The Golden Age for Choral Singing
The nineteenth century was a golden age for choral singing. A European chorister looking for a corner in vocal heaven would have been well advised to buy a one-way ticket to Germany or Austria: more specifically, to Berlin, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Cologne, or Vienna. Beginning in 1810, singing clubs, and later on, choral societies, shot up all over this part of the world like mushrooms. You could join a Liedertafel, Liederkranz, or Männersangverein.
Carl Friedrich Zelter, Mendelssohn’s teacher and the leader of the Berliner Singverein, was the first person to use the term “Liedertafel” in 1808. The term was used to indicate an informal meeting of poets, composers, and singers who came together to sing German part-songs. In a letter addressed to Goethe, Zelter explained that the 25 members of his Liedertafel were accustomed to sit down at a well-furnished table for a sumptuous dinner followed by an evening of singing. Zelter’s group preferred original works, so freshly composed that the ink was still wet. The best musical contribution was then duly rewarded with a medal, a congratulatory toast, or a laurel wreath. Behind this convivial atmosphere there was a loftier goal: the stimulation and promotion of German poetry and music. A Liedertafel, in other words, could be seen as occupying a place comparable to the Meistersingers’ guild of the middle ages, or the eighteenth-century musical meetings of the Freemasons.