Sängerfest of 1894

print this page

From June 22 through June 26, 1894, New York hosted a National Sängerfest, or singing festival. At least 6,000 singers(16) from more than 130 German singing clubs from 25 cities(3), were expected to participate in the event. The event was well-attended and widely covered in the press.

From June 22 through June 26, 1894, New York hosted a National Sängerfest, or singing festival. At least 6,000 singers(16) from more than 130 German singing clubs from 25 cities(3), were expected to participate in the event. The festival started on Friday night, June 22, when New York hosted a fine torchlight parade in which 20,000 people marched.(3) The city had built a triumphal arch at Madison and 26th(16), and passed a resolution that citizens of the city, especially along the parade route, illuminate and decorate their homes "as an indication of the greeting and welcome it is desired to extend to these visitors to the metropolis."(14) William noted this in the diary, saying "Nearly all German localities decorated, also Steinway Hall very nicely." (Diary, 1894-06-22) The marchers were greeted by cheering crowds – 500,000 in all - and displays of fireworks.(15)

After months of preparation, the singing clubs were ready to give three massive public concerts and to participate in two days of competition that would result in grand prizes. Never before in this country had so many male singers gathered together.(5) Politicians – including the Governor of New York State and the Mayor of New York City – gave speeches to honor the event. William – always someone to nurture music and German culture - served as honorary president for this festival. (6) (7) (9) He references it as early as 1891, when he said "agree to recommend L.K. to join Sängerfest of 1894."(Diary, 1891-08-25)

The first German singing club in the U.S. was formed in 1835 in Philadelphia, the Männerchor (men's chorus). The next year, the Baltimore Liederkranz (singing club) was formed.(2, p272)(13)

The first Sängerfest in the musical history of the US was held in 1837, when the Baltimore Liederkranz traveled to Philadelphia on March 13. The Philadelphia Männerchor subsequently traveled to Baltimore on March 28. The first festival open to the public was held in Cincinnati in 1846, sponsored by two singing clubs who together formed the United Singers of Cincinnati.(2, p272)(13)

German singing societies continued to spring up in many cities over the next few years.(2, p273) The first Sängerfest where all known singing societies were invited – though only those in nearby states participated – 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.(2, p274) Both groups ultimately settled on holding a Sängerfest every three years, offset from one another.

There were many singing clubs in New York. Over the course of his time in New York, William sang in the New York Liederkranz, where he served as president for many terms. He also sang for a time with the Teutonia Men's chorus. He was an honorary member of a dozen other singing clubs, including Arion, Schillerbund and Heinebund.(9)

The 1894 festival was sponsored by the Nordöstlicher Sängerbund (its 17th Sängerfest) and the United Singers of New York, a federation of local societies.(6) Of the 8,000 singing members of the societies represented at the festival, 6,000 were expected to participate. Well-known soloists were also part of the festival concerts.(16) Richard Katzenmayer was the president of the festival, with William as honorary president. The esteemed visitors included New York Governor Russell Flower, Mayor Thomas Gilroy, the US ambassador to Germany, General Runyon, and the Consul General from Germany, Anton Saurma von der Jeltsch.(9) President Cleveland was also expected, though he backed out at the last minute because of pressing work and health issues.(15)

The singing events were all held at Madison Square Garden. A semi-circular, tiered stand that filled the entire Eastern end of the Garden was created for the occasion, and the Garden was extensively decorated with bunting, flags, banners portraying German composers and poets, and foliage.(6) A general rehearsal with all singers, soloists and orchestra took place on Saturday afternoon, June 23. That evening the united singers of New York and Brooklyn – comprising 32 societies and 800-1000 singers – gave a public concert.(6) William and Richard Katzenmayer both gave speeches, and William introduced both the Governor and the Mayor.(6) (7) William wrote in his diary about the accounts written by the New York Herald and the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung (see sources #7 and #13) and was pleased that the Staats-Zeitung published his reminiscences about the Sängerfest tradition.(Diary, 1894-06-24)

On Sunday and Monday afternoons, the prize concerts were held. These were open to the public. There were three classes of societies – defined by the size of the organizations (both singing and non-singing members). Each class had a single song that was performed for a panel of judges by every society that competed in that class. There were also competitions among city federations.(12) The singing groups were hidden from the judges.(2, p275)

The chosen songs were well-known at the time. In the individual competitions, each society in the First Class sang Das Grab am Busento [The Grave at Busento] by Johann Baptist Zerlett. The Second Class sang Herbstnacht [Autumn Night] by Max Ritter von Weinzierl. The Third Class sang Waldeimsamkeit [Solitude of the Forest] by Johannes Pache. The city federations each picked their own song for performance.(11)

On Sunday and Monday evenings, concerts featuring the full complement of singers were opened to the public. On Sunday evening, the Garden held 16,000 in the audience - the largest ever seen at Madison Square Garden. This was exceeded on Monday evening with 18,000 present.(1)

A large number of prominent and popular soloists participated in the concerts. These included Amalia Materna (soprano), Emma Juch (soprano), Lillian Blauvelt (soprano), Marie Tavary (soprano), Maud Powell (violin), Giuseppe Campanari (baritone), Emil Fischer (bass), Conrad Behrens (bass), Arthur Friedheim (piano) and Victor Herbert (cello).(10)

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.(7) And the concert on Sunday night, June 24, ended with the orchestra playing American Fantasy by Victor Herbert (composer and cellist), and then with a repeat of The Star Spangled Banner, with the entire chorus and then 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."(4)

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. The prizes were significant: First prize for the First Class – awarded to the Philadelphia Junger Männerchor – was a Steinway Grand Piano. The second prize was a large silver cup, the third prize a silver wreath.

In the Second Class, the first prize – awarded to the Williamsburg Sängerbund – was a small Steinway Grand piano. The second prize was a silver cup, and the third prize a silver wreath. An additional 4 prizes were handed out.

In the Third Class, the first prize – awarded to the Syracuse Sängerbund – was a Steinway square piano. The second and third prizes were a silver cup and silver wreath. An additional 5 prizes were handed out.

Two prizes were awarded for the city confederation competition, for the first class a bust of Beethoven – awarded to Brooklyn – and for the second class, awarded to Hudson County, a banner.(8)

In the end, and despite unprecedented ticket sales, the Sängerfest ran a deficit. William agreed to make up the difference. As he wrote in the diary, "supper at Terrace Garden, am present at last Sängerfest Meeting there. Receive quite an ovation, declare my intention to pay balance of deficiency." (Diary, 1894-07-27)

1. "Close of the Saengerfest," The New York Times, June 26, 1894, p. 1.
2. Faust, Albert Bernhardt, The German Element in the United States. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909, pp. 272 - 274.
3. "The Great Saengerfest," New York Herald, June 23, 1894, p. 6.
4. "Melody's Triumph," New York Herald, June 25, 1894, p.7.
5. "The National Saengerfest," The Musical Courier, June 27, 1895, p. 7.
6. "New-York Singers Hosts," The New York Times, June 24, 1894, pp. 1-2.
7. "Opening Concert of the United Singers of New York," New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, June 24, 1894, p. 1.
8. "Prize Winners at the National Saengerfest," American Art Journal, June 30, 1894, p. 217.
9. "Reminiscences by a Veteran," New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, June 24, 1894, p.11.
10. "Saengerfest Soloists," New York Herald, June 24, 1894, p. 3.
11. "The Seventeenth National Saengerfest," The Musical Courier, June 27, 1894, pp. 34-34A.
12. "Two Interesting Concerts," The New York Times, June 26, 1894, p. 1.
13. "An Unequaled Festival," New York Herald, June 24, 1894, Third Section, p. 1.
14. "Visitors to the Musical Festival," The New York Times, June 17, 1894, p. 19.
15. "Welcome to the Singers," The New York Times, June 23, 1894, p. 1.
16. "Working for the Festival," The New York Times, June 20, 1894, p. 20.

Read the National Museum of American History blog on the Sangerfest of 1894 at http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/nyc-sangerfest.