WHERE DID ALL THAT GERMAN COME FROM?


People new to San Antonio are often surprised by the overwhelming presence of German heritage in this part of Texas. They expect the Mexican and Spanish heritage — the place names, holidays, and food. But Guenther? Gruene? Oktoberfest? Beethoven Männerchor? That can be a surprise.


There’s an historic reason for it.*


In the mid-1800s, prior to the Civil War, there was a huge wave of German immigration to San Antonio. By the time of the war, one-third of the population of Bexar County was German. This immigrant group was politically liberal, anti-slavery, and pro-Union. In fact, when the state voted on secession, 76% of Texas as a whole voted to secede, while — thanks largely to its German population — only 53% of Bexar County concurred.


During the pre-war period and during the war itself, German Americans suffered ostracism for these political and moral beliefs. However, after the war, the presence of pro-Union German immigrants helped ease the transition of Texas back into the United States.


In fact, the first post-war, Reconstruction mayor of San Antonio was a German immigrant, Wilhelm Thielepape**. Thielepape arrived in Texas in 1844 and settled in San Antonio ten years later. He was, among other things, an architect, and he designed the Casino Club.


He also founded the Beethoven Männerchor, a German men’s singing club, that still thrives here in the neighborhood today.

On a Tuesday evening, the Beethoven bar can be pretty busy, as choir members gather for practice, and locals drop in for the discounted beer and basic German food.

EVENTS


Throughout the year, the organization hosts events in its outdoor space or ‘garden’. It usually has music on First Fridays, and, from May through September, a concert every third Friday. In addition, there are several big events each year — an Oktoberfest, a Christmas Market (called "Kristkindlmarkt,") and a Fiesta Gartenfest.


Oktoberfest


Oktoberfest is a big deal in Munich, Germany, and in countless German communities in the United States. In Munich, it’s a multiple-week folk festival and carnival, with plenty of beer and traditional food.


Here in San Antonio, the Beethoven celebrates Oktoberfest on two consecutive weekends in October. This year it was held on Friday and Saturday, October 7th and 8th, and on Friday and Saturday, October 14th and 15th.


The event typically features music from the two choirs and from the band, as well as some visiting musical and dancing entertainment. There are drinks and food available, too.


Christmas Market


Each December, the Beethoven hosts a Christmas Market, modeled after the Weihnachtsmärkte that are held in communities all across Germany.


“Each town, each city has a Christmas market,” David Uhler says. “So we do the same kind of thing. There’s German novelties and specialties and steins and cookies and ornaments and things like that. But it's really an opportunity for all kinds of vendors to come in with jewelry and handicrafts and that kind of thing.”


“We also have our food,” he adds. “We have our usual beverages going, and we also serve something special called ‘glühwein’, which is a spiced red wine.”


This event is held the first Saturday in December. This year, it will be held on December 3rd.


Fiesta Gartenfest


David Uhler points out that the Beethoven was an original charter member of the Fiesta Commission, and it hosted Fiesta events even before the commission was organized. Each year, it hosts a Gartenfest during Fiesta.

FOUNDING OF THE MÄNNERCHOR


Singing societies were a popular German social activity in the 1800s, and Thielepape was both a singer and a composer. He organized the Beethoven Männerchor immediately after the war. 


Initially, the choir met in his home near the Alamo, and then, in 1893, the organization built Beethoven Hall, across from La Villita. It was, at the time, the largest concert hall west of the Mississippi and hosted such notable acts as John Phillips Souza and Sarah Bernhardt. 


That original building burned down twenty years later, but the membership immediately rebuilt it.


Then came World War I, and German language and culture became unpopular. The Beethoven’s membership declined, and the organization could no longer support the music hall. It was sold to the city, and today it is home to the Magik Theater.


You can still see the name, Beethoven Halle, on the building’s brickwork.


RECOVERING AND GROWING


The organization moved to its present location on Pereida at South Alamo in the early 1920s, occupying first the main building and then buying the building next door in the early 1990s.


After World War II, membership recovered and grew, fueled in part by members of the military, who had been introduced to German culture, food, and drink during their time stationed at U.S. bases there.


MUSIC


The original driver of the organization, the Männerchor, currently has about 450 members, including 55 singers, according to choir director David Nelson. The group performs primarily German music by composers from the mid-1800s, in four-part harmony.


“We sing Beethoven and a whole bunch of other composers from the middle 1800s, the Romantic period” Nelson says. “That’s where the Männerchor tradition really started in Germany — in the early 1800s and on through. A great deal of the music was composed then. There are still some composers to this day that are writing music for men’s choirs, of course, so we try to get some of the newer music and some of the older music and make a program out of it.”


The group practices every Tuesday and performs both in the Beethoven courtyard and around the community. Each year, it participates in a multi-choir ‘Sängerfest’ that includes choirs from other nearby communities such as New Braunfels and Fredericksburg. “This is the 130th year for that event,” Beethoven President David Uhler points out.


Membership in the choir is open to all Beethoven members and involves a simple audition.


“I have somebody come in, and I run them up and down the piano to see where their voices fit in, make sure they can match pitches, things like that,” Nelson says. “It’s relatively painless.”


“It’s a comfortable place to be, musically,” he adds. “We’re fairly non-judgmental, so if you’re not the best singer in the world, you’re still welcome to come in, and we’ll work with you to make you a better singer. The camaraderie amongst the choir members is quite strong.”


Expanding beyond the Männerchor


In addition to the men’s choir, the organization more recently added a women’s choir and a concert band.


Of course, with the Beethoven, ‘recent’ is a relative term.


A women's choir, called the Beethoven Damenchor, was founded in 1932. It currently has 150 members, including 35 singers. Like the men’s choir, the Damenchor practices every Tuesday evening. The Beethoven Concert Band, currently 50 musicians strong, was founded in 1943.

MEMBERSHIP


Beethoven is a 501(c)(3) non-profit with a mission of supporting German heritage and culture. It’s a membership organization that emphasizes ‘gemütlichkeit’ — a German word that means fellowship, good will, and camaraderie — according to Uhler and Nelson. Anyone is welcome to join — there’s no requirement for German ancestry.


To join, you do have to be recommended by two existing members, but, David Nelson points out, that’s easy to do. Just come into the bar, have a beer, and introduce yourself to some people. “It’s a very welcoming organization,” he says.


Not everyone is a singer or a band member. Non-musical members participate in other ways, helping with food, for example. Most importantly, say both Uhler and Nelson, they share in the gemütlichkeit.


The annual membership fee is $75.00, and there’s a first-year initiation fee of $25.00. The organization is overseen by a board that meets monthly. There’s an annual meeting for the entire membership.


FOOD AND DRINK


Although it’s a membership organization, the Beethoven is open to the public.


The bar has about a dozen beers on draft — including both German beers and local craft brews — and also carries wine. 


Many of the members have their own beer steins, kept on shelves behind the bar.


Prices are reasonable. Both glasses of wine and pints of beer are priced at $6.00, with a $1.00 discount on Tuesdays, which is the day that members gather for music practice. Tuesday is referred to as ‘Members Day’, but the bar is open to the public and the discount applies to both members and non-members. 


Light food is also available. Standard menu items include Ruebens, bratwurst (from Wisconsin, David Uhler says) on a bun with sauerkraut, soft pretzels, goulash, leberkäse, and grilled cheese sandwiches. In addition, every Wednesday there’s a special.


Most food items are priced at $8.00.


On our recent Tuesday visit, Jane and I each had a couple of beers, we shared a pretzel, I had a brat, and Jane had a cheese sandwich. Our bill was under forty dollars. (And the brat met my Wisconsin-native standards).


The kitchen is open from 5 PM until 8:30 or 9:00, says Nelson, who — in addition to acting as choir director — is also the kitchen manager.


-----


*Information about the German history of San Antonio and Bexar County comes from UIW's Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio, and specifically from an article by Jordan Schermerhorn, 'San Antonio's German Immigrants and Secession - Journal of San Antonio'. 


**Information about Wilhelm Thielepape comes from multiple sources, including interviews with David Uhler and David Nelson, a Wikipedia entry, and (primarily) from an article published by the Texas State Historical Association and written by Theodore Albrecht.

Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.

Beethoven Männerchor

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Both the men's choir and the women's choir practice on Tuesday evenings.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

There's still some funk in the neighborhood

We've paved paradise and put up a parking lot; but there's still an island of funkiness in Lavaca.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Lavaca 101

Darryl explains the Lavaca neighborhood historic designations and what they mean to the community.

Related stories...