COMEDY HARMONISTS: Whistle While You Work

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"Whistle While You Work" Original 1929-1938 Recordings

As elegant as they were versatile, and now retrospectively perceived as Germany’s first ‘Boy-Group’, the Comedian (Comedy) Harmonists were a class act. Musically trained and polished, they were the sublimation of earlier traditions of close harmony singing in minstrelsy and vaudeville graphed on recordings made during the early years of the 20th century by such groups as the Haydn, Peerless and Shannon Quartets. The last-named were destined, particularly after the introduction in 1925 of electrical recording, to become internationally renowned as the Revelers and, like their more famous successors the Harmonists and the Mills Brothers, they offered an interesting range of novel, non-instrumental vocal effects.

While working in the USA in 1927 as Harry Frohman, comedian and student actor Harry Frommermann (1906-1975) first heard, and was immediately influenced by, the Revelers. A talented mimic with a good tenor voice, Frommermann studied and assimilated the Revelers’ style and drafted various vocal arrangements and, after returning to Berlin, in late December of that year advertised in a local newspaper for suitable voices to form an ensemble. From many applicants to this initial ad he chose Robert Biberti (1902-1985). A bass from the chorus-line of the Charell-Revue, Biberti was the classically-trained son of Berlin Opera basso Robert Biberti (1855-1925). However, Biberti Jr.’s interest in the syncopations of the Revelers instantly marked him as a kindred spirit and by early 1928 the Comedian Harmonists (originally a quintet, with piano) had emerged, comprising Frommermann, Biberti, the Bulgarian high tenor Ari (Asparuch) Leschnikoff (1897-1978), the second tenor Erich Abraham Collin (1899-1961; a multilingual German former medical student with experience in operetta), the Polish baritone Josef Roman Cycowski (1901-1998) and the Berlin Academy-trained pianist-arranger Erwin Bootz (1907-1982).

Successfully engaged as The Melody Makers for Erik Charell’s operetta Casanova at the Berliner Grossen Schauspielhaus, the group made their first recordings as the Comedian Harmonists for the German Odeon company during 1928 and 1929. By November 1929 — when Puppenhochzeit (Wedding of the Painted Doll) and Musketiermarsch, the first of a longer series for HMV-Electrola were recorded — through various appearances in cabaret and variety (most notably in the show Gross Koln) they were already household names. Their concerts were sell-outs and their eagerly-awaited latest records, notwithstanding the Depression, sold in large numbers.

By a unique blend of talent, personality, musicality and vocal adaptability, cemented by hard work, the Comedian Harmonists achieved European stardom. Popular also on radio, in Germany they reputedly made appearances in no fewer than thirteen pioneering talkie musicals (now believed lost), most notably the 1930 comedy Die drei von der Tankstelle (this included Liebling, mein Herz and Ein Freund, ein guter Freund). Viewed by the German authorities as at best flippant and Americanised, however, these spirited and essentially innocuous and apolitical entertainers were from the outset doomed to offend the susceptibilities of National Socialism. Indeed, by 1932, even before the Nazis seized power, their music (much of it Jewish and American in origin) had been blacklisted by the incoming regime as "Jewish-Marxist noise," but from 1934 the group’s German career was first irretrievably compromised when its three Jewish members (Frommermann, Collin and Cycowski) were forbidden to perform and later terminated altogether after Goebbels’ Reichskulturkammer administered its Auftrittsverbot upon the entire ensemble.

The original Comedian Harmonists gave their final concert in Munich on March 25, 1934. Thereafter, the three Jewish members, based in Vienna and having re-formed as the Comedy Harmonists with Fred Rexeis and Rudolf Mayreder (and with first Ernst Engel then Fritz Kramer at the piano) continued to appear throughout non-Nazi Europe and in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, where they were particularly appreciated. Meanwhile Bootz, Biberti and Leschnikoff remained in Germany to form Das Meistersextett with three new singers: Herbert Imlau, Alfred Grunert and Fred Kassen. By 1941, both groups had disbanded.

The Harmonists’ recorded repertoire presents a broadly based and eclectic canopy in which the classical and non-classical quite happily coexist. There are tours de force (once heard, their performing panache and whimsical arrangements of "The Barber of Seville"-Overture and Dvor?â??ák’s Humoresque will not quickly be forgotten) while the more ‘serious’ material (i.e. Brahms, Schubert, or even the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s posthumously completed 1881 operatic masterpiece Tales of Hoffmann) are all treated without condescension. And to the folksongs (such as Ach, wie ist’s möglich dann or Muss i’denn?) the same loving care is extended as to the latest film-songs (the Congo Lullaby from Paul Robeson’s 1935 British epic Sanders Of The River, and from Hollywood The Donkey Serenade from Firefly (1938) and the two hit items from Disney’s Snow White are cases in point).

Peter Dempsey, 2002

Cover photo: The Comedy Harmonists in 1929 (from a private collection)

From left to right: Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Erwin Bootz, Ari Leschnikoff,

Josef Cycowski and Harry Frommermann
Disc: 1
'The Barber of Seville' - Overture
1 Whistle While You Work
2 Marie, Marie
3 Musketiermarsch
4 Puppenhochzeit
5 Die Liebe kommt, die Liebe Geht (Liebesleid)
6 Creole Love Call
7 Liebling, mein Harz lasst dich grussen
8 Ach, wie ist's moglich dann?
9 Muss i'denn zum Stadtele dinaus?
10 Schone Nacht, O Liebesnacht (Baracarolle)
11 Love me a little today
12 Congo Lullaby
13 The Donkey serenade
14 Ein Freund, ein gutter Freund
15 Ti-Pi-tin
16 Dwarf's Yodel Song
17 Eine kleine Fruhlingsweise (Humoresque)
18 Night and Day
19 'The Barber of Seville' - Overture
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