Another reason to love Milwaukee

Milwaukee has long been known as the most German city in the United States, and with cause. German immigrants and their descendants were the dominant ethnic group for much of Milwaukee’s history. The last full-time office staff of Local 8, who retired several decades ago, was a gentleman by the name of Al Goetz who spoke with a marked German accent. (I interviewed him for a history of Local 8 in honor of the 100th anniversary of our founding in 1895, and he was a wealth of information – all in a German accent of course. He remembered Liberace coming to the Local by streetcar to pay his work dues when he was starting out; he would apparently then go across the street for ice cream. “A very nice young man,” was Mr. Goetz’s description; a view shared by much of America during Liberace’s prime.)

German street names, and building names, still abound in Milwaukee, including in the arts. We have the Pabst Theater, and Uihlein Hall, and the Pfister Hotel, and what used to be the Germania Building, not to mention the Pabst brewery, and the Schlitz brewery, and the Blatz brewery, and the Müller brewery, and now the Sprecher brewery (founded in the 1980s by a former brewmaster for Pabst by the name of Randy Sprecher). Deutschtum still surrounds us in Milwaukee.

So it was with great pleasure that I came across the following passage in John Gurda’s classic history, The Making of Milwaukee:

Although it took years for their strategy and structure to jell, the Socialists were ready to enter the political arena in 1898. They fielded a full slate of candidates in the spring mayoral race, all running on a platform that promised slum clearance, more public natatoria, free medical care, jobs for the unemployed, free schoolbooks, and monthly symphony concerts at popular prices.

They didn’t win in 1898, but they had a local landslide in 1910, including the election of America’s first Socialist mayor and Socialist congressman (technically, they ran under the label “Social Democrats,” which was how the socialist party was also known in German at the time). I don’t think they ever got around to “monthly symphony concerts at popular prices” – but it says a lot about Milwaukee at the turn of the last century that anyone would have believed that to be a winning political position. They did get around to a great deal of public improvement, though; in fact, they were referred to by the rest of the socialist movement as “sewer socialists,” because, rather than take over the means of production, they focused on such things as sewers and parks and libraries and schools.

Of course, Milwaukee does now have “monthly symphony concerts at popular prices,” but not because of the government. My orchestra gets very little public funding; less, in fact, than we return to the state in the form of sales tax (not to mention income tax on musicians and staff). But I suspect Milwaukee’s German socialists would have been pleased anyway to see that portion of their platform realized, even if not exactly on their terms.


About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

Leave a Reply