When Boston literary icon Oliver Wendell Holmes was asked to produce an original song for the National Peace Jubilee, he readily agreed. But he knew his limitations; he was a poet and essayist, not a musician, so he attached his words to a preexisting song, “An American Hymn,” written by Matthias Keller just three years earlier.
Keller’s hymn may haven been American, but he was born in Germany. He studied music in Stuttgart and Vienna, he and served as a bandmaster for several years before immigrating to America in 1846. Keller pieced together a living as a performer and violin-maker, but shortly after the Civil War, he tried his hand at composing when the federal government offered a prize for the composition of an original national hymn. When it debuted before the New York Academy of Music, his composition, “An American Hymn,” was poorly received. In fact, the prize committee did not deem any of the entries worthy of an award. But in Boston, Keller’s song was better received, and soon it was a favorite among the city’s wind bands. In attaching his words to this popular song, Holmes hedged his bet; the 50,000 people gathered for the opening ceremonies of the Peace Jubilee were certain to like his piece.
In both its original and revised form, Keller’s piece was called a hymn, and there’s no missing its anthemic qualities. Nor is this surprising, as it was written for a patriotic competition, after all. In fact, within Keller’s music one can hear echoes of the German anthem “Das Lied der Deutschen," which was written by famous composer Joseph Haydn in 1797, as well as foreshadows of the Canadian anthem, "O Canada, written by Calixa Lavallée in 1880.