Some chronicles of my time traveling through Germany learning about the great Johann Sebastian Bach – and drinking beer.
Our last day in Leipzig was truly grand with the performance of Bach’s Magnificat and Christmas Oratorio in Thomaskirche. My professors had told us to visit the church beforehand to take a look at Bach’s grave there (“It’s the closest you’ll get to Bach during the whole course!”), so I went in on the way back from my run. I felt silly coming into such a lovely church while listening to Cuban reggaeton music, and I actually didn’t see the grave; I mistook a plaque on the wall to be his resting place. Later, at the concert, I saw the actual grave: a plaque on the ground, in front of the altar, four times the size. Whoops.
I awoke to excellent news from my newly college-bound sister – CONGRATS, J! – and snow. We spent the morning reading scenes from Itamar Moses’s play, Bach at Leipzig. The play follows 5 or 6 organists, basically all named Johann or Georg, vying for the new position of cantor at Thomaskirche, as Johann Kuhnau has passed away mid-playing. They all are trying to foil each other’s success, even as Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Bach step on the scene. The whole thing is very comical and brilliantly written. I highly recommend it, though I suppose we got much more out of it from already knowing the historical background. There’s one scene in which Fasch describes what a fugue is to his wife that is particularly beautiful, and there’s even a speaking fugue. One organist starts speaking and slowly but surely, each one starts his own monologue until all 6 have entered and created their own speaking ricercar. So cool to perform.
Our first full day of Leipzig was eventful and fun. I woke up and took a city run and found a couple solid parks (Germans do parks well), but of course incomparable to Sans Souci. It was actually raining a lot, so that made things…interesting.
In the morning, we visited the Bach Archive, which is larger and more detailed than the Bach exhibit in Eisenach. Bach became the cantor for Thomaskirche, right next to the archive, on April 22nd, 1723, and would remain in that position for the rest of his life, dying in 1750. He initially didn’t apply for the job, as his wife Maria Barbara had just died in Kothen while he and Prince Leopold were traveling. (He married Anna Magdalena about a year and a half later). Leipzig cantor Johann Kuhnau had passed away, so the church was in need of a replacement. Other organists, including George Philipp Telemann, Christoph Graupner, and Johann Friedrich Fasch were all offered the job but turned it down; they only applied so that their current churches would offer them more money.
On Sunday we arrived in Potsdam, a suburb about 45 minutes outside of Berlin. It’s a lively town, basically a small city in itself. My professor Ofer had told us to look forward to the breakfast at the hotel here, and he was not lying. I don’t want to annoy readers with an entire break-down of its offerings…but I’m going to anyway. Eggs, bacon, sausage. Chocolate pretzels, cookies, stollen. All flavors of yogurt, pineapple, pomegranate, mixed fruits. Croissants, bread, waffles. Every flavor of jam, syrup, honey, and compote, plus Nutella and different flavors of butter. A full spread of cold cuts and cheeses. A juicer with fresh oranges, grapefruit, and carrots. Multiple types of muesli with absurd fixings like aloe vera and goji berries. And an espresso machine. They even served us smoothies every morning. This morning, there was apple croissant bread pudding. I couldn’t handle myself.
A short but lovely visit to the little town of Kothen. Kothen was where Bach wrote many of his instrumental pieces, including the Brandenburg Concertos and Cello Suites. He was hired by the Kothen court, so he played organ for all of the town’s churches, not just one. When we arrived, we met our guide, Christian, a classic German: short, curt, matter-of-fact phrases. He led us to Jakob’s Kirche first, which is actually a Calvinist church. Since Bach was Lutheran, he did not play here often, but on occasion.
Today was an incredible, but emotionally exhausting experience. We visited Buchenwald, a major concentration camp during the Holocaust. The visit was altogether chilling from the start. We began in the heart of Weimar, the sun shining, and within 15 minutes were were in a wasteland, the sky dark and snowing.
My professor brought us down to the main gates of the camp, bearing the phrase Jedem Das Seine. He explained that the phrase could be translated a number of ways – “To each his own,” “Every man for himself,” or “Everyone gets what they deserve.” Regardless of which translation you choose, they are all equally powerful and disturbing. He went on to explain that Buchenwald was not thought of as an extermination camp so much as a transport camp. Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, “asocials” and others from 50 different countries were brought here, to either be redirected, murdered, or die of starvation, disease, or simply being worked to death. As we stared out at the barren remains of mass graves and bunkers, a horrible shiver ran right through me. I felt the relentless wind and snow around me and just thought of all the men, women, and children who stood in this very spot, with probably a fraction of the clothes I was wearing and the food in my stomach and the sleep in my bones. It’s a feeling I won’t soon forget.
Wednesday and Thursday update!
We left Eisenach on Wednesday morning and drove to Arnstadt, where Bach had his first job as an organist. He was such a good composer and organist that he was paid three times the normal amount a organist would be paid here. This is also where he got into a fisticuffs with Geyersbach, the “ninny-goat” bassoonist. Besides that little spat, Bach got himself into trouble here because he not only left for four months (when he said he’d be gone for four weeks), but he also played very flowery, intricate pieces that he picked up from his pal Buxtehude. Congregation members were not feeling it. Eventually he’d move on to Muhlhausen and Weimar for other work.
A busy but exciting week – I’ll be splitting Monday/Tuesday and Wednesday/Thursday into separate posts, since there’s so much to talk about! We rose early on Monday morning to make the four hour drive to Eisenach, where Bach was born and grew up. We made a coffee stop at one of the more impressive gas stations I’ve seen in my life. In Germany, you unfortunately have to pay for the bathroom almost everywhere you go. However, the bathroom at this station had some perks. First off, after paying, a machine would give you a 50-cent coupon for coffee. Then, after flushing, the toilet seat would rotate around, being rinsed by a special cleaner at the base of the wall. Magic. There is so much sorcery in this country, I swear.
We’re coming to the end of our time here in Luneburg, as we leave bright and early tomorrow morning for Eisenach, Bach’s birthplace. I’ve enjoyed my time here, but I’m antsy for a change.
The last few days here have been fun, though they haven’t been totally spent here. Yesterday, nearly everyone in the class took a train into Hamburg, though in different groups and at different times. I arrived at 9:30 and bid farewell to my fellow CCers to find Emily, my dear friend from high school. She had told me to meet at “Edeka,” a supermarket in the Hamburg train station. Naturally, a German grocery store piqued my curiosity. I first found mini glass bottles of Nutella, which were admittedly adorable. Nutella is as ubiquitous here as peanut butter is in the United States. So, I went to see if I could find peanut butter. The jar I found – certainly too small for my standards – had an American flag on it and was located on a very, very low shelf. It was disheartening. On the plus side, I made some other good discoveries, such as the German version of various cereals (Cini Minis = Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Choco Krispies = Cocoa Krispies, etc.) and Dickmann’s Chocolate Nuts (chocolates in the shape of acorns…”Dickmann” I suppose is the squirrel on the logo…)! Once Emily arrived, we made our way out into town so she could show me around.
Day five in Luneberg and things still continue to surprise me. As a completely irrelevant tidbit, which may only be impressive to me, the toilets in Germany are quite efficient! To flush, there’s a large button above the seat with a “stop” function – so you can stop the release of water if it’s sufficiently flushed the toilet. Brilliant. I am glad I am related, if only tangentially, to these people.
I have found myself rather unsatiated in this country, eating-wise. Our hostel actually serves three meals a day, though breakfast is the only desirable meal. Then, you can find literally every toast spread you could want – blackberry, raspberry, and strawberry jams, honey, butter, Nutella, and “beet syrup” (which I have yet to try…but need to). And there’s a great assortment of oatmeal, muesli, and cereal. Sadly, lunch and dinner consist of mystery meats, limp salads, and either potatoes or pasta. Hunger has naturally ensued and eating out once a day has become almost a necessity.
These first few days in Luneberg have been fun, but exhausting. The jet lag is still very much real, and I still haven’t gotten over the preposterous idea that all of my friends in Colorado are 8 hours behind me. Today, I got up, ate breakfast, ran, showered, went to morning class, ate lunch, then went to afternoon class before most of them had even woken up at CC. Baffling.
Luneberg is quite a cute town, with it’s cobblestone streets essentially free of cars, lined with leather shoe shops, bakeries, and cafes, and topped with beautiful Christmas markets. Today, our professor treated us to “Gluhwein” which is a traditional warm, spiced wine served in the Christmas markets – delicious.
Arriving in Germany actually went incredibly smoothly, although I am exhausted and jet lagged. I tried my best to take in little cultural quirks as much as possible on both my flights and my time in the Munich and Hamburg airports. My observations may not be earth shattering, but they’re at least interesting enough for me to have picked up on them.
To start, I noticed that the Germans on my flight to Munich were all requesting beer to drink with their dinner. This may not seem strange, but none of them were paying extra for alcohol, as one typically does on airplanes. I therefore opened up the seatback menu to discover that a whole list of beers are complimentary on international flights! The funny thing was, despite the list of several options, “bier” to the flight attendants automatically meant Heineken – no other brands were drank nor requested.