In 1858, William Steinway joined the Deutscher Liederkranz, one of New York City’s most successful German singing societies of the 19th century.(2, p. 158) The society, founded in 1847, was dedicated "to the promotion of artistic taste in general and vocal and instrumental music in particular."(1, p. 3) William Steinway’s association with the Liederkranz lasted thirty-eight years, ending with the society singing at his funeral in December 1896.
William Steinway’s very first diary entry on April 20, 1861, confirms his involvement with the society: "Philharmonic Concert. Liederkranz performs Walpurgis night, Wm. sings tenor solo." From there on, William mentions spending many hours at the "L.K," as he often abbreviates it, with his friends, singing companions, business colleagues, political comrades, and family. William’s brothers, sons, nephews, brothers-in-law, and son-in-law Louis von Bernuth were all Liederkranz members. His brother Charles was Vice President of the Liederkanz in 1859 and 1860. William served as president of the Liederkranz in 1867, 1869, 1873, 1877, 1878-79, 1880-81, 1882-83, 1885-86, 1887-88, 1892-93, and 1896. He was also on the Board of Trustees for many years as well as a member at various times of the Executive Committee, Music Committee, Building Committee, and Jubilee Committee, among others. "William Steinway not only impressed his personality upon the club but led it on to greater achievements."(1, p.12)
The major focus of Liederkranz musical activities was the male chorus (Männerchor), which was founded at the society’s inception in 1847. The chorus was led by a conductor under contract with the Liederkranz. The most beloved of the Liederkranz conductors was Agriol Paur, who led the chorus from 1850 to 1881 and who was given the title of Emeritus and a life-long pension in 1884. An excellent and enterprising musician, Paur raised the quality of the singing to a prize-winning level and established a singing school for ladies, a Liederkranz ladies chorus (Damenchor) in 1856, and an orchestra that flourished between 1865 and 1871.(1, pp. 6, 143-44) Conductors who followed Paur during William Steinway’s life were the noted conductors Theodore Thomas from 1881 to 1884, Rheinhold L. Hermann from 1885 to 1889, and Heinrich Zoellner from 1890 to 1898.(1, p. 97) For many years the Liederkranz men’s chorus rehearsed on Tuesdays, a popular club night; the women, on Fridays; and the orchestra, when it existed, on Thursdays. Combined rehearsals were on Thursdays or Fridays, and in some years were followed with refreshments and dancing (Tanzkränzchen) in the rehearsal room or, after larger events, in the Grand Ball Room.(1, p. 30) Some concerts organized by and for Liederkranz members were performed at the clubhouse on Sundays, a practice criticized by some non-German citizens who disapproved of entertainments on Sundays.
Among the many concerts at which the Liederkranz male chorus participated were subscription concerts, concerts with the Philharmonic Society and the Theodore Thomas Symphony, and a concert tour of eighty singers to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.(1, pp. 142-49) In addition, the Liederkranz gave concerts to celebrate holidays, such as Decoration Day, and on historic occasions, such as the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration in 1889 and the hundredth anniversary celebration of the Supreme Court in 1890. The society also established a routine of other activities, including: benefit concerts for victims of fire, war, and the Elbe river flood in Germany; for German hospitals, schools, the poor, and many other charitable causes (Stiftungsfest); celebrations at other New York societies, such as the German Society and the Isabella Home; evening entertainments (Abendunterhaltung); trips and outings (Ausflug);performances at Sängerfest competitions of the Deutscher Sängerbund in other cities; summer nights festival (Sommernachtsfest, started in 1852); annual children’s festival (Kinderfest, started in 1864); Masked Balls (started in 1854); and bowling and Skat tournaments. The Liederkranz’s first evening entertainment (Abendunterhaltung) was held in 1873. It became an annual affair in 1879, with ladies (Damen) first invited in 1880.
Liederkranz activities evolved from musical performances to social events. By the time William Steinway was writing his diary, the Liederkranz served as more than a singing society for him and his fellow members. Liederkranz members held wedding receptions, anniversary celebrations, and farewell parties before long European trips at their clubhouse. When William Steinway’s children were born, he treated Liederkranz members to kegs of beer (Diary, 1865-06-20; 1866-12-17; 1869-10-12; 1882-01-10; 1883-10-16). He held dinner parties at the Liederkranz after his children’s baptisms. Steinway’s daughter Paula had her debut at a Liederkranz gathering (Kränzchen) (Diary, 1883-12-08). William Steinway gave his children and grandchildren Liederkranz bonds for their birthdays. The Liederkranz chorus performed at members’ funerals, including those of William’s sister Anna, brother Albert, his father, Henry, and William Steinway’s second wife Ellie. Finally, the Liederkranz performed at William’s funeral.
1. History of the Liederkranz of the City of New York 1847 to 1947 and of The Arion, New York. New York: The Drechsel Printing Co., 1948.
2. Mosenthal, Hermann. Geschichte des Vereins deutscher Liederkranz in New York. New York: F.A. Ringler Company, 1887.