The Comedian Harmonists were a German singing sensation of the 1920s and '30s. The elegant sextet, five vocalists and a pianist -- all dressed in tails, had a repertoire that encompassed many vocal styles, ranging from folk songs to sentimental hits accompanied by
banter and even silliness on stage. But they were perhaps best known for their close harmony delivered with humor and style in such songs as Veronika, der Lenz ist da, Mein kleiner, gruener Kaktus, Liebling, mein Herz laesst dich
gruessen, So schoen wie heut', Wochenend und Sonnenschein, Musik! Musik! Musik!, and Mit Musik geht alles besser, along with their captivating vocal imitation of musical instruments.
Their story began in 1927, when 20-year-old acting student Harry Frommermann put an ad in the Berlin newspaper Berliner Lokalanzeiger shortly after Christmas 1927 to found a singing group: "Achtung. Selten. Tenor, Bass (Berufssaenger, nicht ueber 25), sehr musikalisch, schoen klingenden Stimmen, fuer einzig dastehendes Ensemble ...gesucht."
Frommermann was a highly talented drama student and musician who enjoyed an uncanny ability to imitate several musical instruments. He had already completed 11 vocal arrangements for the not-yet-existant singing group. Many applicants answered his ad, but only one, Robert Biberti, who sang bass in the chorus of the Charell-Revue, suited him. Both Frommermann and Biberti had admired the music of the American a capella group the Revellers, whose singing was marked by close harmony, rhythm, and precision, and whose records had been producing great excitement in Europe since 1925. By the beginning of 1928 the ensemble was complete: from the Charell-Revue chorus came the Bulgarian Asparuch ("Ari") Leschnikoff as first tenor, and the Pole Josef Roman Cycowski as baritone. The second tenor, the multilingual former medical student Erich Abraham Collin, had been singing with an operetta company. Frommermann himself sang tenor. The sixth man, Erwin Bootz, was a highly accomplished and gifted pianist fresh from the music academy. The hard work could begin. The mixture of musicians was right. Their resolve, musical flexibility, discipline, and hard work would let them achieve artistic heights and even international recognition with their unique musical style.
They became stars. A great variety of audiences found them irresistable, and the Comedian Harmonists were at home in theaters all over Europe. In 1934 they were a huge success in New York. They were popular on radio and in recordings. Including the legendary hit comedy Die drei von der Tankstelle, they appeared in as many as 13 films in the early days of the movie industry; unfortunately, none of their films have been found since the war.
But the picture-book career of the apolitical Comedian Harmonists did not survive the changing political climate in Germany. Their songs -- most were by Jewish composers -- were criticized by the Nazis as early as 1932, when they were not yet in power, as "Jewish-marxist noise." Indeed, three of the group -- Frommermann, Collin, and Cycowski -- were Jews. Cycowski's wife Mary had converted to Judaism, and Bootz's wife Ursula was Jewish. The popular, politically naive musicians ignored all the warning signs. But then in 1934 the unapproved Jewish members of the group were forbidden to perform, and the Comedian Harmonists were given Auftrittsverbot by the Reichskulturkammer. The Comedian Harmonists split up. They gave their last concert in Munich on March 25, 1934.
After the Split
The three Jewish members formed the Comedy Harmonists with Ernst Engel, Hans Rexeis, and Rudolf Mayneder [*] and continued their singing career outside Germany. Initially headquartered in Vienna, the "exile" group performed all over free Europe and in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States. Bootz, Leschnikoff, and Biberti formed Das Meistersextett with three new singers -- Herbert Imlau, Alfred Grunert, and Fred Kassen -- and stayed in Germany. But neither of the new groups achieved the success of the original Comedian Harmonists, and by 1941 they had both disbanded.
Harry Frommermann (1906-1975) fled to the United States, where as late as 1951 he was leading a coed group "Harry Frohman and his Harmonists." He returned to Bremen in 1960. Robert Biberti (1902-1985) worked as an antiques dealer in Berlin after the war. Ari Leschnikoff (1897-1978) returned to Sofia, Bulgaria, to work; he was rediscovered there in 1965 and brought to East Germany to be honored. Erich A. Collin (1899-1961) came to the United States via Vienna and was a designer working in plastic. Erwin Bootz (1907-1982), living for a while in Canada before returning the Hamburg, was a popular pianist and composer until his death. The longest surviving vocalist was Roman Cycowski (1901-1998), who lived in Palm Springs, California, where he sang as cantor for a Jewish congregation until his retirement, fulfilling his father's greatest wish.
In a 1997 interview when he was 96, Roman Cycowski commented, "Wenn wir uns nicht haetten trennen muessen, waeren wir heute bekannter als die Beatles. [If we hadn't been forced to split up, we would be more famous today than the Beatles.]" Whether or not you agree with those words from Cycowski, you will have to agree with him that the Comedian Harmonists were "a bright light in a dark time."
Their Influence Continues
Their original records are valuable collectors' items today, and many of their songs have been re-released on CDs, with some duplication. For example, Comedian Harmonists and Auf Wiedersehn both contain the titles: Barber of Seville, Creole love call, Holzhackerlied, Muss i' denn zum Staedtle hinaus, Perpetuum mobile, Sah' ein Knab' ein Roeslein steh'n, and Wenn di Sonnja russisch tanzt, each with other titles as well.
Celebrated today as Germany's first "Boy-Group," the Comedian Harmonists' unique close-harmony sound certainly influenced many American vocalists, such as the Mills Brothers, as noted in the Wikipedia article on close harmony. Great Britain's The King's Singers released a CD A Tribute to the Comedian Harmonists with songs in German and English. The Washington Saengerbund included songs from the Comedian Harmonists' repertoire several of their concerts in the Washington, DC area. In Germany, the Comedian Harmonists' admirers and imitators acknowledge their idols openly. Over the years, young groups at German universities have kept bringing the Comedian Harmonists' musical arrangements to local audiences. "Matz & Friends" (vocal quartet with piano) performed in Chemnitz, for example, while "Die Mex Brothers" (vocal quintet plus piano) recorded CDs in 1994 and 1996 at the Kolpingsaal (Augsburg) in the style of the Comedian Harmonists.
In 1976 Eberhard Fechner produced a two-part documentary film "Comedian Harmonists"; in 1997 it was shown again in Germany to coincide with the release of a new film. (This documentary was shown in Washington, DC, on December 13-14, 1998.) In 1988 he published a book on the Comedian Harmonists.
An even wider revival of interest in the Comedian Harmonists hit Europe in the 1990s. The 1997 film Comedian Harmonists: Eine Legende kehrt zurueck directed and produced by Joseph Vilsmaier was a sensation in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The film was shown in Washington, DC, on December 12 & 13, 1998, and was released in the US in February 1999. The film's soundtrack includes recordings by the original Comedian Harmonists, and the film has received praise for that decision. Vilsmaier, with a directorial reputation well established by his previous work in films such as Stalingrad and Schlafes Bruder prepared for two years (early press releases referred to the film's working title Mein kleiner gruener Kaktus - Die Comedian Harmonists) before the cameras began rolling first in Berlin, and then New York City, Prague, Vienna, and Bad Fischau, Austria. Rolf Zehetbauer (who won an oscar for Cabaret) saw to it that every detail looked historically authentic at each of the 50 or so film locations. Vilsmaier, on the other hand, acknowledges that his film is not a documentary; he takes artistic liberty with the story of the personal lives of the group members. The film has received praise since it opened at Christmas 1997, and has won Vilsmaier the 1998 Bavarian Film Award for best direction and six of the actors Special Awards for outstanding performance in the film.
Berlin may have been passed by as too expensive for much of the filming of Comedian Harmonists, but it managed to lure the famous theatrical musician Franz Wittenbrink from the Hamburger Schauspielhaus to help bring Gottfried Greiffenhagen's musical comedy Veronika, der Lenz ist da to Berlin's Kufuerstendamm. The gifted Wittenbrink has managed to reconstruct the Comedian Harmonists' vocal arrangements by listening to their original recordings (none of the original arrangements have survived on paper). Wittenbrink prepared a new young talented group of six musicians for live stage performance, so that the familiar blended tones of the Comedian Harmonists was again heard in Berlin.
Broadway could not be left completely out of the picture, either, it seems. Barry Manilow (music) and Bruce Sussman (book and lyrics) shepherded their musical "Harmony" at California's La Jolla Playhouse (near San Diego) through a seven-week run beginning in October 1997. Telling the story of the Comedian Harmonists, the musical does not use the Comedian Harmonists' own songs or arrangements, however, and the "fatally bland" music by Manilow has been described by at least one reviewer as the show's weak point. "Harmony" is reported to have played in Switzerland.
References & Further Information
A version of this brief biography, compiled by Carol Traxler from several internet sources, appeared in the February 1998 issue of Quarter Notes, the newsletter of the Washington Saengerbund, Walter Mueller, editor.