Harmony, German Style

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

Even after being transported to Germany a few months later, Hans remained under arrest. But in December a German civilian agreed to lend him credentials in exchange for the equivalent of $30 sent to him by his sister. Hans rode through the camp gates, hitched a ride on a passing train and headed to Freiburg, where Uta and her kin, minus three brothers and a brother-in-law who had died in the fighting, were sharing an apartment with the Pott clan.

Times were extremely tough. Hans, Uta and the others were forced to subsist on morsels dug from trash cans and crude bread made of flour, sawdust and tree bark that was rationed by the government. "You had to barter with the farmers to get cabbage or potatoes," Uta says. "Once I went with a suitcase to a farm to beg for potatoes. I had to dig them out myself, and I put the dirty potatoes straight into my suitcase. It was like having gold. We had a saying then--'Farmers are so rich that their pigs have earrings'--because all the jewelry was pawned for food."

Uta knew how much better life was in America: Before the war, she had lived in Chicago, where her father had served in the German consulate. She ultimately returned to the Second City, and in 1952 she and Hans were engaged. They were married two years later in Denver, where they raised nine children, all of whom worked their way through college to earn professional degrees. Hans supported the brood by toiling as a metal worker for 32 years until his 1989 retirement. But quitting the Arion Gesangverein, with which he has sung since 1960, is the last thing on his mind. He plans to remain with the group "as long as I can drive and sing." But he is notably matter-of-fact when discussing German music. "A lot of the old songs are too sentimental for me," he claims. "Some of them are...schmaltzic."

As Hans offers a subdued burst of laughter, Uta explains, "Schmaltz is grease--pig fat."

Chuckling again, Hans says, "Lardy songs. We got away from those."
As for the rest of the Gesangverein repertoire, which typically includes tender odes to the Old Country and tributes to the merits of music and an occasional beer, Uta likes it as much as Hans does. But she concedes that she occasionally resented his hobby in the past. "Hans took it very seriously when he joined. And there were times when I was a little jealous, with nine kids at home."

"But Uta," Hans replies teasingly. "You cannot sing."

"Auf Weidersehen, auf Wiedersehen..."
As the Gesangverein croons a musical goodbye at the conclusion of the night's last number, the singers shake hands and trade pats on the back to the wistful strains of Ellsworth's piano. Obviously, the music is responsible for bringing these men together, but Al Eckhardt, a former attorney and basso profundo with the chorus since 1952, acknowledges that the camaraderie keeps them coming back. "I think it's the friendships," he divulges while peeling the wrapper from a cigar. "I first came here because I enjoyed it and I needed business contacts. But I retired ten years ago, and I'm not looking for business anymore. I don't think there are too many guys that come down here just for the singing. Frankly, I don't know that I'd be here if it weren't for the pinochle game that's about to take place."

Buckley concurs. "Today there aren't many things like this for mature men to do. You can sing in the church choir, but then you can't stick around afterwards and have a beer or smoke a cigar and play some cards. So it's a different niche if you like singing. And you can make friends across generations. I'm in my thirties, and I've made friends with guys in their fifties, sixties and seventies. And that's kind of cool."

Karl Lawson, who owns a local engineering firm and has been coming here since 1975, adds that a great voice isn't a prerequisite for becoming part of the Gesangverein. "With no real talent or ability, you'll be accepted here. We're fortunate to have some fellows who have studied music and are really good, but most of us are just ordinary fellows who like to sing as best we can."

"We don't audition or screen anybody out," Buckley elaborates. "Basically, it's more fellowship, with a little music and language instruction thrown in." Even a knowledge of German is not required. All the singers ask, Buckley says, is that aspirants are "men of goodwill."

Outsiders sometimes question that assertion because of the Gesangverein's militaristic logo and the "Arion" portion of its name. As it turns out, Arion is the Greek goddess of song and poetry, but that hasn't stopped a few folks from assuming that the moniker refers to "Aryan," a term favored by Hitler that is still bandied about by white supremacists. "It's enough to scare the hell out of some people," Buckley allows. "You can't blame them if they don't understand it and think, 'Oh, my God, it's some sort of fascist group.'" To Buckley, this reaction is counterproductive to what the Gesangverein is trying to achieve: "I don't like the confusion that it causes, and I hope we can change it someday. But the funny thing is, the German fellows that have been here forever have no objection to changing it. It's the Americans who are vehemently against it. They're sticklers for tradition."

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