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Beethoven Maennerchor Sings The Praises Of Being German Americans

There aren't a lot of things that are still going strong 150 years after their inception. I recently spoke with several men who feel their group is something worth singing about. Georg Seidel explains his family's link to the group.

"My grandparents migrated from Germany in 1922. They landed in Ellis Island, and they came by train to New Braunfels. When they got to Austin, somebody met 'em there, and the New Braunfels German Choir got wind of it and greeted 'em in song."

Which is to say they took a long journey across the ocean, were checked in and became Americans at Ellis Island, then took a train ride across the massive United States, only to be greeted in Austin by a choir singing songs to them in their native language. It must have been overwhelming!

"My grandfather was so impressed that he joined the group the next day, and eventually became director for choirs in New Braunfels."

The mid-1800s migration of Germans to Texas primarily centered in the Hill Country and San Antonio. As late as 1880 one of every three San Antonians was a German immigrant.  

"In New Braunfels at that time everybody spoke German. It was a German town. My grandparents knew very little English at that time; they spoke German at home."

And one of the ways that these German Americans kept their culture alive was by establishing a place to meet and to sing. They did so, and the place's name is itself quite musical.

"Beethoven Maennechor.  It was founded in 1867. It was started as a choir by the men."  

In fact, Maennerchor means Men's Choir. Children there sing in the Kinderchor, and women sing in the Damenchor. And then there's the instrumental music.

"Right now we have three bands--a big concert band, a dance band, and most recently added, called The Big Band. They do a lot of swing and jazz."

Claus Heide sings with the Maennerchor, and like many who do, he has German roots.

"First time I was here was ... ," he thought.  "I came from Germany in 1965. First time I came here was Gardenfest in August.  We meet every Tuesday night for rehearsal. Year round. Everybody's here for the same purpose. Nobody gets paid."

Dry-humored Heide, grew up singing in church, but the most singing in his past wasn't inside four walls.

"And then I was in the German military and you sing a lot there. When you sing and you march, you don't feel it. That you're marching. And it's true. So I learned a LOT of songs!" he laughed.

Herbert Kriese took the long route to end up in San Antonio.

I came from Germany when I was a little kid. We were displaced people when the borders changed. The east borders in Germany after the war. And we got out ahead of the Red Army.

Thirty-five years ago, Kriese moved to San Antonio was introduced to Beethoven Maennerchor and began singing with them. That feeling of belonging stuck with him.

"It's a family atmosphere. As you're sitting here with me, you hear the kids. We have our kids' choir that rehearses ahead of us. It's a safe place -- no rough stuff going on."

There's a word they all use to describe the vibe here. Georg Seidel said, "There's a thing we call gemütlichkeit."

Herbert Kriese said, "That feeling of gemütlichkeit--which means we're having fun together here."

"One of the German words you pick up very quickly is gemütlichkeit, which is that feeling of kinship and camaraderie and having that sense of connection, and I think that the music brings that."

David Murphy, while a Maennerchor singer, is decidedly not of German origins.

"No, not so much German. I think I'm an Irish mutt," he laughed.

We spoke in Maennerchor's back courtyard in Southtown, massive pecan trees and colored lights above, kids, parents and dogs mingling below. During celebrations, dozens of picnic tables will hold a thousand beer-drinking and German food-eating people there.

"It's a family-friendly place. Every time you come here you're going to see young people, you're going to see old people, you're going to see very very young people, all mixing together and enjoying one another's company."

Murphy says he only found by singing in German a wholly unexpected fact about the language.

"One of the things I've grown to appreciate is the musicality of the German language.  Conversational German -- I'm a complete mess. But when you're singing the music there's a rhythm and an appeal to it, and it really does speak to you.  I sometimes joke that we're a drinking group with a singing problem."

An ornate, 92-year-old wood carving above Beethoven Maennerchor's entryway extols the virtues of singing together, and notes that bad men don't sing.  Clearly, this is a place where gemütlichkeit rules.

Find more on Beethoven Maennerchor here.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii