July 10th, 2012
Gena Kittner is the Wisconsin State Journal’s resident chronicler of Madison area’s fading traditions. Last May she wrote about Stoughton’s struggle to keep its Norwegian heritage alive and then this past May she wrote a nice profile of the Madison Männerchor which notes the troubles they and other similar groups are having.
Meet the Madison Maennerchor, the city’s German men’s choir, which celebrates its 160th anniversary this year. Members, who range in age from 23 to 86, cite the preservation of German and American choral music as the choir’s goal, along with the “perpetuation” of gemütlichkeit, the German word meaning joy, camaraderie and fellowship.
These days only about eight choir members are native German speakers. The rest rely on Paul Essert, 70, to learn meanings and pronunciations of the words they sing.
Some men catch onto the language pretty quickly, while others never do, said Essert, who started singing with the choir two days after immigrating to the United States in 1967.
Gary Luther, president of the Wisconsin Saengerbezirk, said the singing societies, like other fraternal-type organizations, are struggling to maintain membership.
At one time the Milwaukee area had about 60 German choirs and there were more than 100 around the state, he said.
Now, “a lot of people aren’t looking to do things of this nature any longer,” Luther said. “It’s a difficult time for so many of these groups, not just the German choral groups.”
To combat declining interest, Luther said the German choirs are making themselves more visible and singing a bit more in English — a trend that can be a sore subject for some older members.
But, “if you want to stay viable, you have to do what the community would like to have,” Luther said.
I’ve seen the Madison Männerchor a few times at the International Festival here in town and they are indeed wonderful. Just as Stoughton struggles to maintain its Norwegian heritage, I get the impression that people are having the same trials with preserving German heritage around the state. Beer and bratwurst are firmly entrenched as part of Wisconsin identity so I suspect that a German influence will survive for some time to come but how much beyond these two things is debatable. German-American heritage ain’t what it used to be and it’s sad to see that German culture, at least around these parts, seems to consist almost wholly of Oktoberfest celebrations. And so I am happy to see that, despite its struggles, the MM is doing alright here in the 21st century.