The author may be reached at or

How to Cite This:

Petschauer, P.W. (2023). A musical journey from Bach and Strauss to Mahler and Orff. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 332-336.

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