2014 German Choir Competition Choirs and Amateurs

The art of a capella with the ensemble “Mundwerk” at the German Choir Competition 2014.
The art of a capella with the ensemble “Mundwerk” at the German Choir Competition 2014. | Photo (detail): German Music Council / Jan Karow

Some 4,500 singers making up 110 choirs met on 24 May 2014 in Weimar for the four-yearly German Choir Competition (Deutscher Chorwettbewerb / DCW). The competition was founded in 1982 to foster the quality of German choirs. The idea has been a success.

Thanks to the German Choir Competition, the musical level of ambitious amateur choirs in Germany has risen significantly over the past decades since its founding, and not infrequently amateur choirs have been able to match up to professional ones. The growing importance of choral singing is also reflected in the currently pending application to UNESCO to obtain protection for “the fostering of choral music in German amateur choirs” as part of the “non-material cultural heritage”. A good 60,000 German choirs would benefit from such recognition.

The crisis is over

When the German Music Council launched the German Choir Competition (DCW) in 1982, the idea was to provide a new impetus to a tradition of choral singing that had fallen into lethargy. This then seemed urgent, because the declining quality of choirs, combined with increasing lack of interest in singing together, was in marked contrast to a unique musical heritage that had stamped Germany well into the twentieth century. After Nazism had brought community singing into discredit, civic choral singing became more and more marginalized.

If we look today at the quality and number of choirs participating in the DCW, it is evident that the crisis of choral singing in Germany is over. The idea of the competition is that the German amateur choirs which have previously qualified as the best in their respective category in competitions at the state level compete against each other. The DCW could therefore be called the forum of top choirs.

New directions in pop and jazz

A striking development has taken place in the area of “popular choral music”. While at previous competitions there were only one or two top ensembles in this category, in 2014 a total of 14 groups qualified in it. The choirs sing with joy and freshness, build choreographic elements into their presentations and experiment with vocal sounds, noises, scat singing and mouth percussion. Along with the higher level, the programme has changed. For a long time the repertoire was dominated by songs by American arrangers and composers such as Kirby Shaw. Today more and more arrangements come from the pens of German composers, and ambitious choir directors now even write their own pieces for their ensembles. At the 2014 competition, for example, you could hear several very original arrangements by Martin Seiler, who won second prize with his a cappella band Greg Is Back from Augsburg.

Male choirs in new splendour

Things in 2014 were also very lively with male choirs. At the beginning of the last decade, the competition toyed with the idea of deleting this category primarily for reasons of the aging of the relevant ensembles. The concern has proven unfounded. This year the number of participating ensembles was so big that the category was subdivided into small and large male choirs. Moreover, a change of generation has taken place as more and more young singers become interested in this genre. The centre of this development is currently the Hessian town of Limburg. All four male choirs that came to Weimar from Limburg and its environs won prizes. Two of them, the ensemble rossignol and the Liedertafel, confidently maintained, as in 2010, their top position.

Living tradition: mixed choirs

Traditionally, there are the most participants in the category of mixed choirs. Ever since the early nineteenth century in Germany, numerous ensembles of this kind have been founded as an expression of civic participation in the works of high culture. They sing the oratorios, Masses and Passions of important composers such as Händel, Bach, Mendelssohn and Brahms. And this joy in great art still fascinates today, so that the rejuvenation of the entire German choral landscape has also been reflected in the top choirs in this category.

Particularly surprising in 2014 was the tremendous improvement in performance of the participating university choirs. The madrigal choir of the Munich University of Music and Performing Arts and the chamber choirs of the Universities of Music in Detmold, Freiburg and Weimar were able to take top places. Since university choirs have always taken part in the DCW, but seldom stood out, this represents a new development. Choral singing at conservatories has acquired a new significance: if previously participation in the university choir was looked upon by music students as a tedious compulsory subject, they now take an audible joy in doing their bit.

Since at the same time, however, the future professional musicians bring with them considerable musical skills and convincing young voices, they sometimes stand in clear and new competition with ambitious amateur choirs. A modification of the competition criteria – for example, the introduction of an additional category – is therefore now under discussion.

Few women, and still fewer boys

Among the women’s choirs, on the other hand, there is currently a lack of stimulus. Only seven women’s ensembles took part in the DCW, and a division into small and large choirs, as was made in other categories, was infeasible. Consequently, the judges were faced with the difficulty of having to compare a highly virtuoso and excellently coordinated chamber choir such as the 4x4 Frauenchor of the Teacher Training College of Heidelberg with sometimes much larger and less agile ensembles. The virtuoso interpretations of the performers from Heidelberg succeeded in doing justice to a variety of styles ranging from the Renaissance to the present, and earned them the first prize.

The situation in the category boys’ choirs was even more difficult. The famous top choirs from Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin, Windsbach, Bad Tölz and Regensburg declined to stand against one another and did not take part in the competition. In the end, only two ensembles came to Weimar, a showing that could hardly reflect the quality of boys’ choirs in Germany as a whole.

Fluid borders with the pros

The category of “Vocal Ensembles”, however, which was first introduced in the competition in 2010, again met with great interest: a total of 14 groups qualified for participating in the DCW and presented, sometimes at a very high level of performance, the current developments in this lively scene of the German choir world.

All in all, the German Choir Competition is an important landmark in Germany’s vocal landscape. That 5 of the 14 categories now fall within the area of children’s and youth choirs gives cause for optimism. At any rate, the confidence and creative joy with which they mastered the DCW programme inspires the hope that the resurgent choir scene will continue to prosper in the coming years.