Saengerfest, also Sängerbund-Fest, Sängerfeste, or Sängerfest, meaning singer festival, is a competition of Sängerbunds, or singer groups, with prizes for the best group or groups. Such public events are also known as a Liederfest, or song festival. Participants number in the hundreds and thousands, and the fest is usually accompanied by a parade and other celebratory events. The sängerfest is most associated with the Germanic culture, and the music selection is usually that of German composers. Its origins trace back to 19th Century Europe, popularized in part by university students who chose the art form to make political statements. A less politicized version of the tradition was brought to the North American continent by European emigrants in the same century. In the early part of the 20th Century, sängerfest celebrations drew devotees in the tens of thousands, and included some United States Presidents among their audiences. Sängerbunds are still active in communities with Germanic heritage.
The foundations of singing groups as an expression for social reform were laid by students of Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who saw music as an educational tool. One of his students was Carl August Zeller, who helped establish the sängerbund movement throughout Prussia in 1809. Pestalozzi's protégé Hans Georg Nägeli was a composer, music teacher and songbook publisher who made numerous journeys across Germany from 1819 to encourage the formation of male singing groups for social reform. Nägeli established several sängerbunds in Switzerland, which became the inspiration for the 1824 establishment of the Stuttgarter Liederkranz. Following the 1819 Carlsbad Decrees in Germany, male-only choral celebrations with hundreds or thousands of vocalists were popular with the masses and often part of political events.
Composer Friedrich Silcher was directly influenced by Pestalozzi and Nägeli; had been using large choirs to express political viewpoints since 1824 when he and a group of Tübingen University students performed La Marseillaise to commemorate the storming of the Bastille. In 1827 at Plochingen, Baden-Württemberg, several male-voiced choirs combined for a regional liederfest. Sängerfests were part of the Hambach Festival of 1832.
Christian church organizations known as Christlicher sängerbunds adapted the sängerfest for religious gatherings and helped spread its popularity throughout Europe, North America and Australia. They became popular in late 19th century Russia among Mennonite congregations. On May 30, 1893, a sängerfest of seven choirs was held in Rückenau in Molotschna, Ukraine. On Sunday, May 29, 1894, the all-day Russische Saengervereinigung was held in Rückenau under the direction of Polish conductor Friedrich Schweige with assistance from Aron Gerhard Sawatsky, director of the Andreasfeld Mennonite Brethren Church. Beginning on May 3, Schweiger traveled across Russia rehearsing choirs. On May 29 there were breakfasts for attendees, an estimated 50 vocal presentations by individual choirs, prayer services and sermons, lunch for 2,000 people and afternoon snacks.
Germans were some of the first European visitors to North America, as crew members with Leif Ericson and Captain James Cook. Among the earlier settlers to Jamestown, Virginia were German craftsmen who arrived in 1608. Mennonites established the Philadelphia section of Germantown in 1683. The Philadelphia Männerchor founded by German immigrant Phillip Matthias Wohlseiffer in 1835 was the first German-American singing society organized in the United States where the sängerfest began to evolve as a form of civic entertainment. In 1836, Wohlseiffer founded the Baltimore Liederkranz, which became the first to accept women members (1838). In 1846, the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania group and the Baltimore, Maryland group performed together at a public sängerfest. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac of 1891 listed numerous sängerbunds in the Brooklyn, New York area. On June 21, 1901, the Nord-Amerikanischer Sängerbund presented a sängerfest in Buffalo, New York at the Pan-American Exposition. A group in Buffalo hoped to help pay the expenses of the fest by forming the Buffalo Sängerfest Company, selling 1,600 shares of stock at $25 each.
Ohio had a large influx of German immigrants during the 19th Century. Almost half of Cincinnati's population in 1900 had been born in Germany. In 1838, the Cincinnati Deustcher Gesangverein was formed in Ohio, followed by the Cincinnati Deutsch Liedertafel in 1844. The Gesang und Bildungsverein Deutscher Arbeiter formed in 1846 and was the first Cincinnati group that allowed women. Groups from Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland and Indiana created the Nord-Amerikanischer Sängerbund in 1849 for a sängerfest hosted by Cincinnati, featuring the music of German composers. By 1908, it was estimated that 250,000 German Americans belonged to musical organizations, and 50,000 of those belonged to the Nord-Amerikanischer Sängerbund. The first post-Civil War sängerfest in Columbus, Ohio took place August 29–September 1, 1865 at Schreiner's Hall and the Opera House. Each arriving sängerbund was escorted to the hall by the Eighteenth regiment of the United States Infantry. There were an estimated 400 singers entertaining 12,000 to 15,000 attendees. The closing day was celebrated with pomp and circumstance.
Adelsverein efforts to establish a new Germany in Texas in the 19th century sent approximately 7,000 emigrants to the state. The Adelsverein itself eventually failed, but the colonists stayed and fused their culture with Texas, becoming an ethnic group known as German Texans. The city of New Braunfels was founded in 1845; the site was chosen by the first Adelsverein Commissioner General Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels. The first sängerfest in Texas was held in 1853 in New Braunfels, and was held annually until 1860 when conflicting loyalties about, and participation in, the American Civil War caused a 10-year gap in the events. The San Antonio Männergesang-Verein was formed in 1847, the New Braunfels Gesangverein Germania formed in 1850, and the Austin Männerchor formed in 1852. On July 4, 1853 in San Antonio, the San Antonio Männergesang-Verein sponsored an Independence Day celebration attended by the New Braunfels Gesangverein and the Austin Männerchor. The New Braunfels Gesangverein invited everyone to meet in New Braunfels on October 16–17, 1853 for its first Texas Sängerfest. In 1854, the aggregate sängerbunds formed the Texas State Sängerbund. The San Antonio Beethoven Männerchor was organized in 1867 by Wilhelm Thielepape, assistant conductor of the San Antonio Männergesang-Verein. After the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865, Thielepape raised the Union flag over the Alamo and distributed wine and songbooks. The all-male Houston Sängerbund was founded on October 6, 1883 and chartered in 1890. It affiliated itself with Der Deutsch-Texanische Sängerbund. In 1887, founding member Carl C. Zeus served as principal of the organization's German-English school.
President Grover Cleveland, his wife, and guests took a special train from Washington, D.C. on July 4, 1888, to see a Baltimore event. Cleveland had friends who were members of the sängerbunds. President Howard Taft attended the July 1, 1912 event in Philadelphia. On June 15, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt and Ambassador Herman Speck von Sternberg attended a sängerfest of 6,000 individual singers at Baltimore's Armory Hall. All 9,000 seats were sold out. The President delivered an address praising the German culture and the sängerfest tradition. The Northeastern Sängerbund presented selections by composers Herman Spielter, David Melamet, Carl Friedrich Zöllner, E.S. Engelsberg, Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner.
When Newark, New Jersey announced the 21st National Sängerfest to be held on July 1–4, 1906 in Olympic Park, 25,000 people showed up to hear the music, many arriving on chartered trains. Only a few thousand were able to get into the hall, and 2,000 were standing. 5,000 singers from more than a hundred sängerbunds representing forty cities from New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware competed for a $20,000 prize offered by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Park vendors offered souvenirs, refreshments, games and a carousel.
Germans began immigrating to Canada through Nova Scotia where they helped found the town of Lunenburg in 1753. The sängerfests were first performed in Kitchener, Ontario in 1862. The community events included the standard concerts and meals, and drama presentations and athletic entertainment sponsored by the local Turnvereine clubs. For the next 40 years, sängerbunds and sängerfests spread throughout Ontario. Pennsylvania Mennonites began settling in Ontario in the late 19th century. Alberta and Saskatchewan host the annual Mennonite sängerfestes.
In 1916 at his sentencing for his bigamy conviction, Count Max Lymer Louden related another misdeed from his past. Louden claimed he had been hired by a group of wealthy German Americans with a secret fund of $16,000,000 to take 150,000 German reservists, incognito as sängerbunds, across the Canada–United States border for a coup d'état of Canada, on bahalf of Kaiser Wilhelm II. If they drew suspicion, they were prepared to "sing at a moment's notice." It was his loyalty to America, he claimed, which caused him to desert the Kaiser's singing invasion force.
Although some local festivals were canceled or suspended during World War I and II due to rising anti-German sentiment, the sängerfest tradition has largely survived, and many communities have sängerfests today. Many of these are in areas with a high German population, such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which hosted its 49th Sängerfest in 2006 with the help of the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund. The 50th Sängerfest, hosted by the Washington Saengerbund, took place on the 2009 Memorial Day Weekend in Washington, D.C.
The 51st Sängerfest of the Nordöstlicher Saengerbund, hosted by the Lehigh Saengerbund, took place in June 2012 in Allentown, PA. The next Sängerfest of the Nord-Amerikanischer Saengerbund is scheduled for June 2013 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Houston Sängerbund continues to thrive, as do many sängerbunds in the states of Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin and other areas.
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