In 1959, when Amelia Hielscher Mettke joined Austin’s new Damenchor, or women’s choir, during its inaugural year at Saengerrunde Hall, she was 17. She’s been a singing member ever since.
Back then, Mettke, now 77, also forged links to two older traditions. The city’s Maennerchor, or men’s choir, had been active since Feb. 8, 1879, in the same hall next door to Scholz Garten. In fact, the Damenchor was established to celebrate the 80th anniversary of that auspicious occasion. Its founding, however, was not the first attempt to include women in traditional German singing in Austin. Twenty women formed a choir in 1907 but disbanded soon afterwards.
Going even back further, German settlers in Austin had formed a traditional singing group as early as 1852. The Texas State Sängerbund, an association of German singing societies, was founded the next year, when the state’s first Saengerfest, or singers’ festival, was held in New Braunfels.
At one time, these Saengerfests were — to employ an admittedly tired analogy — the South by Southwest Festivals of their day. Cities shut down for the sprawling festivities and tourists poured in for these marathon celebrations of German music, culture, food and, of course, beer and wine.
Nowadays, the statewide Saengerfest is a much smaller affair, yet it survives. It returns to Austin on May 4-5. On the first night, a dinner and dance will be held in the main room at Saengerrunde, 1607 San Jacinto St. The second day, groups from around the state will perform in German from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Millennium Entertainment Center at 1156 Hargrove St. in East Austin. The opening ceremony for that core event starts at 1 p.m.
“Each group sings 10 to 12 minutes,” Mettke says. “And it’s free. We used to have competitions. Now it’s just for the fun of singing.”
Born in Austin in 1941 during World War II, Mettke was the daughter of Richard Hielscher, a cabinet maker who immigrated from Germany in 1930, and Anna Miller Hielsher, a housekeeper whose family grew up in Texas and who raised four children.
Mettke could be considered part of a cultural movement in Central Texas that goes way back to the 1840s, when the first big wave of Germans immigrated to Texas. They often landed at Indianola, a busy Gulf of Mexico port since destroyed by multiple hurricanes, then they made their way inland to places like New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, San Antonio and Austin. By the 1850s, they had established the German Free School on East 10th Street, a limestone building now home to the German-Texan Heritage Society.
Also during that decade, they formed Austin’s first German singing society that evolved into the Saengerrunde club.
But the musical custom didn’t start there. Historians trace German singing societies back to the early 13th century. Perhaps the best-known modern representation of the musical contests is seen in stage and movie musical “The Sound of Music,” when the Austrian von Trapps perform in the Salzburg Festival before slipping away from the Nazis, eventually to Switzerland and freedom.
The legacy of community singing lived on in the midcentury Hielscher household, even though they kept no piano at home.
“We didn't have any instruments, but we sang,” Mettke says. “It came naturally. We sang German songs at home, especially during Christmas time. My family spoke German at home, too.”
Indeed, German was the third most spoken language in Texas at the time, behind English and Spanish. This, despite the fact that speaking German in public could bring down the wrath of some Texans who saw it as “unpatriotic” during World War I and World War II.
“I don't remember us not speaking German in public,” Mettke says. “We had a lot of German friends from the Saengerrunde. We also had friends that didn't speak German because their parents didn't.”
Mettke sang in the choir at Fulmore Junior High School and studied German at Travis High School from Bertha Holck, also a singer.
“I first came to Saengerrunde Hall before I was born,” Mettke says jokingly. “I’ve been here more or less all my life. I always came to the dances, especially of the New Year's Eve dances. My dad was an official. Then I came down here all the time after they formed the Damenchor for the wives and daughters of the Maennerchor members.”
Keeping the song going
Mettke shows me the elaborate memorabilia, including old flags, programs and photographs, upstairs in a private room where the men rehearse. They women prepare musically downstairs in the main hall, which also leads to the below-grade bowling alley and small club lounge.
“We have wine down here,” Mettke says. “And beer upstairs for the men.”
Later, before rehearsal begins, the women sit around widely spaced card tables sipping wine and speaking in German below high ceilings in a space that belongs to the Austin Saengerrunde Home Company, which also owns Scholz Garten.
Mettke says that Austin has always been in the rotation among German-Texas cities to host Saengerfests, with memorable fests dated to 1889, 1900 and 1911. These days, by her count, Houston and Dallas are home to three choirs each, Austin to two choirs with separate directors, while Dallas and New Braunfels have one ensemble each.
“For the most part, we always sing in German,” Mettke says. “We sing folk music, classical music, sacred music, and a lot of Baroque. Nowadays, we sing some modern German songs, which are fine.”
The current Damenchor director is Gregory Charles Eaton. Mettke says that the club’s first director was Hermann Bohn.
“He owned Bohn's department store,” she says. “We sang with a violin. We didn't have a piano then. It was a little bit trying at times.”
A portrait of Bohn in the upstairs room hangs above the caption: "Singer, Violinist, Composer, Arranger, Preserver of German Heritage."
These days, the 40-member Damenchor is a full member of the statewide Deutch-Texanische Sängerbund, which runs the Saengerfests. Periodically, they also visit Glueckstadt, their sister city in Germany, and attend the national Saengerfest in Peoria, Illinois.
“Other than the German Free School, this is the main place in town for the German language,” Mettke says. “Yet a lot of people don't know we exist. They only think of what's next door (Scholz). We sing every Monday night from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. You don’t have to be of German heritage to sing with us, although many of us are third- or fourth-generation German-American.”