In 1845, German immigrants led by Prince Carl Solms of Braunfels, Germany, came to Texas by way of Indianola following a difficult passage along the Guadalupe River and settled near the Comal Springs as the community of New Braunfels. Along with the Native Americans, new animals and plants – and severe weather – survivors remained focused and kept their priorities straight. Before the first building was erected, Hermann Seele started a school under a tree, with music undoubtedly a major part of the curriculum.
Giving up security and many comforts of the old country in Germany, these settlers adapted to their new harsh environment, and soon formed singing groups. Nostalgically remembering the good old days in the "Vaterland", they sang familiar folk tunes and songs handed down from many great classical composers. In a mere five years, the New Braunfelsers organized the first formal German singing group in Texas, the "Germania" male singing society, in March, 1850. On October 15 and 16, 1853, New Braunfels hosted the first “Sängerfest” (singing festival) of the “Deutsch-Texanischer Sängerbund” (German-Texas Singers League), which continues to exist today. Almost every German community had a singing group and they all came to celebrate with song, orchestral dances, dinners, plays, parades led by brass bands, and gleeful "Gemütlichkeit." So popular were these singing groups and festivities that new umbrella organizations had formed, such as the West Texanischen Gebirgs Sängerbund in 1881.
The Civil War, WWI and WWII all caused membership declines, but German singing societies bounced back with renewed fervor each time. Eventually, New Braunfels had 16 singing groups. The last new one to be formed was the New Braunfels Gemischter Chor Harmonie in 1937, with 46 men and women singers. In 1938, Harmonie joined the Texanischer Gebirgs Sängerbund, encompassing societies in San Antonio, Fredericksburg, and towns in between, as well as the Comal Sängerbund. In 1952, Harmonie grew to 60 members, and was recognized as one of the strongest mixed choirs in the region. New members were competitively selected and voted on by the membership using a system of black and white balls secretively placed in a special box.
However, with the aging of original singers, fewer families speaking German at home, and the arrival of television competing for entertainment, membership began to subside in the mid to late 50's. In 1985, Gemischter Chor Harmonie experienced what could have been a fatal blow, when its original director, Gilbert Becker, died just a month before the Fall Sängerfest.
Fortunately, William “Bill” Kretzmeier, already established as a high school choir director in the area, accepted the directorship on short notice. Under his guidance, Gemischter Chor Harmonie remained small, but viable, as the other local singing groups faded away, emerging in the 1990's as the only remaining active choir in the New Braunfels area. By 1991, only 22 singers appeared for a festival in Fredericksburg, and, according to Mr. Kretzmeier, "talk was, we needed more singers". At the 1995 festival in New Braunfels, Lola Engelke Schuman remained the sole charter member. At the 2001 Sängerfest, again hosted by New Braunfels, Klaus Rochwalsky was the only performing bass singer on the roster.
Mr. Kretzmeier graciously provides his perspective of the history of Harmonie since 1985:
"I became director of Harmonie upon the death of Gilbert Becker in 1985, about a month before Sängerfest. At the time, there were around 18 – 20 members. We met at Sängerhalle each Wednesday at 7:30 PM. The schedule was to visit and drink beer from 7:30 to 8:00; sing from 8:00 to 9:00; break, drink beer for 20 – 30 minutes, then resume singing until 10:00 or so. I told them I couldn't work with that, since I had to get a decent night's sleep, having to teach the next day. So we began singing at 7:30 and stopped at 9:00 PM."
"Harmonie was as much a social club as it was a singing society. The members had known each other since childhood, several of them having been schoolmates, and many were related by blood or marriage. They had grown up around singing societies, and when they came of age, they joined. The distractions of the modern culture; radio and television were not there to dilute their culture, which has happened to the younger generations, unfortunately."
"At Christmas, we would have a party with 'covered dish' - what else? Great food! We would sing Christmas songs in German, and exchange gifts. Some of the ladies insisted that we begin practicing the songs as early as October, which was silly because we sang the same songs every year, and everybody knew them from memory. I tried to introduce some new songs for Christmas and was told rather bluntly that "We have been singing these songs forever" and "We don't need all this new foolishness!"
"We would take January off because the Hall was uncomfortably cold, and the frugal Germans were not about to turn the heat on. Sometimes December and February weren't much better. I remember more than a few rehearsals when the steam would come from the singers' mouths as they sang. Rehearsals during the summer, particularly in August, were also miserable because of the heat. There was no A/C, which brings us to the problem of the Hall itself."
"The menfolks ran the Hall, kept the books (secretly helped by wives and children) kept the hall clean, mowed the grass, handled the renting of the hall for special occasions, etc. The rentals went a long way toward paying for taxes and other expenses."
In today's world, non-air-conditioned halls are difficult to rent out, so for the most part, the Hall wasn't bringing in any income from May through September. Also, the men weren't getting any younger, and found it more and more difficult to handle. These people were trying very hard to hold on to the way things were, but time, age, and circumstances made that impossible. So eventually, the old Sängerhalle was sold.
"We had one year to move out of the Hall and wound up having our meetings at Eden Home. It was quite an adjustment, especially for those who liked their beer. From my perspective, it was a good thing for several reasons: 1) We didn't freeze in the winter and sweat in the summer, and 2) Everybody stayed sober! Some of the members used to show up at the hall an hour early and by meeting time they were pretty well ‘snockered’".
"Membership had been slowly, but steadily dwindling. At one time, we were down to nine singers. Some passed away; others became 'passive members' meaning they kept their membership but didn't sing. We were not getting new members! Then in 2000, a new guy named Roy Knippa began recruiting younger people. They started coming, and most of them stuck. That pattern of growth has been going on for the past five years."
"With the influx of new people, several problems arose. The older members resented this intrusion and the aggressiveness of the 'new' people made the 'oldies' nervous. Several of the new people were big 'huggers' though, and their open expressions of affection melted the ice. As a result, our group has become much more active. From 1985 to 1999, the only performances we did were the yearly Sängerfests. Now, we sing for local and regional audiences quite often, as well as singing at two Sängerfests each year."
Serving as Presidents of Gemischter Chor Harmonie since 1937 have been Chris Herry, 1937-59; Amo Bartels 1961; Frau Egon (Lola) Engelke, 1952, '53, '59, '66 and 1978; Agnes Lehmann, 1981-84, 1993-95, and 2001; Raymond Porter 1988,1990-91; Carrol Belton, 1997-98; Rev. Albert Buhl, 2000-01; Roy Knippa, 2002-04; Erna Dietert, 2005-07, Troy Tidwell 2008-09, Linda Coker, 2010-13; Eric Tennyson, 2013-16; and Linda Coker, 2016 to Present.
Pianists served as follows: Roma Koepp Martin, 1939; Jane Wiedner, 1941; Hilda Schwamkrug, 1952-53; Lillian Wunderlich, 1958-66; Heidi Reeh, 1971-2002; Grace Dwyer, 2003. Helen Mittenzwei Fesler, 2003-2016; Denise Wayne-Damron, 2016-2018; and Dion Kruczek 2018-Present.
five directors have lead Gemischter Chor Harmonie in its entire
Gilbert Becker served faithfully from the founding of the choir in 1937 until his death in 1985. Bill Kretzmeier directed from 1985-2010 and 2016-17 with dedication and distinction. Dr. Arlis Hiebert directed 2010-15; Rick Bowen May-December 2015; and Denise Wayne-Damron has directed from
December 2015 to present.
Zentenarfeier des Deutschen Gesanges in New Braunfels, 1853-1953.
100th Anniversary edition of NeuBraunfelser Zeitung, Vol. 100, No. 53.
Selected Sängerfest Festschrifts since 1937.
Images: Google Images
Personal interviews and thanks to: Viola Porter, Lillian Wunderlich, Raymond and Lulu Salge, Agnes Lehmann Buhl, Rev. Albert Buhl, Alice Schaefer, Virginia Baker, Marijane Stafford, and especially, Bill Kretzmeier.