Q: I read an article about the Belleville Philharmonic Society, and it said that the former home for the orchestra was Liederkranz Hall. What was the Liederkranz Society and where was the hall located? When did it disband and why?
Mary Smith, of Belleville
A: For more than a half century, the Liederkranz Society was an early equivalent to what the Masterworks Chorale is today.
With a name that literally means “wreath of songs,” the German singing group boasted the créme de la créme of area voices who eventually assembled in a posh two-story hall to stage concerts that featured the classical masters along with programs that brought in international stars. It included men’s and women’s choruses and offered lessons over the years to hundreds of youngsters.
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But 60 years ago, those who remembered these early days of Belleville culture were singing a different tune: “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” By that time, the society had all but disappeared, and, in 1956, the once stately hall was demolished. So if you ever park on the lot at North Illinois and West B streets, you should remember that your car is sitting on what was once a Belleville arts treasure.
That treasure began to shine on Sunday, Feb. 2, 1873, when a group of young men met to form a new singing society. According to one report, they had become unhappy with a similar group — the Saengerbund — so they broke away to form the Liederkranz, choosing 27-year-old German immigrant Emil Feigenbutz as the first director. As their motto, they chose the words of German poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller: “The dignity of mankind is in your hands, protect it! It sinks with you! With you it will ascend.”
They began rehearsing on the second floor of the old firehouse on South Jackson Street, and, on April 19, gave their first public performance. Three years later, the group added its Ladies Chorus, drawing talent away from the Saengerbund Damenchor. Then, in 1883, it celebrated its 10th anniversary by buying its own rehearsal and performance space. With Belleville looking to turn the fire department space into the city library, Liederkranz members put up $6,500 to buy Heinrich’s Opera House at 119-121 N. Illinois St. It had been built in 1867, and also served as the first Turner Hall, according to local historian Bob Brunkow. The hall was dedicated on Nov. 8, 1883, with a gala three-night fair and festival sponsored by the ladies chorus.
Immediately the group went to work raising another $3,000 to remodel the stage, tear down a wall to open up an 800-seat auditorium and turn the basement into a rehearsal hall and living quarters for a janitor. The society also planned to add a wing on the north side.
“This hall was said to be a beautiful, exquisite dance hall, one of two dance halls in the city,” wrote Sandra Eisenhaer Behrmann in “The History of St. Clair County Volume II.”
For the next 40 years, the group flourished. By its 25th anniversary in 1898, it had nearly 300 members with 200 students in its singing classes. The hall had been enlarged in 1895, and an article on the ladies chorus’s 50th anniversary said that at one point the women’s group had to be limited to 60 members and that only daughters of members had a chance to join when spaces opened. The only bump in the road came in 1901, when its long-time director died suddenly at age 56.
“His death will prove an almost irreparable loss to the society, as there are few men as capable for the position,” a Belleville Advocate obituary said of Feigenbutz, who had been recruited in 1869 by noted local educator Henry Raab to teach music and German in the Belleville schools. To improve his skills, Feigenbutz even returned to Germany from 1878 to 1880 to complete his musical education.
But the Liederkranz continued to make beautiful music for years after his death. In 1925, for example, it brought in world-famous cellist Johannes “Hans” Kindler for a memorable recital. In 1926, it treated Belleville audiences to famous Scottish baritone Glen Ellison. All the while, the society kept renovating its hall and, in 1909, spent $2,500 to buy an adjoining property to erect a new addition. As you mentioned, the hall also served as the performance home for the Belleville Philharmonic for many years.
Yet even by the 1920s, interest in the German group was waning.
“The Liederkranz as a performing organization seems to have ended in 1931, and the last concert was augmented by the Cathedral choir,” Brunkow told me. “Active membership was down to 25. What is certain is that the only Liederkranz group to meet after 1938 was the women’s chorus, which was active into the 1950s. It met at members’ homes. News coverage mentions social activities but made no reference to singing.”
No longer able to maintain its once exquisite hall, the society sold it in 1938 to the American Legion, which had lost its own home in a fire the previous winter. Eighteen years later, the hall was demolished for a parking lot. If you’d like to see it in its glory days, search Google for “Belleville Liederkranz” and a link to “Images of America: Belleville 1814-1914” by Robert Fietsam, Judy Belleville and Jack Le Chien should pop up. On page 118, you’ll find an 1888 photo of dozens of singing enthusiasts gathered in front of the hall during the North American Saengerbund Festival being held in St. Louis. And, by the way, the Liederkranz Club of St. Louis remains an active performance and social group.
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Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: It’s one of the most familiar and thrilling melodies in classical music: Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” But did you know he wrote the piece to commemorate the Battle of Borodino? Fought on Sept. 7, 1812, the battle resulted in 70,000 casualties during the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars. But although the French drove the Russians back, they could not gain a decisive victory, which ultimately forced the French to retreat from Moscow in October and led to Tchaikovsky’s triumphant piece.