Nordöstlicher Sängerbund 1850—1900


Peter H. N. Kadel

The change to industrialization in the larger American cities took its toll on the artisans, who suddenly found their skills challenged by the quicker production of the factory system. A bonding occurred between the displaced classes, many of whom were German immigrants.

By the mid-19th century German singing in America had become so popular, especially in the larger cities, that it continued to attract singers of all ages to whom singing represented a therapeutic and cultural outlet. By 1849 a singing alliance of the more western states was already in place to govern concert activities on a larger scale, something the Philadelphia men’s choruses knew was needed on the East Coast as well. Consequently, five Philadelphia choruses, Männerchor, Liedertafel, Sängerbund Eintracht and Cäcilia, took the initiative to create an umbrella organization, first known as Allgemeiner Sängerbund der Östlichen Staaten, June 16, 1850. Its birthplace was the Military Hall on Library Street in Philadelphia, the rehearsal facility for several of the above-named choruses. The formation of this governing organization was viewed with great enthusiasm as singing entered a new phase and a dream had been realized. No ethnic group in America had been able to organize itself on such a grand scale for such a noble purpose, providing pleasure to so many!

On June 18, 1850, the newly formed organization formed a committee which supplied the following resolution:

  1. A German Eastern Sängerbund should be created by the present assembly.
  2. The object of the Sängerbund is to cultivate singing among men and to hold a Sängerfest yearly.
  3. The next Sängerfest is to be held in Baltimore in compliance with their singers.
  4. A committee is to be formed to take charge of the execution and elaboration of the resolution.

The above was unanimously adopted, and singing in America was well on its way to reach the popularity it had enjoyed in the German speaking Länder of Europe. (There was no official Germany until 1871 when formed under Kaiser Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck.)

Since the organization, known today as the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund von Amerika, was formed during an ongoing concert in Philadelphia, June 15—18, 1850, it is considered its first Sängerfest. Consisting of 15 singing societies with 400 singers, it was directed by Philipp M. Wohlsieffer. The second Sängerfest, as stipulated in the resolve, was held in Baltimore, MD, June 7—10, 1851.

Present were 21 societies with 500 singers and the concern was directed by Carl Lenschow. On June 19—22, 1852, the third Sängerfest was held, this time in New York City, with 31 societies that had brought 800 singers, about the number of singers participating in the 1991 Sängerfest. The director was Agricol Paur. The fourth Sängerfest was back in Philadelphia, held June 25—28, 1853. Represented were 35 societies, 850 singers and Director C. Henckenroth. The fifth Sängerfest was back in Baltimore on June 4—7, 1854. Attending were 31 societies comprising 700 singers and the director was Carl Lenshow.

You will notice that the first five concerts were held annually between New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. This was due to the fact that these three cities had the largest German populations, supporting most of the participating men’s choruses. Please also note that the attending societies and singers had increased steadily for the first four years, while the figures for the fifth Sängerfest are down. This proved to be a pivotal point in the frequency of the Sängerfest, and it was decided to hold the concerts with greater intervals. Organizing the housing, concert hall and accommodating everyone’s wishes caused problems that could not be solved in just a short year. (Some things never change!) At least there were early signs of dissatisfaction that would have a profound impact on the remaining second half of the 19th century.

Records indicate that the sixth Sängerfest was held in New York, June 23-26, 1855. There were 38 societies with 850 singers, followed by the seventh Sängerfest in Philadelphia on the 13—17 of June, with the largest attendance to date, amounting to 59 societies and 1400 singers. The director was P. Wolsieffer, who had also directed the first concert.

Carl Lenschow conducted the eighth Sängerfest in Baltimore on June 11—16, 1859; this time with 49 societies who contributed 1000 singers.

The ninth Sängerfest was scheduled for the summer of 1861, but was never held. The guns at Fort Sumter rang louder than all the singers combined could and the nation was in imminent danger.

President Abraham Lincoln’s call to duty was not ignored by the many young singers, great multitudes of whom enlisted into the army. Many of these singer/soldiers would never live to attend the ninth Sängerfest of 1865, when the Civil War had ended. It was held in New York, June 15—19, and marks the beginning of Preissingen, or competitive singing. This was won by the Junger Männerchor of Philadelphia. The two conductors, A. Paur and C. Bergmann, were assigned to conduct the masses brought by the 49 participating men’s choruses, consisting of 2400 singers. By this time the concerts and competition had grown to such a degree that the choruses had to be divided into classes, according to their sizes. Three classes were established with each having their own conductor, the most prominent of which would conduct the first-class choruses, or I. Klasse.

The tenth Anniversary Concert again was held in Philadelphia on June 13-18, 1867. This time there were 105 societies represented and 2900 Singers. A winner of the Preissingen was Deutscher Liederkranz, N.Y. and one of the conductors was D. L. Engelke. This was followed by a smaller Sängerfest in Baltimore on July 11-16, 1869. C. Lenshow conducted the 62 societies, which had contributed 2000 singers. Again, there were singers abstaining due to unresolved issues. This did not prevent the twelfth Sängerfest from occurring, however. Held in New York on July 25—29, 1871, it was a huge success with 72 societies and 2600 singers present. Germania—Baltimore won first prize, and the musical directives came from the baton of L. Damrosch.

Old issues had not been addressed, and new ones, pertaining to the judges, the music, conductors, etc., now added to the atmosphere, which had been tense for some time. It was at this time, or shortly after the twelfth Sängerfest, that the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund confronted its most serious crisis to date. It was faced with a Civil War of its own. No further con— certs where scheduled and it appeared that concert and prize singing would be removed from the American cultural calendar forever. (Although the causes for the conflict are traceable, accusations should have stayed in the 19th century as they have no place in the wonderful events such as the one we are celebrating this weekend.)

The desire for betterment manifested itself once again within the German—American community when several singing societies on the East Coast decided to band together to hold their own concerts. The Philadelphia example led to the formation of the United Singers of Philadelphia, which formed in 1881. The following year they held their own concert, which was a huge success because singing had become deeply imbedded into the souls of the population. During this event Marius Baumann, representing Philadelphia at the meeting, introduced a motion to revive the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund. Apparently, this expressed the will of all because the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund was created for the second time, uniting all singers once again for the sole purpose of making music. This reunion took shape at a rehearsal hall at the northeast corner of 10th & Callowhill, Philadelphia.

The Sängerbund was incorporated on April 17, 1886; its Freibrief can be found in the archives of the German Society of Pennsylvania. The thirteenth Sängerfest found itself back in Philadelphia, June 29 – July 4, 1882, with 58 societies, 1850 singers and C. Sentz and F. Kuenzel conducting. Many more singers came to the fourteenth Sängerfest in Brooklyn, N.Y., held on 4—8 July 1885. There were 71 societies and 2200 singers. A. Bischoff and W. Groeschel conducted and Germania of Baltimore were the winners again. They hosted the fifteenth Sängerfest on June 30—Ju1y 4, 1888, bringing 89 societies and 3000 singers to Baltimore, where, under the direction of W. E. Heinendahl, they serenaded President Grover Cleveland, who in turn became their guest speaker. (The next time a president appeared at a Sängerfest was in Baltimore in 1903, when Theodore Roosevelt was the main speaker. It marked the 20th Anniversary Concert of the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund.)

On July 3—7, 1891 the sixteenth Sängerfest took place for the first time in Newark, NJ. The 135 singing societies produced an all-time record of 4000 singers, with first prize going to the United Singers of Philadelphia for singing “Wer hat dich, du schöner Wald?” by Mendelsohn. It was conducted by J. Werschinger. Governor Leon Abbott was guest speaker. The seventeenth Sängerfest was held in New York on June 22—27, 1894. Again, the meaning of the word “growth” was forced to take on new dimensions when this event produced 166 societies with 5000 singers. H. Zoellner and F. Stucken conducted, and Brooklyn won 1st prize. New York Governor Flower gave the speech. Every Sängerfest became more eventful than the last as the cities had run out of concert halls capable of housing these masses of singers, musicians and spectators. Capabilities were stretched to the limit again in 1897, when the eighteenth Sängerfest was held in Philadelphia, June 21—26. It netted 164 societies and 5300 singers. Conductors were C. Samans and S. Hermann. However, no Sängerfest could ever compare to the one that finalized the first 50 years of the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund, the nineteenth Sängerfest, held in Brooklyn, June 30— July 5, 1900. For this event, billed as the 50th Anniversary Concert, Kaiser Wilhelm II had donated the silver “Minnesängerstatuett” * or “love-song singers’ statue”, to be awarded to the winners on a rotation basis. (Many German—Americans held the Kaiser in high esteem and, as evidence suggests, found his donation entirely occasion-appropriate). The number in attendance at this event should amaze researchers of musicology, history and sociology: There were an unprecedented 174 singing societies and 6000 singers. This concert was also marked by the presence of children’s and lady’s choruses for the first time, who shared in this historical experience. German choral singing in America had truly reached an all-time high.

From its meager beginnings in 1850, in comparison to its 50th Anniversary Concert in 1900, the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund made its mark in America as a shared cultural experience despite severe obstacles. From its beginning notes it followed a dominant theme with forced cadences, but developed a crescendo leading to a musical climax that should allow the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund and its singers to harmonize for a long time to come. Growth, in spite of conflict, is the legacy of the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund from 1850 to 1900.

*The Kaiser trophy is also on permanent display in the Rathskeller of the German Society of Pennsylvania, whose archives and library contain the primary source material of this essay.