Sängerfeste

Sängerfeste (singers' festivals). Occasions organized to perpetuate German singing and social traditions. In Canada the gatherings have been centred mainly in communities of southern and western Ontario. The German cultural heritage of Waterloo County, Ont, was firmly established by immigration patterns of the 19th century (see Germany). Not content to exercise their love of singing only in the home, church, or school, settlers in these smaller urban communities had founded male and/or mixed choirs by the 1860s. Athletic clubs (Turnvereine), modelled on those in Germany, organized festivals of gymnastics, theatre, choral music, and dance. Emphasis on song soon lessened the importance of the other events.

In the USA such festivals are said to have begun in Cincinnati in 1849, in conjunction with the founding of the German Sängerbund of North America. Berlin (renamed Kitchener, 1916), Ont, was the site of the first major Sängerfest in Canada, 6-9 Aug 1862. Towns and cities represented were Berlin and Waterloo, the neighbouring communities of New Hamburg, Phillipsburg, Wellesley, and Bridgeport, and Toronto, Buffalo, and Detroit. In addition to performances by the 200 singers, athletic and dramatic events, band concerts, a picnic, and a gala ball were held. The success prompted another festival in Waterloo the following year. On this occasion Berlin and Waterloo formed a choir of 200 voices, which joined with other guests and four bands to entertain 2000 people. The German Club of Hamilton mounted a festival in 1866 on the plains of Burlington. Choirs from Toronto, Buffalo, Erie, Pa, and elsewhere sang for the 5000 visitors.

The first German-Canadian Choir Federation (Deutsch-kanadischer Sängerbund) was founded at a meeting 12 Nov 1873 in Hamilton. Thereafter, the larger Sängerfeste were to be organized by the federation rather than by individual clubs. A new Canadian Choir Federation, formed 24 May 1893 in Berlin, consisted of three choral groups during the years 1904-14: Concordia (Berlin), Liederkranz (Toronto), and the Male Choir (Elmira). German-Canadian choirs were active also in the Peninsula Choir Federation, a US organization (founded in Michigan in 1887) which changed its name to the Lake Erie Choir Federation to allow participation by Ontario and New York choirs. This federation held festivals in Ontario at Waterloo (1890, 1902), Hamilton (1891), and Berlin (1898). The principal song and music festivals held in Canada were at Waterloo (1874, 1885, 1902), Berlin (1875-77, 1879, 1886, 1897, 1898, 1906), Berlin and Hamilton (1890), Berlin and Waterloo (1912), Toronto (1895, 1900, 1907), Bowmanville (1884), Guelph (1887), Port Elgin (1888), Sarnia (1894), Bridgeport (1904), and Elmira (1905). In many of the years not accounted for above, the festivals took place in Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Louisville, Rochester and other US cities.

The Concordia Club of Berlin (founded in 1873) was a focus for the life of German song in North America. It was host for three of the most spectacular of the Sängerfeste. In 1875 the largest festival of its kind to that time lasted three days and attracted 15 choirs - from Montreal, Toronto, London, Detroit, Chicago, Rochester, Buffalo, and elsewhere - and 10,000 visitors to the city. At the 1879 festival, 500 choristers entertained 12,000 people; English-Canadian choirs also appeared. The 1886 festival was deemed to be one of the most impressive ever held in North America. In three days five full concerts were given, among them a performance of The Creation.

The coming of World War I and the rise of anti-German sentiments caused a suspension of the activities of the local institutions which had sustained the song festivals. Although individual clubs revived after World War II, the enthusiasm for German-Canadian choral traditions - eg, festivals in Kitchener in 1955 (the city's centenary) and 1959 - the success of initial attempts to re-establish the former popularity and scope of the Sängerfest have been hindered by social change and the reorientation of leisure in the postwar period. Nonetheless, Sängerfeste were held in the period 1974-82 and again in the late 1980s. The term Sängerfest is also used for Mennonite gatherings in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

See also Kitchener-Waterloo; Theodore Zoellner.