Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hedwig's Mozart

Berlin is a city of canals and rivers, they say, with more bridges than Venice. It is also a city of churches. I do not know how it compares in that aspect with Italy. Though I have been to Italy, I did not stop to think about the presence of church buildings. Here spires pierce the air in almost every neighborhood and, in the downtown, there seem far more than the current population could support.

In my neighborhood, there is a Catholic church, hidden behind walls as if it were a secret only the insiders should know. There is also a cloistered church, which evidently still maintains some active order of cloistered religious, though it looks Protestant. And there are many Protestant churches. Most of them look similar with their red brick architecture, and their single spire needling the sky.

I gather they were built close to the same time with royal patronage. Berlin grew like a weed in a well watered summer during the nineteenth century, from some three-hundred thousand souls to almost four million by the infamous fin de siècle when the golden nineteenth century ended. Not only did the city sprout five and six story walk up apartment buildings, of brick of course, as far as the eye could see, and neo-classical monumental buildings in the city’s core, it positively blossomed with church buildings. Almost all of them were Protestant, although the Hohenzollern dynasty that ruled Prussia and then Bismarkian unified Germany pioneered a coming century by embracing Catholics and a range of Protestants, as well as Jews. Religious pluralism was becoming an ideal, though not without resistance, as the state first sponsored churches and then hoped to transcend them.

Not long after the industrial revolution transformed the towns that huddle in small hollows that slice the windy moors of Yorkshire where my Grandmother was born, with its coal smoke and reformulated life, industry exploded in Germany. Berlin has a famous museum of Technology that documents the birth and explosive industrial growth of Germany. This and its flirtation with Empire, funded Berlin as a glory.

There is a church around the corner from where I live, whose spire still cuts into the sky, but which is now a community theatre. Another is a children’s school. Another was torn down, perhaps because of the war although I do not know how the decades of officially atheistic communism impacted churches. Now in its place there is a park, behind a black, cast iron fence. A few tombstones still stand from the church’s graveyard. It is a peaceful and pleasing place for reflection and leisure, part of what makes Berlin one of the cities with the greatest amount of public greenspace. But it is also poignant because of the sign recognizing the Evangelical Gemeinde (community or congregation), whose building used to be there, and narrating its history behind plexiglass. The Gemeinde suggests both a civil political, as well as a religious reality.

It reminds me of a monument in German in Fredricksburg, Texas--in the hill country west of Austin--recognizing the Gemeinde that settled the town, despite American notions that the peopling of the plains and west was a result of independent, yeoman striking out for freedom and independence. I wonder if Frederick the Great from here in Berlin had anything to do with that little, and surviving Texas settlement, where German is still spoken at home, behind closed doors, though it celebrates German culture as a tourist draw.

In Berlin, I know the couple of times I have poked my head into church buildings near my neighborhood, while services were being held, the pews were mostly empty. A few stalwarts sat scattered in the vast expanse as the organist played and the pastor led the service. Ironically, in both cases they had plaques on the wall recognizing the role of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the life of the congregation prior to and during the Nazi government.

The thought has crossed my mind more than once to find out more about religious life here in Berlin, since I do study religion as an anthropologist and since it would be interesting to see how this place fits into the broad European pattern of secularism, i.e. empty churches that are officially sponsored and publicly supported.

It would particularly be intriguing since I am right next to Poland where Catholicism played a major role in opposition to the Communists and to the new Polish nation-state. I know in some former East-Block countries religion evidently only was mildly propped up under communism as an opponent, as it continued the European slide towards what British sociologist Grace Davie has called “vicarious religion.”

Pope Benedict, whose former name was the German Joseph Ratzinger, has been playing an interesting game of religious politics in Europe. From the Catholic south of Germany, he struggles with the general European antipathy to strong religion. He brings a vigorous German sense to the fight, although he has spent decades in the Vatican, as his public debates with philosopher Jürgen Habermas demonstrate.

(By the way, the Polish Pope John Paul II, is known for conversing in German with his bulldog Ratzinger, since experience with that language and culture is something they both shared, given the complex cultural past of Poland and its interactions with various German polities and the very large German-speaking population that lived amongst the Poles. This must have been a bit of a shock for the extremely Italianate and formally Latinate Vatican.)

Pope Benedict worked hard to have included in the European Union’s constitution a recognition of the role Christianity played in the historical formation of Europe. If he could not have Christianity formally recognized, as it is in most European states, though not Germany, then he wanted some verbiage acknowledging its historical importance and how contemporary European values have their roots in Christian thought and practice. But he failed, in part because of the pluralism of European religious society and in part because of a changed understanding of religion that sees it as private and individual, a matter of faith and belief. As result, it also a matter of supply and demand, a market.

But Benedict rejects that. He argues it leads to norm-less relativism which is incapable of providing solid motivation for morality and values. He feels the societies need an official injection of Godly morality in order for life to be meaningful, in order for being not to be nothing.

Despite secularism, religion is still a matter of struggle and politics. But I have resisted the temptation to pull the rug off the issue of religion here since my purpose in traveling to Berlin is not, per se, to do a study.

But, I saw a poster on which the Catholic Cathedral of Berlin announced a series of classical performances, many of them combined with Mass. Hearing Mozart int he Cathedral was a temptation I could not resist on a sunny Sunday morning.

I was late. Not by much, maybe five minutes or so. I just started my preparations to leave the apartment late and then the U-Bahn was slow in coming. So, knowing how punctual Germans can be, I was a bit nervous approaching the round, domed, columned building called St. Hedwig’s Catholic Cathedral.

It stands in monumental core of Berlin, between the Staatsoper and the Gendarmenmarkt. My overall impression, almost immediately, is how much it reminded me of one of the oldest churches in Turin built on the Po river where it crosses through town, also built int he nineteenth century. St. Hedwig’s and the Church in Turin are deliberately modeled on the Pantheon to emphasize Rome, no doubt, the seat of Catholicism and the legitimacy for which the Electors of Brandenburg were reaching as they built their great Prussian state. The official Cathedral, the Dom, is on the esplanade with the Altes Museum and government buildings. It, though, is a Protestant Cathedral, with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melancthon in marble staring sternly at the congregation as if reminding them of discipline and reform and, especially, of the religious and political break with Rome.

(Ever since I first saw St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, I have also been reminded of the musical about an East berliner guy and an American serviceman who fell in love, before the wall fell and before Europe began its reforms recognizing homosexual relationships that trouble the Vatican to no end. In order to be together they had to be a heterosexual couple and so the German had a sex change operation that was a disaster, creating substantial political pathos about troubled Eastern Western relationships. Inevitably this also brings to mind the famous painting on the wall of Soviet Leader Brezhnev in a deep, full mouthed kiss with Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is by American John cameron Mitchell, while the painting is by Russian Dmitri Vrubel. Were are the Germans other than as objects of homoerotic political fantasies?)

I walked up the steps of St. Hedwig’s nervously. I was late. An old woman sat bundled up by the door, with a cup in hand.

I was surprised because I could hear no music, though I was regretting missing the beginning of the Mozart. Was I wrong? Was it not today? Did I somehow make a mistake?

Nope, I was right, and it had started. As soon as I pulled open the massive but well balanced door, a wave of Mozart poured over me and it was very familiar Mozart. But I was preoccupied because the door was not closing.

I pulled on it and it still would not close. Damn! What was wrong? Not only was I late but I could not get the door to close. Where would my manners be if I just walked in and left it open to the cold air, honking horns, and exhaust of the profane outside.

The old lady looked at me, doubly irritated, not only had I not given her any alms, I was being stupid. She looked at me as I pulled at the door and said in German: “it’s automatic!”

Now as the rouge of embarrassment matched the red from the chill air outside, I left the door and entered in to the building’s foyer. There was another door, I opened it, while shifting from my shame to the Mozart.

The Cathedral was full. There was not a seat in the place. It was packed.

To the smell of incense, like the copal of Bolivia, I entered by the side of the choir and orchestra and craned my head to look for a corner. Should I leave?

No I found a nook by the edge of the entrance where I could sit on the stone, look at the back of the keyboardist, see the conductor and enjoy.

Memories of my teenage years when I would sneak into Utah Symphony concerts in the tabernacle with my friend Garth. His dad was a member of the Tabernacle Choir and so we could often use his dad’s pass and sit by the organ, sometimes on the ledge from which the massive wooden front pipes rose. We were behind the orchestra and could look out on the audience beyond the conductor. I almost felt that furtive.

Yet, I realized the memories came flooding back because I had not been in a hall for a symphony performance with that much echo almost since then. This is not really true, since I did attend a performance of a massive Mahler choral symphony in the tabernacle with my friend Suzanne long after Symphony Hall was built.

The work required too many musicians for the space of Symphony Hall, so they performed it in the Tabernacle. But it was a horrible performance. Mahler did not write with that echo in mind. It sounded irritating, like a stinky, sulphurous mud, as sounds would decay so slowly and return in echos where they did not belong to muddle the melody and hurt the harmony so that it was just an open wound of pulsing dissonance. That is why I did not remember that visit during the cathedral performance.

Mozart, on the other had, a flash of insight hit me, had taken into account the echo of religious buildings and how slowly sound would decay. His work wounded rich and compelling. Far richer than in a sterile concert hall where sound dies quickly to avoid confusion.

I had played this mass. I rehearsed with the chorus but played bassoon in the orchestra. We performed in a university concert hall. Not only did the space not have echos, the Bishop was not on the altar dressed in his mitre. Mozart’s context was perverted when we played. It was simply a concert piece, a formalized, fixed thing we read with feeling, of course, since that is how we were taught to perform Mozart. We called it a Mass but we were not in a Church and ours was not a real mass. This was.

The incense was burning my nose and eyes, when they paused the mass for readings from the scripture and then an organ and choral alleluia that was not penned by the quirky genius from Austria. It was far too modern. The they returned to Mozart. Again Mozart’s flow was broken for the Bishop to do a rather long winded homily on how God’s love has no Grenzen, no bounds. The euphony just isn’t there in the English.

I had never fully realized how different Mozart could be when his mass appeared in context. Nor had I grasped his was a living work, which could be recombined with contemporary pieces, like the preaching and the alleluia, to make a piece just for today.

We worshiped the fixed Mozart, not the living one who appeared, somewhat impishly, in the cathedral this morning.

I could not help but think as the preaching went on and on. First, about how differently the Bishop pronounced his “r” than they do in Berlin. His had a noticeable throat roll that sometimes almost roared as he emphasized the sound, while in Berlin they are so soft they often disappear. Then I just got tired of listening to the German and parsing it. The sounds, the chant, of the language, its broken musicality carried me away. Soon, in my reverie I realized that the Church was banking on its historical relationship with European culture to draw people in.

There was a sign at the door saying today a collection would be made for the restoration of the cathedral.

I do not know how many of the congregation were practicing Catholics. Certainly, I am not. But culture seems to draw people and gives the Church a market.

The Protestants are not to be left behind. They can claim the same tradition. I had attended a Vespers in the Dom. They would not let tourists in the magnificent building, but I got in by saying I was going to the vespers. I went because of the organ recital that was most of the vespers, and became really tired by the preachers harping on “what God has put together, let no man tear asunder” or however it really is in King James English. He, of course, said it in German. But the organ music was magnificent and brought tears to my eyes as feeling shook my spine.

I am the son of an organist and would sit by her, on the organ bench, often as her page turner, as she would rock the Ward House with Bach. Lots of people wanted it to be played more delicately, but in her hands and feet Bach was bodacious and shook the building with his spiritual demands.

She died many years ago. I do not hear organ played very often. Slowly, living classical music has almost disappeared from my life, other than in the form of radio, CDs and now my ipod.

The Dom, like the Cathedral was full. Of course these are the main Church buildings of their respective faiths and can call on outstanding musicians. They both can legitimately claim the musical core of Western high culture. But is it enough?

I doubt it. Europeans, at least Germans, seem to have a different relationship to this culture than we Americans, where classical is just a peculiar taste among many tastes, although it still has a slight connection to the elite and the social center. But in the rule of the market, it is minor, not unlike religion.

No longer is everyone baptized in Berlin. As a display said in the fabulous Marienkirche, congregations and civil society are no longer the same thing. But religion is not completely dead. It may be the fate of churches to be concert halls with a certain antiquarianish full performance, or to become museums. But there is still something very alive there.

In the US our churches still play an important role in civil society, they tend to have lots of congregants, but our connection with the classical culture of the West has withered. I honestly do not know what that means for us in the long run.

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