In a recovering America only a few years separated from the death of Abraham Lincoln, the original founders of Beethoven Maennerchor would’ve never imagined that their gaggle of German gentlemen would still be singing 150 years later, much less that they’d be more robust and active than ever.
In celebration of their 1867 founding, the 60 plus members of Beethoven Maennerchor will perform at the Tobin Center for the Performing Art’s H-E-B Performance Hall on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. with their concert band and the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio. The group will offer a four-part harmony of German choral classics as well as folk tunes. The concert is free, but you must make reservations here.
The folk tunes, or as resident joke-teller and long-time member Georg Seidel calls them “the fun songs,” bring the men of this long-standing choral group together in a way that is hard to describe.
“That’s the main thing here at Beethoven, it’s all fun,” Seidel said, a classic stein in his hand. “We come from many, many walks of life, but we all seem to get along together as equals here – it’s all about the camaraderie.”
The camaraderie is essential to the mission of Beethoven Maennerchor: promoting German culture, song, and Gemütlichkeit – loosely translated as “fellowship and friendship.” Yet as Seidel unfolded a poem his mother used to read from his pocket, it was clearly not simple.
“What is Gemütlichkeit?” Seidel began, the smiles abounding from his fellow choir-members. “When people are gathered together in a warm and friendly way, enjoying conversation and passing the time of day…when we all go to Beethoven Garden at Fiesta time of the year, and we raise our glasses on high with ‘Ein Prosit,’ ‘Salude,’ ‘Good Cheer’ – Das ist Gemütlichkeit.”
Such a feeling will overflow like the barkeep’s generous pour when the men of Maennerchor take the stage this Saturday at the Tobin, the biggest performance they’ve yet experienced as a group.
“It will be really fun to watch how those young high school students adapt to these old guys,” said Director David Nelson, who has been at the helm of the Maennerchor for more than 20 years. “It’s a pretty unique opportunity and we’re gonna have a real good time.”
As the ensemble is used to doing festivals and small venues, you will recognize the sight and sound of these jovial gents from such performances as Staats and Gebirgs Sängerfests, our very own Fiesta, and of course Oktoberfest. You may also have simply spotted them at a Beethoven Garden evening on First Friday, the time they attract the greatest amount of outside attention from the San Antonio populace.
“I don’t have a philosophy,” said Nelson, referencing his free-flowing approach to a very inclusive organization. “I want it to be enjoyable, I want it to sound good, and I want the singers to have fun singing it. You don’t have to be German, you just have to appreciate German culture.”
According to Seidel, the choir has accepted everyone who has sought membership, with the exception of one person – and that was because a board member spotted a washing machine plugged in on his front porch.
“You can’t sing, doesn’t matter, we’ll work with you, most of our members are non-judgmental” Seidel said. “You don’t even have to join the choir. Of our 450 members only 60 are singing members of Maennerchor.”
Aside from the Maennerchor, which acts as the umbrella for the other components of the Hall, such as the Beer Garden, Dance Hall, and rehearsal spaces, the group also maintains three working bands for different performances, along with a Damenchor (women’s choir) and a Kinderchor (children’s choir).
Outside of the general revelry to be had at their longtime location at 422 Pereida, there are multiple member-only festivals and potlucks throughout the year to celebrate this, well, Gemütlichkeit.
Upon my arrival to visit Beethoven Halle unde Garten, Ryan Lloyd, the Maennerchor public relations chair, welcomed me with a pint and a rare treat – the monthly birthday singing in English, and of course, in German. Lloyd himself was responsible for the oft pop-culture referenced “Zicke zacke zicke zacke hoi hoi hoi” the final choral line before the shouting of “Prosit” at the conclusion, an incredible display of levity and laughter in the air.
“When people are here singing together, they feel that kindred spirit,” said Lloyd, a younger member of the group who joined in 2013 after officially getting his member card signed. “A lot of these men came directly from Germany, or grew up there. It kind of reminds them of home – it’s a homecoming.”
According to Nelson, Beethoven Maennerchor is the oldest German men’s choir west of the Mississippi, and it wasn’t difficult for him to define the key to longevity.
“Any place that Germans immigrated to, wound up having a male choir group,” Nelson said. “It was a social group to bring families together – a lot of beer and wine in hand.”
Just like the oral traditions of ancient times, the group has lived on in song through a similar type of generational model: membership passed along from grandfather to father to son. Some family names have persisted for more than a century.
“Our longest member has been here 67 years and became a member when he was 18,” Nelson said. “His father was a member before that, and he’d been coming for years before he joined.”
Spanning three distinct centuries, playing witness to some of humanity’s greatest inventions and transformations in musical realms and beyond, the men of Maennerchor have kept their wits about them by singing those “fun songs” and never balking at the chance for a silly sentimental nod to their elders.
“A bunch of our older characters were here drinking at the bar and realized ‘Hey maybe I drank too much, I should go home,’” Seidel said with laughter ready to burst in his eyes. “He told his friend, ‘Hey, if you drive me home, I’ll bring you back!’”