AFC Guide to Public Art: When an 800-Person Band Ruled Brooklyn

by Corinna Kirsch on January 30, 2015 Columns

"Mozart Memorial," image courtesy of the New York  City Parks department.

“Mozart Memorial,” image courtesy of the New York City Parks department.

A column mapping out Brooklyn’s little-known public art. A new work every week. A new pin on the map.

Brooklyn the Unknowable—never a better way to describe the motley borough. We have essayist Phillip Lopate to thank for coining that phrase. In his 2010 article, “Brooklyn the Unknowable,” he discusses those contrasts, past and present, that make up his hometown:

I sing of Brooklyn, the fruited plain, cradle of literary genius and standup comedy, awash in history, relics from Indian mounds, Dutch farms, Revolutionary War battles, breweries and baseball. In Brooklyn, miles of glorious townhouses and brownstones, among the most architecturally effective residential neighborhoods in urban America, coexist not far from dismal slums with some of the highest infant mortality rates in the country.

Waves of immigration, gentrification, and renovation rewrite neighborhood boundaries (and characters) every year. So widespread is the gap between what Brooklyn formerly was, and is, that it’s almost impossible to make sense of it all.

With that in mind, I wondered why Prospect Park has a bust of Mozart nestled away in a shady, tree-covered spot. “Hero sculpture” tends to be a fairly common genre in public art, but usually the pick for posterity comes from a pool of neighborhood figures (or an influential politician). Mozart, one of the world’s most famous dead musicians from another continent, doesn’t seem like the most apt choice for commemoration.

And he wasn’t. The bust was gifted to the park by the German United Singers, Brooklyn’s 800-member strong choir, and national celebrities. (Yes, there was a moment in time when the most popular music heard throughout Brooklyn was a German choir.) The “Mozart Memorial” was their sculpture, won as first prize in the 1897 National Singing Festival held in Madison Square Park. In return, they donated the bust to Prospect Park, their home-town concert spot. (1897 was a particularly lucky year for the chorus: they set an attendance record for any concert in Brooklyn, with an audience of 12,000.)

So while Brooklyn’s “Mozart Memorial” does show the musician from shoulders on up, the sculpture isn’t really about him. It’s a proxy for Brooklyn’s immigrant musicians who were quickly establishing themselves beyond the borders of their borough’s tenements and farmlands. The musicians weren’t on the bust, but they got recognition through the donation.

The new popular music received mixed praise from Manhattan’s haughtiest. In 1902, The New Yorker ran “Home of the German Band,” an article discussing how German immigrants were transforming “a whole région of crofters into a conservatorium of street music.” The New Yorker approved, but from a purely paternalistic standpoint: the new musicians were “showing that the musical taste of Brooklyn was being educated up to a Philharmonie standard.” If the borough could My Fair Lady itself through music, then Manhattan was certainly in support.

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