German chorus last of its kind

Cultural tradition in Baltimore had its heyday

August 01, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The five men and five women singing "God Bless America" with brave gusto in the Sunday school room at Zion Lutheran Church are the last thin remnant of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of singers who performed with dozens of Baltimore's once-renowned German singing societies.

Germans, who at one time made up the largest immigrant community in Baltimore, formed singing clubs and societies even faster than breweries. They sang in churches and beer gardens, parks and clubhouses, fishing "shores" and sangerfesten, or song festivals.

Their names were a choral of multisyllabic German, leavened with an occasional Americanism: Canton Liederkranz, Arbeiter-Liedertafel, Locust Point Mannerchor, Schwabischer Sangerbund, Eintracht Gesangverein, Mozart Mannerchor. Even German butchers had a chorus, Metzger Gesangverein.

They're all gone, except for the tiny group of singers at Zion Lutheran, who are the last members of the 152-year-old Arion Gesangverein, the Arion Singing Society. Named for the mythical Greek patron of choral singing, Arion was the second German singing society formed in Baltimore. The first, incidentally, was the long-defunct Baltimore Liederkranz, founded in 1836.

At Zion, Eric Miller, their new director, rehearses the contemporary Arion singers for a naturalization ceremony at noon tomorrow at the War Memorial Plaza. Fifty-five new citizens will be sworn in at the beginning of the city's International Festival, a two-day celebration of Baltimore's ethnic diversity.

"These days, we're a pretty small chorus, 10 or 11 singers," says Robert Karl Fritzsche, Arion president.

There's pretty much gray hair among the singers, too. Only his wife, Lori, is younger than 50. She's 48, an alto and head of the technology education department at Chesapeake High School in Baltimore County. Fritzsche himself, 50, sings bass. He's an architect who worked on the Waterfront Marriott Hotel.

Vernon Scheffel, who was a postman for 39 years, is an 88-year-old tenor. His daughter, Esther, 66, is an alto and a retired administrative assistant at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Her sister, Verna Ann, 65, a soprano, is missing from the rehearsal, but she'll sing at the ceremony tomorrow. Wilma Webster, 72, also sings alto. She came to Arion in 1988 after its merger with the Deutsche Damenchor, the German Women's Choir. Until then, Arion had been all male for 138 years. Joanne Krause, a soprano, came to the choir from the Damenchor, too.

"I like to sing in German, even though I'm Polish," she says.

Elaine Nieberding, 50, a veteran of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, is sitting in with the chorus for their performance tomorrow.

Joe Pless, 77, who sings bass and baritone, was a corrections officer in Harford County. He speaks a little German, which is rare in the chorus these days. There are no more German-born singers in the chorus; Fritzsche, who has visited his father's family in Germany, sets the pronunciation standard for the German song, "Heimat" (HIGH-maht), they'll sing tomorrow.

Robert Wells, a tenor who just joined the chorus, is a silver-haired but youthful 54. He doesn't have a German heritage; he just likes the culture. Brad Schegel, 51, an IRS accountant, also sings tenor. The chorus may have one more tenor tomorrow.

A century ago, there were probably 30 or more singing societies like Arion in Baltimore. At the Sangerfest of 1900 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the United Sing- ers of Baltimore won first prize and brought home the Wagner bust that now stands near the Mansion House in Druid Hill Park. Arion owned its own clubhouse and even a park in Southwest Baltimore, where members sang and picnicked and drank beer. Both are gone now; an Arion Park Road still leads to Oaklee Village, the development in the old park.

The Arion Gesangverein even sang at Gettysburg in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln gave his address at the dedication of the National Cemetery there.

"The only secular choruses around were these choruses of German immigrants," says Fritzsche. "There was a heavy German contingent in the Civil War. One of the generals was a well-known immigrant, Carl Schurz.

"So when the National Cemetery was being dedicated in November 1863 up in Gettysburg," Fritzsche says, "this chorus was known well enough that it was invited to sing at the dedication ceremony."

Arion sang before Lincoln's address. "We do have a copy of the music in the library downstairs," Fritzsche says. "It's simply labeled Dirge. It's English language, because they were singing to English-speaking people.

"Every 25 years or so, when they have a bigger re-enactment of that dedication, the Sons of Union Veterans will invite us back up." They last sang at Gettysburg in 1988, the 125th anniversary of Lincoln's Address.

A researcher re-creating a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery that took place on Memorial Day 1868 found an Arion choir sang at that event.

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