The forgotten years …
Timeline of the Leipzig Radio Choir 1924-1933
by Rüdiger Koch
Singing on air:
the Leipzig Oratorio Association – Szendrei’s radio choir 
The matter of the orchestra had barely been resolved when the music director started to tackle the next problem: the creation of a choir.
Szendrei had already briefly outlined his artistic plans in his programmatic article Was wir wollen (what we want):
“In our concert schedule we want to give performances of classical and modern vocal, instrumental and chamber music, symphony movements, excerpts from operas (and later contiguous sections of operas and complete self-contained acts of operas).”
The latter genre, opera, could hardly be performed without involving a choir. As if founding the orchestra had not been difficult enough, Szendrei now faced virtually insurmountable challenges in his mission to create a choir.
Firstly, the modest potential of recording technology at the time laid constraints on musical and organisational ambition.
“The current standard of technology generally renders large ensembles, such as orchestras and choirs, poorly suited or totally unsuitable for broadcast; the sound produced by such large forces is still rather unbalanced and therefore not altogether enjoyable for the ears of musicians and amateurs alike.”
Thus a choir could not be too large, a restriction that in turn limited the scope of its repertoire unless outstanding or at least highly trained voices could be found.
A further result of the experimental circumstances of radio broadcasting was the need to form a permanent, regularly rehearsing ensemble made up of members who were sufficiently well acquainted with the medium of radio and the art of “singing on air” so as to be able to draw on the experiences of previous projects when embarking on each and every new one.
It stands to reason that professional singers would have been the most ideal choir members. However, MIRAG lacked sufficient funds to found a professional choir. Indeed, it had not been easy for the broadcaster to establish a permanent orchestra due to financial difficulties. Szendrei therefore studied Leipzig’s thoroughly diverse choral scene and, in his usual manner, was constantly looking out for suitable experienced candidates.
The great choral societies of the middle class must, on account of their large size, have seemed just as unsuitable to him as their working-class equivalents. To recruit suitable individuals from all these choirs and found a new choir with them would probably have been a protracted process with no immediate prospect of success. Szendrei’s solution was to be found in the Gewandhaus, which was home to a tradition-steeped choir that performed just the kind of repertoire the MIRAG music director wanted to introduce to his broadcasts. In 1920 the rather small Gewandhaus Choir, which had up until then been directed by Arthur Nikisch, merged with the larger Bach Association to form the Gewandhaus Choral Society.
“Now large and strong, the choir was taken over by Karl Straube, the incumbent Thomaskantor, who had previously directed the Bach Association”, wrote Dr Helmuth Weise, member of the Gewandhaus Choral Society and, from probably 1924 until 1927, member of the Leipzig Oratorio Association. The long tradition of the Gewandhaus Choral Society and the names Nikisch and Straube were immediately enough to assure Szendrei that suitable singers for his envisaged new choir were to be found in this choral society.
Let us read Alfred Szendrei’s own words in the following extract from his autobiographical notes:
“In the first year of my work for the radio station I embarked on a daring mission to broadcast oratorios in defiance of the view commonly held at the time that choral singing does not ‘come out’ well on the radio. I put together a regular choir of 32 singers, all members of the Gewandhaus Choir with excellent voices and perfect sight-reading skills. With just 1 or 2 rehearsals with piano and one full rehearsal I managed to get some impeccable performances out of this choir. I trained the choir in the art of “singing on air”, i.e. taught them the levels of intensity permitted by the microphone technology of the time. We also set up several microphones in such a way that the four different voice groups were distinctly set apart and not reduced to mush in the broadcast. The preconception was thus overcome and choral broadcasting technology has continued to be refined over the years. Haydn’s Creation, Mendelssohn’s Elijah (twice), Handel’s Messiah, Schumann’s Paradise and the Peri and Haydn’s The Seasons were the oratorios performed during the first year of my post at the radio station.“
The radio journal Die Mirag fully verifies the details given by Szendrei and mentions other broadcasts that took place during the 1924/1925 season featuring the Leipzig Oratorio Association:
• Hansel and Gretel (Humperdinck);
• The Barber of Seville (Rossini);
• Faust Symphony (Liszt);
• Bach’s cantata Hear me, thou Shepherd of Israel;
• Don Pasquale (Donizetti);
• Così fan tutte (Mozart);
• The Abduction From The Seraglio (Mozart);
• Orpheus and Eurydice (Gluck).
Szendrei’s statements show that the director had especially intended the Leipzig Oratorio Association to be the broadcasting company’s resident choir. When looking to bolster the ranks of his radio choir with singers who had excellent voices and the ability to sing perfectly at sight, Szendrei would apply criteria that are still applied in the selection of applicants for the MDR Choir today.
Before a microphone for the first time
The first piece sung by the Leipzig Oratorio Association to be broadcast by Central German Radio was Joseph Haydn’s Creation on December 14, 1924.
Die Sendung announced the event with the following comment: “First oratorio performance on the radio”.
This announcement in the radio guide suggests that this broadcast was the first ever performance of an oratorio on the radio. However, other authorities assign this title to the broadcast of Judas Maccabeus from the City Hall of Münster on November 30, 1924.
Die Sendung does confirm this performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, albeit with no mention of the choir, orchestra or conductor. The Creation in Leipzig must therefore have been the second performance of an oratorio on air.
For December 12, 1924, Die Sendung lists a broadcast of sections of the opera Der Freischütz (the marksman), including the Hunters’ Chorus.
It would seem plausible and logical to assume that Szendrei, who was certainly rehearsing for The Creation during this period, would have used the male voices of his choir for this broadcast. However, our inability to verify this assumption means that December 14, 1924 must be taken to be the date of the first performance given by the Leipzig Oratorio Association (and therefore the Leipzig Radio Choir) for MIRAG.
Fritz Kaphan, chairman of MIRAG’s culture committee, included a comprehensive statistical section in his booklet Zum 5-jährigen Bestehen… (5 years of existence…). He lists just one oratorio performance for the year 1924, and this can only have been The Creation.
The MDR Orchestra archive contains copies of handwritten records of radio broadcasts, drawn up by Alfred Szendrei and probably brought to Leipzig by Szendrei’s family in connection with the 75th anniversary of the founding of the MDR Symphony Orchestra. A close analysis of these records shows that they were not written for planning purposes but as records of concert projects that had already been implemented. Szendrei lists the performance of Haydn’s Creation in these records, thus verifying the date December 14, 1924 and The Creation as the first oratorio to be performed on Leipzig radio.
“During my second season at MIRAG I performed the following oratorios: Brahms’s German Requiem (broadcast twice from the Paulinerkirche), Liszt’s Legend of Saint Elisabeth, a repeat of Haydn’s The Seasons, Mendelssohn’s Saint Paul and Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. In Leipzig, the city most closely associated with Bach, it was an honour to ensure that the works of the great Thomaskantor are worthily represented on the radio too. I performed countless cantatas by him; at Christmas I regularly presented the Christmas Oratorio in a performance split into two parts (first sections I-III, then IV-VI); at Easter I alternated between the St John Passion and the Easter Oratorio … At Easter I also repeatedly presented Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on radio.“
This information, too, can be verified by reference to the programme guide Die Mirag. The name Leipziger Oratorienvereinigung (Leipzig Oratorio Association) said it all: firstly, oratorios made up most of its repertoire; secondly, the German word “Vereinigung” actually suggests a “choral society” as opposed to an association in the legal sense; finally, this oratorio society was based in Leipzig. The likely reason why Szendrei preferred oratorios (contrary to his original plans to focus on broadcasting operas) was that works of this genre were not staged as dramatised performances in any case.
From this point onwards the Leipzig Oratorio Association would regularly be included in the radio station’s programming. 29 broadcasts featuring this choir are documented between its founding and the end of 1925. Radio performances continued in subsequent years at a rate of 15–20 broadcasts per year.
One might wonder whether Szendrei deliberately chose The Creation for the first joint performance of his Leipzig Symphony Orchestra and his Leipzig Oratorio Association. After all, both were the work of his organisational and artistic prowess; they were his creation!
The names Szendrei, Leipzig Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig Oratorio Association combined to form a long-lasting hallmark of Central Germany’s broadcaster and played a part in MIRAG becoming Germany’s national music station.
Alfred Szendrei seems to have regarded the Leipzig Oratorio Association as his choir and ensured that it did not respond to the baton of too many other choirmasters.
The choir sang only sporadically under MIRAG’s other directors Dr Friedrich Karl Duske, Hilmar Weber and Alfred Simon.
In December 1926 Hans Pfitzner directed MIRAG’s choir and orchestra in a concert performance of his opera Das Christelflein (the little elf of Christ).
The fact that the Leipzig Oratorio Association was undoubtedly the choir mentioned by Szendrei in his autobiography is proven by the concordance between the director’s memoirs and the details given in the radio journals.
The name “Radio Choir” seems to have been commonly used among the singers, as is suggested by Max Richter’s comment on the rear of the photograph dated May 1, 1926. Dr Helmuth Weise wrote up a list of his wide-ranging singing engagements and in it made reference to the Radio Choir (Szendrei).
The aforementioned photograph can be seen printed in the radio guide Die Mirag under the date June 18, 1926. In that publication the choir is called the Leipzig Oratorio Association.
The numerical strength of the young ensemble soon grew, presumably in line with the increased potential of recording technology.
The photograph of the choir dated May 1, 1926 shows a total of 58 singers, male and female. The photograph was probably taken at the time of rehearsals for Mendelssohn’s oratorio Saint Paul, which was broadcast on May 13, 1926.
The choir must have often sung in such numbers, given that works requiring a similar formation were frequently performed, including
• Elijah (January 27 and March 29, 1925)
• Brahms’s German Requiem (September 10 and November 1, 1925)
• Fidelio (September 20, 1925)
• the Legend of Saint Elisabeth by Liszt (September 27, 1925)
• Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (April 25, 1925)
• Der Freischütz (June 5, 1925)
The intervals between some of the performances listed here were very short, demonstrating the size of the workload assumed by the Leipzig Oratorio Association and the diversity of its repertoire. All the aforementioned oratorios and operas are still included in the repertory of the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir today.
The suggestion that the augmented Leipzig Oratorio Association might have included other musically trained amateurs, music students or indeed professional musicians and singers in addition to members of the Gewandhaus Choir has not yet been verified, but is conceivable.
One particular highlight in the ensemble’s history was surely the performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s monumental Gurre-Lieder on May 6, 1929.
Szendrei wrote the following on this performance:
“I invited Schoenberg and, in anticipation of his attendance, I selected some excellent soloists…
My orchestra was increased to 100 strong; the incredibly difficult choruses were performed by the Leipzig Singing Academy, the Leipzig Men’s Choir and the Leipzig Oratorio Association: it was an impressive choral ensemble of over 450 singers. The podium was too small to accommodate such a massed choir and we had to avail ourselves of some of the boxes in the auditorium. The performance was a great success, both for Schoenberg and for myself. We were both warmly applauded and even the press was unanimous in its praise, something that rarely happened in Leipzig. Although it was quite problematic and risky to broadcast such a large-scale performance on the radio, the national broadcaster and most of the other radio stations transmitted the performance. Contrary to expectations, we received a great many positive comments on the acoustic quality of the broadcast over the next few days.”
In this instance Szendrei himself makes reference to the Leipzig Oratorio Association.
Besides the aforementioned picture dated May 1, 1926, there is to date just one other known photograph of Szendrei’s radio choir. It shows the Leipzig Oratorio Association and the Leipzig Symphony Orchestra under Szendrei’s direction during a radio broadcast from the Old Stock Exchange.
The orchestra’s chronicler Jörg Clemen uses the term Leipzig Radio Choir in reference to a copy of this photograph and dates the picture to around 1930. 1928 is the year noted on the original photograph, which is stored in the MDR Orchestra archive. A further, undated copy of the photograph can be found in the German Radio Archive in Frankfurt am Main. On this copy there is a note stating that the picture was taken in connection with a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in the Old Stock Exchange. Since the only known broadcast featuring this work took place on November 20, 1927, the photograph was most likely taken on November 19 or 20, 1927. Suffice it to say, there was a distinct lapse of time between the taking of the two pictures.
Given that quite a few of the singers are equally identifiable in both pictures, it is apparent that the make-up of the Leipzig Oratorio Association remained constant for several years.
The choir sang unaccompanied works only in exceptional cases; its domain was and remained the large-scale oratorio and opera repertoire.
The only occasion on which the choir, or at least its members, sometimes sang a cappella was the ecumenical morning service that was broadcast every Sunday morning.
There are references to a conductor and piano accompanist by the name of Friedbert Sammler who would later come to the fore as the last person to direct the choir before it was disbanded during the war.
Besides the morning services, another two a cappella broadcasts can be identified that feature the Leipzig Oratorio Association. It sang in the first episode (Chorale and Motet) and second episode (The Age of Heinrich Schütz) of the Protestantische Kirchenmusik (Protestant church music) series, in the latter episode under the direction of MIRAG’s music director Wilhelm Rettich.
A further point to note is that, even during the 1920s, some of the singers who later became familiar members of the Leipzig Radio Station Choir, Bruckner Choir and Radio Choir of Leipzig, made solo appearances in concerts given by the Leipzig Oratorio Association.
Notable examples include the well-known singer Dorothea Schröder (who left the Radio Choir of Leipzig in 1953) and the two tenors Albert Schwarzburger and Erich Purfürst.
In creating the Leipzig Oratorio Association Alfred Szendrei deviated from the approach adopted by those in charge of the Berlin Radio Hour. A 20-member choir had been founded in Berlin on May 1, 1925, comprising singers of the recently disbanded choir of the Berlin Volksoper. Szendrei, by contrast, boldly utilised the potential of the Leipzig music scene to create a larger and more powerful concert choir with which he could impressively maintain an extensive repertoire of music ranging from the 17th century up until the modern age in accordance with his ambitious and didactic objectives.
The merits of having permanent members in his choir were, to his mind, eclipsed by the importance of versatility. As mentioned at the outset, Max Richter is believed to have been, and Dr Helmuth Weise is proven to have been, among the members of the Leipzig Oratorio Association.
Weitere Chor-Chronikthemen 1924-1933
→ 01 Das Geheimnis eines alten Bildes
→ 02 Rundfunk – das neue Medium der zwanziger Jahre
→ 03 Alfred Szendrei: Rundfunkmusik in Theorie und Praxis
→ 04 Die MIRAG mausert sich: Von der Hauskapelle zum Symphonieorchester
• 05 Singing on air: the Leipzig Oratorio Association – Szendrei’s radio choir
→ 06 Dr. Helmuth Weise: Rundfunkchorsänger der zwanziger und fünfziger Jahre
→ 07 Das Ende der Ära Szendrei und das Ende der Leipziger Oratorienvereinigung
→ 08 “An den Pranger mit Dr. Szendrei!”