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Saengerbund lives on

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

Dr. Rudolph Biesele, writer, historian, and expert on German culture, stated that when the immigrants traveled over the ocean towards Texas, they brought along with them an invisible passenger: Das Deutche Lied (the German song).

This invisible passenger accompanied the immigrants across rough seas and on the dreary trek inland from the coast. It established itself on the beautiful banks of the Guadalupe and Comal Rivers. The love of music answered a need for expression of emotions and this love manifested itself in song. When the immigrants came to Texas, they sang at home, in church, at social events, morning, noon and night. A good voice brought honor to the one who had it.

Das Deutche Lied was born in the old country, Germany. All over the world people are familiar with German classical musicians, even by their last name only. Names like Bach, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Mozart, and Strauss are familiar to everyone.

Even before classical music, the forerunner of German music was dominated by Minnesingers, aristocrats who traveled and sang from court to court. A monk named Hermann combined folk music from the Alpine region. These Minnesingers were replaced by middle class Meistersingers who were usually craftsmen who had their profession but sang as entertainers.

Immigrant children learned folk songs in Germany and then early schools and teachers passed those songs on to children here. Over one hundred years later they were still singing the same songs, many of which recent Germans from Germany had never heard. Classics were for those who were taught instruments like piano and violin. Over the years many programs for children like German singing, and folk dancing have helped keep some of these songs alive.

Hermann Seele in his “Assembled Writings” told the story about when the site of New Braunfels had just been established, settlers shared with each other all they possessed. An organized group of young men for the protection of the colony marched through the streets singing into the night. Seele said a piano had been installed in the Zinkenburg. The “young unmarried men assembled in jolly fellowship.” Seele’s description of the place and activity makes me wonder if his description was of the Lustige Strumpf. (See Sophienburg Column: May 31, 2011) Where did the piano come from? I read that the Kleberg family had a piano in the 1830s near Nassau Farm but it is unlikely that this was the piano that Seele referred to. Hauling a piano from the coast all the way inland and across the Guadalupe would be too good a story to ignore.

Seele goes on to say that the immigrants had strung a cable across the flooding Guadalupe River and made a boat out of the bed of an oxen wagon to bring provisions over the river. A humorous story related to singing goes like this:

One day a barrel of wine was being hauled across the Guadalupe up a stone embankment. The barrel sprung a leak and the men used hats or pots and pans to catch and drink the wine until “their jubilation rose above the rush of the waters, singing the song put to verse by Prince Carl and set to music by Captain Alexis Bauer.” The song was “Durch der Weltmeers Wogen,” meaning “Through the Ocean Waves.” If that same incident happened today, the song probably would be “Roll Out the Barrel.”

It was only natural and inevitable that Der Lied would perpetuate itself by organizing into Vereine (clubs) A group of singers got together on March 2, 1850, to form a Saengerund (singing club) in New Braunfels and they called themselves “Germania.” That first year the group performed at the July 4th celebration and again July 4th in 1851, 1852 and 1853. They were located on the banks of the Comal River in the area that would later become Camp Warnecke and now Schlitterbahn. All of those celebrations were opened by firing the two cannons that Prince Carl had made in Victoria.

In 1851, a dance platform was erected at the Zinkenburg. The Germania joined the Rifle Company and marched up Seguin Ave. to the Plaza. Songs were sung at the Plaza and at the rifle range. The proceeds from the celebration were used to purchase 200 bottles of wine to sell for 50 cents a bottle.

In 1852 there was a cholera epidemic in New Braunfels and two of the German singers died of the disease. The Germania participated in a concert given for the benefit of a fund to purchase a printing press. The purchase was the start of the Neu Braunfelser Zeitung.

The next year, 1853, saw the Germania locating at Seele’s farm called “Elisenruhe.” Elise was the woman who Seele wrote to asking her if she would join him in Texas. That didn’t happen. Elisenruhe means “Elise’s rest.” The farm was in the area on the west bank of the Guadalupe River just north above the Nacogdoches road crossing. Look at the photographs. The members cleared a round spot and stomped the clay soil and roofed it over with wagon tarpaulins. The club sold three bottles of French wine for $1.00. Music and singing lasted until the sun came up.

Aside from those July 4 celebrations, the Germania decided to hold a Song Fest, or Saengerfest in New Braunfels on October 15th ,16th and 17th, 1853. It was held in New Braunfels on the banks of the Guadalupe. Singing groups from San Antonio, Austin, and Sisterdale entertained the town and sang acapella.

The next year the second Saengerfest held in San Antonio almost turned into a political rally. A group from Sisterdale brought up resolutions demanding the abolishment of capital punishment, the forbidding of speculation in land values, and declaring slavery a monstrous social wrong and should be abolished in conformity with the Constitution of the United States which declared in emphatic terms that “all men are born free.” These issues were leading up to the Civil War.

Oscar Haas’ translation of H. Seele’s minutes of the singing club stated that from 1861 to 1867 during the Civil War, songs and music were replaced by sorrow and tears. The first post-war Saengerfest occurred in 1870 in San Antonio. From this time on, the singing emphasis changed by adding bands and orchestras and Saengerfests were becoming gigantic festivals. The small rural singing societies in the Hill Country withdrew from the state Saengerbund and founded their more conservative Westtexanischer Gebirg-Saengerbund. As a result, smaller groups formed whose primary purpose besides singing was sociability. The small individual societies were pushed to the background.

Change was taking place in society and German was becoming less popular in the United States. In New Braunfels there were several of those small singing groups established at the same time. The last group to form was the Gemischter Chor Harmonie in 1937, and by 1953 it had become one of the strongest mixed choirs in the region. This group lived on even as others in New Braunfels ceased to exist. The Gemischter Chor Harmonie was down to nine members in the early 2000s but a steady interest has made this group of around 40 singers still live on.

A love of singing and German Geműtlichkeit has held this group together while having fun and inadvertently preserving the German language and culture. One need not speak German to join. The only thing necessary is the love of music. If interested, contact Tommy Daum at 830-625-8937.

Painting by Iwonski of the Seele farm prior to the building of the Saengerhalle with the Seele home in the center.

Painting by Iwonski of the Seele farm prior to the building of the Saengerhalle with the Seele home in the center.

Circa 1930 photo of the Saengerhalle in disrepair.

Circa 1930 photo of the Saengerhalle in disrepair.

Ploetz painting of the Seele farm with the early Hermann Seele residence center and the Saengerhalle on the right.

Ploetz painting of the Seele farm with the early Hermann Seele residence center and the Saengerhalle on the right.

Iwonski painting of Germania, the first singing society in New Braunfels.

Iwonski painting of Germania, the first singing society in New Braunfels.