Berger was born Heinrich August Wilhelm Berger in Berlin, and became a member of Germany's imperial army band. He worked under the composer and royal bandmaster of Germany, Johann Strauss, Jr. Originally, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany loaned Berger from his Potsdam station to King Kamehameha V to conduct the king's band. He arrived in Honolulu in June 1872, fresh from service in the Franco-Prussian War. In 1877, King Kalākaua appointed Berger to full leadership of the Royal Hawaiian Band. In 1879, he became a naturalized citizen of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Berger befriended the future Queen Liliʻuokalani, a composer in her own right. Berger arranged the songs she wrote, performed by the brass band. The queen named Berger the "Father of Hawaiian Music". From 1893 to 1903, the bandmaster worked with the Kamehameha Schools to develop its music program. He also built what is today the Honolulu Symphony.
He led the government band at thousands of public events. Among these were "steamer day," when a ship left the Honolulu docks. The band serenaded the departees with "Auld Lang Syne," or "The Girl I Left Behind Me."
Later in his tenure as royal bandmaster, Berger took it upon himself to record traditional Hawaiian hymns, chants and other Hawaiian music in print to ensure their survival, a task never done before. Berger at the same time composed the classics: "The Hula March", "Hilo March", "Kohala March" and "Sweet Lei Lehua." His arrangement of "Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī", with text by Kalākaua in honor of Kamehameha became the national anthem. Today, the song serves as the state anthem.
Berger combined German, Austrian and Hawaiian traditions in his unique compositions and performed with the Royal Hawaiian Band thousands of times, making Hawaiian music known and popular in many countries. Berger started the RHB 'Aloha" welcome and farewell greetings at the harbors.
Berger's legacy continues today, celebrated worldwide especially in Hawaii and Germany, as the father of the Royal Hawaiian Band, the oldest municipal band in the United States.
- "Bandmasters of the Royal Hawaiian Band". Royal Hawaiian Band official web site. City and County of Honolulu. March 28, 2008. Archived from the original on May 29, 2010. Retrieved 2010-01-25.
- "Half a Century of Life." Hawaiian Gazette, August 7, 1894. A major profile of Berger commemorating his fiftieth birthday.
- "Half a Century of Life." Hawaiian Gazette, August 7, 1894.
- Rayson, Ann (2004). Modern History Of Hawaii. Bess Press. p. 201. ISBN 978-1-57306-209-1.
- Mission Houses Cemetery, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, Grave memorial of Henri Berger
- cf. The Bottle Imp: "Thither he went, because he feared to be alone; and there, among happy faces, walked to and fro, and heard the tunes go up and down, and saw Berger beat the measure, and all the while he heard the flames crackle, and saw the red fire burning in the bottomless pit."
- Patrick D. Hennessey: Henry Berger : from Prussian army musician to "Father of Hawaiian Music"; the life and legacy of Hawai'i's bandmaster, Tutzing : Schneider, 2013, ISBN 978-3-86296-056-9
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