May Create: The Asparagus Is Up

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Veronica, the Asparagus Is Up

The Comedian Harmonists

Oh, the influence of nature. Its symbolism. Its power to stir the imagination…even with Nazis outside the theatre.

I am inspired to these ruminations by a re-viewing of a truly exhilarating German film from 1997, The Harmonists, which chronicles the rise of a Berlin-based supergroup in the 1930s. The Comedian Harmonists were the Beatles of their day. They packed houses, people loved them. The Reichskulturkammer didn't love them, because three of the six men were Jewish. One of the others had a Jewish wife. Eventually, they were broken up: the founder of the group, Harry Frommermann, ended up entertaining the US troops, while the bass singer worked on V-2 rockets for Werner von Braun. The Bulgarian went back to Sophia, and Roman Cycowski became a cantor in San Francisco. All of them outlived Hitler, I'm glad to report.

The film isn't about Nazis. The film is about music, something Nazis aren't good at. Trust me on this – I actually know the words to the Horst Wessel Lied. It has a beat, and you can march to it, is all you can say.

The Harmonists were geniuses. Their music sparkles. It makes you laugh. And it’s a musical education in itself. For example, try listening to this wordless Duke Ellington number. Just click on Number 10, 'Creole Love Call'. (You don't have to know German, see?) Now, don't you understand more about how a jazz orchestra works, just by listening?

So what does this have to do with plants and symbolism? I'm getting to that. Pretty much the biggest hit ever for the Comedian Harmonists was a very peppy number called 'Veronika, der Lenz ist da'. Or 'Veronica, Spring Has Sprung'. And it has about the most interesting musical vegetable joke I've ever heard.

Here's how it goes:

Veonika, der Lenz ist da,

Die Mädchen singen Tralala,

Die ganze Welt ist wie verhext,

Veronika, der Spargel wächst…

Now, that line, der Spargel wächst, always gets a big laugh. Why? Here's the translation:

Veronika, the spring is here,

The girls are singing tralala,

The whole world is caught in a spell,

Veronika, the asparagus is growing…

Okay, you can't sing that, but it's more or less literal. So why is it funny, foreigners want to know? In the Harmonists film, Ari the Bulgarian asks this, and they explain. He's so delighted, he goes on and on about it for years…

Let's do some pop culture analysis, circa 1927. First, you must know that Germans go crazy in spring. It's everybody's favourite season. About 1 May, they're out there hiking, picnicking, singing their hearts out. Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann, and so on. It's just good to be alive in Central Europe in spring, and the people know it as well as the birds. So the peppy first line, der Lezn ist da, points to a long tradition of celebrating spring. Particularly since the word 'Lenz' is an old-fashioned, poetic word. Not Frühling, mind you, but Lenz. It's like saying 'the daffodils open their eyes'. Yeah, like that.

But if the listener was being primed for Romanticism 101 by that first line, the second debunks the mood a bit:die Mädchen singen Tralala. It's, er, dismissive. Tralala, indeed. Also, the girls are doing the singing, not the birds. That points to a different drift in this song…maybe it's not about Romantic nature worship, but more Cole Porterish, as in 'birds do it, bees do it…'?

die ganze Welt ist wie verhext. Okay, there's magic in the air, we get that. But verhext is more like, 'Nature's got the whammy on,' rather than 'it's magical'. A tiny ironic touch here. Now it's coming…wait for it…

Veronika, der Spagel wächst. WHAT The asparagus is growing? That's why you laugh. First, in May, every restaurant in town has up signs advertising asparagus on the menu – and if you have never tasted that dish of fresh, seasonal asparagus, combined with new potatoes in a cream sauce, I feel sorry for your culinary deprivation – but what is a vegetable doing in this song about springtime fancy?

Well, er…it's the shape, you see. And the direction it's growing in, and…well, gosh, do we have to spell it out? The line is naughty without being actionable. Even the Reichskulturkammer couldn't filter out that reference. Even the Hays Office couldn't, although they famously objected to the oysters and snails in Spartacus. Asparagus is sexy, 'nuff said.

So, vegetables. Springtime. And a jaunty tune. Are you ready to hear it? Be my guest. Click on numbers 2 and 3, to hear both versions. Giggle where appropriate. Dance along. Be glad it's spring, and there's music in the world, and love, and asparagus with new potatoes. I know I am.

Asparagus spears growing on an allotment in south-east London
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Dmitri Gheorgheni

12.05.14 Front Page

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