Otto Speckter: The siblings Anton, Franz, Maria, Felix und Josef Rainer from Fügen (from left) Lithograph, 1827 © Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck

Hailing from Fügen in the Tyrolean Zillertal valley, the Rainer siblings were the first vocal group from the German-speaking area to receive international acclaim. Between 1824 and 1838, a time of surging national awareness, when Tyrol benefited from its image as a freedom-loving region and when Alpine and Tyrolean dress were all the rage, these vocalists toured Germany and Britain, and were even coveted guests at the royal court in London. Their successors, the Rainer Family, went on to give celebrated concerts in the USA. An unexplored chapter of Austrian music history so far, this phenomenon has now been investigated by the ethnomusicologist Thomas Nußbaumer from the Mozarteum University Salzburg in a project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

Inventors of folksy mass entertainment

Together with the musicologist Sandra Hupfauf, Nußbaumer studied the inception of what was later to be labelled the “tradition of Tyrolean national singers”, which made itself felt as far away as Russia and lasted well up to the more recent past. For a long time, researchers disregarded the 19th-century singing families and their international success, considering them to have been mere fads offering folkloristic music of poor quality. In actual fact, they were something like the inventors of what is still highly popular and successful under the label of folkloristic Schlager[1] music today, by skilfully pursuing both musical and commercial interests. With the passage of time, international researchers have turned increasing attention to the Tyrolean singers. “The more recent American research into the development of popular music has been aware of these ‘Tyrolese Minstrels’ for quite some time, particularly of their most famous representatives, the Rainer Family from the Zillertal valley”, explains principal researcher Thomas Nußbaumer.

Setting trends for American popular music

According to Nußbaumer, the Rainer Family led by 18-year-old Ludwig Rainer was set up in a casting audition initiated by an American businessman whose background is largely unknown. Between 1839 and 1843, the group gave numerous concerts in large US cities, including New York, Boston and New Orleans. Not only were they tremendously successful, but they also served as models for the development of the Minstrel Show, a type of musical cabaret, and of Barbershop a cappella music for four voices. The Rainers also contributed markedly to making yodelling popular in American musical entertainment.

Original songs gentrified by adaptations

Several songs in their repertoire were composed specifically for the Rainers, others had already been popular in the German and English-speaking areas. Two examples of this latter category still well known today are Du, du liegst mir im Herzen and Ach, du lieber Augustin. Almost every song exists in German and in an English translation, as was shown by the analysis of the Rainers’ comprehensive repertoire undertaken by Sandra Hupfauf in the FWF project. The first generation, the Rainer siblings, had their songs translated in London. They were published by the London-based pianist Ignaz Moscheles under the title of The Tyrolese Melodies in two languages: Tyrolese dialect and an adapted English translation. “In many cases, the adapted versions were prettied up to cater to an aristocratic and bourgeois audience”, notes Nußbaumer. In the process, somewhat risqué ambiguities contained in the original dialect versions were dropped, so as not to destroy the image of the Tyroleans as pious, nature-loving Alpine dwellers, the ethnomusicologist adds.

Exploiting clichés

The many examples of Tyrolese and English versions of the same song reveal the talent of these early Tyrolean vocal groups in communicating their music to foreign audiences and acting as ambassadors of their native regions. “Both generations of Rainers mainly exploited clichés”, explains the folksong specialist. This includes yodelling, which is clearly linked to the notion of life in the Alps, and the corresponding type of dress. The Rainers were also open to contemporary trends of the time such as German waltz music and skilfully adapted them for their purposes, as demonstrated by a piece called Jodeln Waltzes. They also soon renamed their programme: Tyrolese Singing was turned into the more opportune Tyrolese Singing and Waltzing. Today, the folkloristic popular music scene is still exploiting Alpine clichés. Various elements taken from folk music, pop, and waltzes are still common ingredients of successful popular music. The fact that the Rainers laid the foundation for this iconic music style in the 19th century was comprehensively documented by editor Thomas Nußbaumer and the author Sandra Hupfauf in the book Die Lieder der Geschwister Rainer und ‚Rainer Family‘ which presents the results of the FWF project.

Personal details Thomas Nußbaumer is an ethnomusicologist at the Innsbruck branch of the Mozarteum University Salzburg. He is an expert in folk music research with a focus on music and traditional customs, carnival customs, folk music and National Socialism as well as the tradition of folk music in the Alpine region.

Publications (in German)

Thomas Nußbaumer (Hg.), Sandra Hupfauf: „Die Lieder der Geschwister Rainer und ‚Rainer Family‘ aus dem Zillertal (1822-1843)“, Reihe: Schriften zur musikalischen Ethnologie, Band 5, Universitätsverlag Wagner, 2016 (pdf)
Thomas Nußbaumer, Brigitte Mazohl (Hg.), Sandra Hupfauf, Silvia M. Erber: „Liedgeschichten. Musik und Lied in Tiroler Politik und Gesellschaft 1796–1848“, Reihe: Schriften zur musikalischen Ethnologie, Band 2, Universitätsverlag Wagner, 2013
Armin W. Hadamer: „Mimetischer Zauber. Die englischsprachige Rezeption deutscher Lieder in den USA 1830–1880“, Reihe: Volksliedstudien, Band 9, Waxmann, 2008 (pdf)
[1] German-language Schlager music is a style of popular music, generally a catchy instrumental accompaniment to vocal pieces of pop music with less demanding, often sentimental lyrics. (source: Wikipedia)