German singing societies, which were originally all-male choral groups, formed in virtually every German community in Texas during the 1800s and early 1900s. Singing societies provided folk, religious, and classical music for family, church, and community gatherings. These societies often participated in singing festivals known as Saengerfests, which gave Texas Germans an opportunity to share a love of music while also providing fellowship and a forum for community and political involvement. German singing societies, many of which remain active today, helped preserve the cultural traditions of generations of German Texans.
German immigration into Texas began in the 1820s. By the end of the 1840s, German communities such as New Braunfels and Fredericksburg were flourishing. By the early 1900s, “ethnic Germans made up the largest influx of Europeans into the Lone Star State,” according to author Gary Hartman in The History of Texas Music. Most German immigrants to the United States were literate, and they worked hard to preserve their culture through German schools, newspapers, sports clubs, agricultural cooperatives, and literary and arts organizations. As part of this larger effort at cultural preservation, Texas Germans established singing societies to celebrate opera, classical, and folk music. Germans also built some of the earliest opera houses in several larger Texas cities, and many prominent German composers, including Friedrich Hermann Seele, Adolph Fuchs, John M. Steinfeldt, and Wilhelm Thielepape, lived in the state.
The Gesangverein Germania, one of the earliest singing societies in Texas, was established in New Braunfels on March 2, 1850. Other choral groups soon appeared in German communities throughout the state, including San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fredericksburg, Kerrville, La Grange, Brenham, Boerne, Sisterdale, and Comfort. On October 15–16, 1853, several singing societies met in New Braunfels for the first State Saengerfest. The following year, at the second Saengerfest, held on May 14–16, 1854, in San Antonio, the singing societies formed the Deutsch-Texanischer Sängerbund, also known as the Texas State Sängerbund.
San Antonio is home to a large and vibrant German-Texas community, and two of the most successful German singing societies in the Southwest formed there. In July 1847 Johann Nicholaus Simon Menger founded the Männergesang-Verein. The group was renamed the Beethoven Männerchor in 1867, and members built their first concert hall, the Beethoven Hall, in 1895 across from La Villita in downtown San Antonio. Fire destroyed the hall in 1913, but members rebuilt it in 1914. The hall is still standing in Hemisfair Plaza, although it no longer houses the Beethoven Männerchor. The Männerchor moved to its present location in the King William Historic District of San Antonio in 1920, and it remained active in the twenty-first century.
Catholic Rev. Henry Pfefferkorn founded another singing society in San Antonio, the Liederkranz, in 1892. Later that same year, Otto Hilgers took over as choir director and served until 1934. Under Hilgers’s direction, the Liederkranz became one of the best-known German singing societies in the region, performing oratorios, minstrel shows, theater productions, and comic opera at a wide variety of events across the state. The Liederkranz sang at the bicentennial of the founding of San Antonio in 1931 and at the Papal Mass celebrated in San Antonio in 1987. The group remained active in 2015, and many of the singers in the choir were descendents of the original immigrants.
German singing societies also exist in Austin. The Austin Männerchor, founded in 1852, attended Texas’s first Saengerfest, held in New Braunfels in 1853. In 1879 the Austin Sängerrunde (singing circle) was formed. In addition to the traditional men’s chorus, the Austin Sängerrunde established its Damenchor (women’s choir) in 1879. Also that year, Austin hosted the Twenty-fifth Jubilee Celebration of the Deutsch-Texanischer Sängerbund, which featured singing societies from San Antonio, New Braunfels, Galveston, Houston, Comfort, La Grange, Dallas, and Brenham. During the three-day celebration, two “immense arches of honor [were] erected—one at the foot of Congress Avenue, the other at the Opera House where the official concert was held.” The avenue was “ornately decorated with flags and bunting,” as festival participants paraded up the avenue to the Opera House.
In 1901 the Austin Sängerrunde began meeting at Scholz Garten, a German restaurant and beer hall established in 1866 on San Jacinto Street in downtown Austin. Scholz Garten has become a well-known meeting place for politicos and Austin’s intelligentsia. The Austin Sängerrunde continued to meet regularly for concerts and other events in the Sängerrundehalle next door to Scholz Garten in the 2010s. In 1911 members of the Sängerrunde formed an orchestra that served as the basis for what eventually became the Austin Symphony Orchestra.
The Dallas Frohsinn, established in March 1877, is unique among German-Texas singing societies in that it also includes Austrian and Swiss members. The Frohsinn was among the organizations performing at the Austin Saengerfest in 1879. It went into decline beginning in World War I, and by 1948 it no longer met on a regular basis. However, the organization experienced a revival in the 1950s, in part because of the relocation of Chance Vought Aircraft from Connecticut to Dallas. Many of the company’s employees were ethnic Germans who joined the Frohsinn. Bolstered by its growing membership, the Dallas Frohsinn began competing and hosting State Saengerfests again, although it was one of the few singing societies in Texas to not have its own clubhouse. In 1991 members established a Frohsinn Damenchor to complement the already popular men’s chorus. The Dallas Frohsinn continued to perform at a number of venues throughout the year in 2015.
Several German singing groups already existed in Harris County by the mid-to-late 1800s, including the Houston Sängerbund, established in 1883. The Sängerbund grew at a rapid rate in the early 1900s because of significant German immigration to Houston. Like most other German-Texas singing societies, the Houston Sängerbund, whose membership eventually reached 1,000, also functioned as something of a social club. Its headquarters in the 1920s included a bowling alley, a bar, a library, a sitting lounge for women, and two pool rooms. A ladies auxiliary was formed in 1937, and a Damenchor began in 1938. The Houston Sängerbund, which remained active in the twenty-first century, hosted the statewide Saengerfest in 1983 on the one-hundredth anniversary of its founding.
By the 1920s, German social clubs in Houston were flourishing. In 1924 Constantin Janke decided to form a new singing club, the Houston Liederkranz, for the promotion of German song and the upkeep of the German language and customs. During its first years, the Liederkranz sponsored concerts, a riverboat ride, birthday parties, picnics, and a Christmas celebration. The Liederkranz formed a ladies auxiliary in 1938. As was typical with other German singing societies in Texas, membership declined during World Wars I and II but revived again during the 1950s. Despite such challenges, the Houston Liederkranz remained active in 2015.
While German singing societies in the larger cities have remained intact for generations, many of those in smaller towns have struggled to retain membership. In many cases, people from younger generations who were raised in smaller German towns migrated to larger cities and became assimilated into mainstream culture. Consequently, a number of the early singing societies died out along with their rural communities. Several groups, however, have remained active by bonding together to form umbrella organizations. Among these are the Texanischer Gebirgs Sängerbund (Texas Hill Country Singers League), which includes members from groups originally formed in Fredericksburg, Clear Spring, New Braunfels, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi. Other umbrella organizations include the West Texas Hill Singers’ League, the Guadalupe Valley Singers League, and the Comal Singers League, all of which have staged their own singing festivals.
German Texans endured a wave of intense anti-German sentiment during World War I and World War II. As was the case with most German communities in the United States during this time period, German Texans were forbidden to speak the German language in fear of appearing to be in sympathy with the Kaiser. As a result, fewer German Texans were willing to openly celebrate their heritage, and most cultural activities were scaled back within Texas-German communities.
After World War II, several German singing societies experienced a rebirth due to improved relationships with Germany and renewed German immigration to Texas. The inclusion of women’s and children’s choirs has also helped expand and diversify the singing clubs’ activities. German singing societies also have shown a willingness to assimilate in order to attract more members. Many of the groups now sing in English, as well as in German. Performances are no longer solely limited to German-oriented gatherings, and many of the groups perform at public festivals or civic occasions. However, communal singing remains at the core of the German singing societies, and State Saengerfests are still held annually in such cities as Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. (See also GERMAN MUSIC.)