Harmony, German Style

The singers at the Denver Turnverein tell the story of a people, a country and a beautiful form of music.

Where Germans went, German social clubs were sure to follow. As a result, numerous Colorado burgs saw the advent of Turnvereins, or, as they were sometimes known, Turner Halls. They were based on the principles of the Turners, a populist movement begun in Germany during the mid-1800s by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who believed that "a sound mind in a sound body" could most effectively be attained through training in gymnastics. Following in this tradition, the Denver Turnverein sponsored gymnastics teams that wowed spectators at events across the country. A few years later, in 1870, the first of several mens' choruses were assembled in response to the desire to hang on to some of the most beloved aspects of German culture. Like their athletic cousins, these singers earned widespread popularity.

So, too, did the Turnverein as a whole. After outgrowing a handful of facilities in what is now downtown Denver, the group settled into its first permanent residence, on Arapahoe just north of 21st Street, in 1890. It flourished there until the beginning of World War I, when a tide of anti-German sentiment drove the confederation to near-extinction. With participants afraid to be seen at a Turnverein function or to speak in their native tongue on Denver's streets, attendance plummeted. Finally, in 1916, banks foreclosed on the building, leaving the assembly without a home. Three months later the facility burned to the ground under what Buckley describes as "mysterious circumstances."

Following the end of the war, Colorado-based Turners worked to re- establish themselves. In 1922 they celebrated their resurrection with the purchase of the Coronado Club, which remains the Turnverein headquarters to this day. The Arion Gesangverein chorus sang its first notes in 1937 and enjoyed tremendous support from Denver's German community for years thereafter. But, Buckley says, things began to deteriorate during the Eighties. "The Turnverein has had a rough time over the past fifteen years or so. The population of the group has dwindled due to age. And there aren't that many German immigrants anymore--and there's the fact that America in general has moved away from social groups and become more isolated. That's also been a factor." Although the Tunrverein once hosted weekly dances and numerous events, that's no longer the case. "A lot of the activities that used to go on here have petered out," Buckley admits. "The men's chorus is the last vibrant thread that keeps the Turnverein going."

The Gesangverein does just that. But beneath the vigorous vocalizing and Meerdink's cheery encouragement ("Keep it light and smiling inside--up in the cheekbones," he enthuses at one point) is a certain poignance. The lyrics to a Stephen Foster tune the singers deliver underline this characteristic. "Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears while we all sup sorrow with the poor," the men proclaim. "There's a song that will linger forever in our ears. Oh hard times, come again no more."

"We know misery and grief," says Uta Pott, age seventy, from the kitchen of the Wheat Ridge home she shares with her husband, Hans. "We have experienced them. So we are grateful for small things that so many people take for granted--to have a home and to have peace, and to not fear for your life or wonder if you will eat tomorrow."

"And to live in a place where you can speak up and talk without worrying if someone else is listening," interjects Hans, who's also seventy. In a delightful accent dominated by rounded vowels and ws that sound like vs, he affirms, "That's what we had to do when we were kids."

Such was life in the Potts' hometown of Freiburg, Germany, during World War II. Because the city was a target for frequent Allied bombing runs, Uta remarks, "death was included in everyday life. Sometimes I wonder how we got through it. We were ready to die at any time. You were surprised after every air attack if you were still breathing. And then you'd hear all the stories. One family friend, he came home after the town was bombed to search for his family. He dug them out, dead, from the basement of their home. And then he shot himself right there on the rubble. He couldn't take it.

"There were so many miseries," she continues. "Our milkman, who brought us milk every day--his whole house collapsed on him, and there was no machinery to get him out. For a whole day we heard the knocking under the rubble, knowing he was alive, but there was nothing we could do. By the end of the day, the knocking just stopped. It was like Oklahoma City, but it was not just one building. It was thousands."

Hans's house was also destroyed, but he was not present when it happened; he was building pontoon bridges over the Rhine River for the German army. He feels that he and other teenage draftees were seen by their superiors as little more than "cannon fodder," but somehow he survived. In March 1945, after a year and a half in the line of fire, Hans was captured by American grunts and sent to a POW camp in eastern France. The experience helped him see the enemy in a fresh light. "When I was an American prisoner of war, I got to meet American soldiers. And I saw that they were the same, like us. They were human, and alike. They sang songs, too." After a pause, he notes, "Bad people have no songs."

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