New York City’s Sängerfest of 1894

By Dolly Perkins
An illustration showing crowds of well-dressed people gathering beside their seats in Madison Square Garden, as well as crowds approaching the building from the outside

Piano manufacturer William Steinway kept a diary from 1861 to 1896. It resides in the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center as part of the Steinway and Sons Records and Family Papers, 1857–1919.

On Friday night, June 22, 1894, New York City hosted a fine parade. The city had built a triumphal arch at Madison and 26th and passed a resolution that citizens of the city should illuminate and decorate their homes to welcome visitors to the city. The visitors came from 25 cities all up and down the East Coast—from Buffalo to Pittsburgh to Richmond to Boston. The marchers were greeted by cheering crowds—500,000 in all—and displays of fireworks. The parade, with its accompanying excitement, was the opening event of a grand occasion celebrating German heritage and love of song—a Sängerfest, or singing festival. As many as 20,000 people were in the parade, carrying lighted torches and wearing alpine hats; among them were 6,000 singers. The visiting singers, all men, were the honorees, and they marched with local mounted police, parade marshals, drum corps, veterans groups, and local bands, as well as those who accompanied them from their home cities.  

After months of preparation at home, the visiting singers were ready to give three massive public concerts and participate in two days of competition to win grand prizes. According to the Musical Courier, a music trade weekly published at the time, this country had never before seen so many male singers gathered together. More than 130 clubs participated in the concerts, and about 50 in the competitions. William Steinway—the famous piano manufacturer, fine tenor singer, and always one to nurture music and German culture—served as honorary president, as well as a financial sponsor, for this festival.

Signed photograph of William Steinway
Portrait of William Steinway, 1882, engraving from “Encyclopedia of Contemporary Biography” vol. 3, 1883, after photo by Naegeli, Union Square, New York City, Courtesy of Henry Z. Steinway Archive.

In fact William had helped organize and participated in Sängerfests for many years, as he noted in his diary: “At L.K. [Liederkranz] hall with Saengerfest committee” (July 1, 1865); “Write Musical Criticism of Sängerfest for the Review.” (July 21, 1867); “with 15 members of L.K. to Schutzenpark to Sangerfest of Hudson Co. Singers.” (September 15, 1873). Steinway makes many more references to Sängerfests throughout the 1880s and 1890s.

Social clubs formed around singing were common in Germany. In the United States, the first German club was formed in 1835 in Philadelphia, the Männerchor (men’s chorus). The next year, the Baltimore Liederkranz (singing club) was formed. The first Sängerfest in the musical history of the United States was held in 1837, when the Baltimore Liederkranz traveled to Philadelphia on March 13. The Philadelphia Männerchor subsequently traveled to Baltimore on March 28.

German singing societies sprang up in many other cities in the middle of the 19th century. Several cities had more than one singing society. Some clubs invited women to become members while others were solely comprised of men.

The first Sängerfest where all known singing societies were invited and where prizes were awarded was held in Cincinnati, in 1849. It was sponsored by an umbrella organization, now known as the Nord-Amerikanischer Sängerbund (North American Association of Singers). Shortly thereafter, a rival organization in the Eastern states, now known as the Nordöstlicher (North Eastern) Sängerbund, was formed. Both groups ultimately settled on holding a Sängerfest every three years, offset from one another.

The 1894 festival was the 17th Sängerfest sponsored by the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund. Esteemed visitors to the festival included New York Governor Russell Flower, Mayor Thomas Gilroy, the U.S. ambassador to Germany and the Consul General from Germany. President Cleveland was also expected, though he backed out at the last minute because of pressing work and health issues.

The singing events were held at Madison Square Garden. A huge semicircular, tiered stand that filled the entire eastern end of the venue was created for the occasion. Madison Square Garden was extensively decorated with bunting, flags, banners portraying German composers and poets, and foliage.

A ground-level view of Madison Square Garden
Madison Square Garden, 1891. Image credit: Photographer unknown / Courtesy of Museum of the City of New York. 91.69.31

On Saturday, June 23, the United Singers of New York and Brooklyn—the local host societies—gave a public concert. On Sunday and Monday afternoons, the prize competitions were held—four different competitions altogether. In the evenings, concerts featuring the full complement of singers and well-known soloists were staged. For the Sunday concert, Madison Square Garden held 16,000 persons—the largest ever seen there, according to The New York Times. This was exceeded on Monday evening with 18,000 present.

An illustration showing crowds of well-dressed people gathering beside their seats in Madison Square Garden, as well as crowds approaching the building from the outside
“The Illustrated American,”: June 30, 1894. Scenes at Madison Square Garden During the Saengerfest

While the majority of the pieces sung and played at the festival were of German origin, it was notable that the pomp of the first concert day with its eminent attendees and fine speeches was introduced by “The Star Spangled Banner.” And the concert on Sunday night, June 24, ended with the orchestra playing “American Fantasy” by Victor Herbert and then with a repeat of “The Star Spangled Banner,” sung by the entire chorus with the entire audience joining in. The New York Herald lauded the “devoted patriotism” that this represented and called it a “grand close to a grand concert.”

Contemporaneous newspapers reported extensively on the festival, with serious descriptions but also some humorous anecdotes. The New York Herald in particular pointed out the human element. In one account, people were noted as selling programs that were actually being given out free. In another, people were selling seats that actually did not exist because they would have been under the risers where the singers stood. And another commented on the disappointment of visitors who could not buy beer in New York on a Sunday.

The festival concluded with a grand picnic on Tuesday, where the competition winners were announced and prizes given. At least 25,000 people attended this picnic, at Ulmer Park in Brooklyn, a well-known beer park not far from Coney Island. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that 6,000 kegs of beer were procured for the occasion. The prizes were significant and included Steinway pianos.

Photograph of bust on top of a stone pedestal in a park
Bust of Beethoven on display in Prospect Park, awarded to the Brooklyn City Federation. © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Sängerfests are still held in this country. They do not by far match the size of the grand fest in 1894, but the enjoyment of camaraderie and culture persist to this day.

Dolly Perkins is retired from a career at NASA. She is a researcher and writer with the William Steinway Diary Project. This post is an adaptation of the author’s entry for “Sängerfest of 1894.”