Young Conductor Keeps Oldest German Men’s Choir Singing

By Joel Waldinger | May 17, 2018


At the end of the day inside Jefferson Middle School in Madison the hallways are filled with the acapella version of Zedd and Allesia Cara’s smash hit “Stay.” Choir director Garrett Debbink started the choir called “Loud and Clear” six years ago when he arrived for his first teaching job. The choir sings pop songs. The music you hear on Top 40 radio and it’s what the kids prefer.

After school, Debbink goes old school as choir director for the Madison Maennerchor. It’s a choir originally founded by German immigrants in 1852. That’s just four years after Wisconsin became a state. Debbink said, “Being the director for a choir that’s been around for more than 165 years, it’s really something special.” For German immigrants this was their entertainment after long days of work. Add a couple of drinks and the music began to flow. It’s a history that over time has been lost. In cities around the state and in Madison, the men’s choirs forged rich traditions in the new world with old world ways.

When Grover Cleveland visited Wisconsin 1887, it was the Madison Maennerchor that serenaded the U.S. President with songs sung in German. Today the songs are still sung in German. Debbink added, “Some of these songs are hundreds of years old. There’s a reason why we’re still singing them because they have lasting power.”

Understanding the German language is not a prerequisite for singing in the choir. Debbink admits his German is very rough, but he’s learning. Besides the language barrier, the age barrier is another hurdle Debbink faces. “Some of these guys have been singing these songs longer than I’ve been alive and to then show up and be like I know how these songs go. It was extremely intimidating.” Eventually Debbink did settle into the role as choral director. At a recent rehearsal he provided encouragement with humor. “We sang this on Friday and it sounded great. So, same thing. If you weren’t there on Friday, don’t muck it up for us.”

The Madison Maennerchor performs around the state. The German choir culture in Wisconsin has withstood the test of time. However, that’s not necessarily the case anymore in Europe. “I think it’s one of the more unique things about this choir. Four-part male choirs were a tradition back in Germany. As time has gone on, this tradition has mostly disappeared and has really stayed alive with the descendants of German immigrants here in the States,” Debbink said.

Here in Madison it could soon disappear as well. This is the oldest German men’s choir in the Wisconsin. Debbink said, “Old in two ways. Most of the guys are old enough to be my grandpa’s or at least my dad’s age. I think I’m pretty sure I’m actually the youngest person in the choir. The choir is not getting younger.”

Debbink’s goal is to grow the Maennerchor and strike a chord in finding that balance between old and new through singing, socializing, sausage and sheepshead. In his eyes this is as much a social group as a musical ensemble. Debbink said, “I think that’s one of my favorite things is the fact that no matter who you are, no matter what you do during the week, there’s a place on Thursdays from 8 to 9:30 that you can show up.” You don’t need to be German to find a connection here. The choir is creating that sense of community where people feel welcome, where people have fun and feel open to express themselves through singing. Debbink added, “I get to do that for a living. And I think that’s one of the best things.”


Madison Maennerchor Sings German Christmas Music
The Madison Maennerchor performs traditional German Christmas music. Many of the song are Christmas classics.

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 

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Madison Maennerchor Facebook Page

2018-05-17T15:55:45-05:00Tags: , , |

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