Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Arms Of Krupp

Last night I completed reading William Manchester’s “The Arms Of Krupp”.

The book is a mammoth read—well over 1000 pages with the various addenda included—and has proven to be a very durable publication, especially since it is a popular history rather than a scholarly one. With the exception of one brief period at the beginning of this decade, the book has remained in continuous print for forty years, and has sold a phenomenal number of copies. It is one of those books practically everyone has read. Indeed, until the last month, I suspect I was the only person on the planet who had not read the book.

However, “The Arms Of Krupp” is hardly the last word on its subject: the German family that amassed and managed an industrial empire over several centuries. Since the book first appeared in 1968, one scholar after another has picked apart various theses in Manchester’s tome, taking issue with one facet of the book or another. Many of these scholarly attacks, understandably, have emanated from Germany.

As a result, “The Arms Of Krupp” is not accepted as serious history and never was accepted as serious history (the original reviews were mixed, even largely negative). Instead, “The Arms Of Krupp” is a personality-driven narrative. It is chock-full of facts and quasi-facts (and the occasional crackpot theory), but it remains a narrative, not a study. Moving the story forward takes precedence over everything else, including matters of accuracy, scholarship, interpretation and judgment. The book is emblematic of the strengths and weaknesses of popular histories.

Nothing is allowed to interfere with Manchester’s provocative march through the very darkest side of German history and the very darkest recesses of Krupp family lore. Manchester often gets his facts wrong, and wrenches things out of context. He ignores anything not useful to his theses, such as information not supportive of his insistence that Germany and the Krupps were nothing more than monstrous embodiments of evil. In Manchester’s hands, everything is blatant black and white. Subtlety was not a weapon in Manchester’s arsenal.

Further, Manchester lacks a comprehensive and scholarly grasp of the history of Germany (and Europe as a whole) from 1500 to 1968. This shortcoming becomes irritating to a prohibitive degree about one-third of the way through the book, and the irritation it causes does not dissipate even in the one period—the years of the Second World War (but not the years of its buildup or aftermath)—in which Manchester genuinely does have a firm grasp of historic events.

Nevertheless, Manchester tells a good yarn. He often brings to life a class (arms merchants) and an industry (coal, steel and weapons) not often associated with popular storytelling. This cannot have been easy to do, even if much of the book is reminiscent of an ancient television soap opera, something along the lines of “Dallas In The Ruhr”.

The chief criticisms of the book have been rehashed for forty years: that Manchester intensely disliked Germany; that Manchester intensely disliked the Krupp family; that Manchester fervently ignored any facts not conforming to his agenda; and that Manchester was too keen to emphasize the lurid and the sensational.

Such criticisms are valid. Each of these faults is present. Each mars the book. And yet Manchester’s story is often—but not always—fascinating.

Five or six times in his book, Manchester gets bogged down in fifty pages of deadly writing at a whack. These episodes occur when Manchester ceases to write about the Krupps themselves and instead tries to place the family within the context of its times. These episodes of historical analyses are gruesome, simultaneously facile and contorted—and often simply dead wrong. Such episodes seem to be borrowed from ancient editions of The Encyclopedia Britannica, cut and pasted into Manchester’s own narrative. The insertions suggest a rush job on the part of author and editor.

Manchester is also unduly interested in various romantic entanglements of a handful of Krupp family members. Gossip may be fun to read on occasion, but such gossipy treatment of a family of industrialists does not enhance the reader’s understanding of why the Krupps stood at the pinnacle of European industry for centuries.

Oddly, it is gossipy matters that really get Manchester’s authorial juices flowing. His writing about romantic entanglements is far more vivid and lively than his writing about factories, weapons, politics and wars. His book is two parts Hugh Trevor-Roper for every one part Barbara Cartland—but it is the Barbara Cartland parts that most command attention. Indeed, I wonder whether it is the Barbara Cartland pages of “The Arms Of Krupp” that account for the book’s longstanding commercial success.

“The Arms Of Krupp” is an important publication in many ways—it was the first post-war book in the English language focusing on the German arms industry that received widespread public attention–but it is also a hopelessly outdated one, one given to a very narrow perspective of the Krupps and the events attached to them over hundreds of years. In the last decade alone, two books have been issued in Germany, both written solely to correct the numerous—and egregious—factual errors in Manchester’s book.

The way for publishers to handle publications that have become outdated or superceded is to offer extensive and scholarly forwards in current editions, forwards in which up-to-date scholarship may be cited and major flaws in the original publications addressed. If done properly, such forwards need not detract from reader enjoyment of the originals.

And such a forward is precisely what current editions of “The Arms Of Krupp” need. A lengthy introduction, addressing the book’s factual errors and providing a counterweight to its most disputatious conclusions, would enhance the book’s value and provide an even richer experience for the reader. As things stand now, the reader versed in German history begins mentally tallying up errors in the first few pages, and these errors become overwhelming a couple of hundred pages into the story. At such point, readers—if they bother even to proceed—treat the rest of the book as something akin to fiction, always prepared to dismiss anything Manchester has to offer, even when Manchester is in full command of his facts and analysis. An authoritative fifty-page introduction could resolve such concerns, for the general and specialist reader alike. At the same time, it might also bring the story up to date, presenting the story of the post-1968 disposition of the Krupp empire.

George Bernard Shaw, in drawing Mr. Undershaft for “Major Barbara”, was clearly influenced by Europe’s largest arms manufacturer. Shaw’s Mr. Undershaft, not an admirable figure, is nonetheless far more complex and far more multi-faceted than the one-dimensional arms merchants that emerge from Manchester’s volume. Manchester’s Krupps belong to the realm of melodrama.

In melodrama, plot always trumps character.

Manchester provides plot aplenty.

His characters are cardboard.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Giving My Parents A Stimulating Weekend In Boston

My parents, having spent last week in New York visiting my older brother and his family, took the train up to Boston early Friday morning in order to spend the weekend with Joshua and me.

My parents told us that they would stay at an hotel—and I fear that my parents may truly have preferred to stay at an hotel rather than stay with Josh and me in our small apartment—but Josh and I convinced them to stay with us. Our best arguments in favor of their staying with us were that hotels in Boston are notoriously expensive and not convenient to our apartment, that there would be too much back-and-forth between the hotel and our apartment (cutting into much of the available time), and that we were not planning to spend that much time in our apartment anyway.

My parents bought our arguments, and they decided to stay with us. I think they were comfortable.

We organized the weekend very carefully so that my parents might see and hear some things they would enjoy, but we planned only a single outing each day so that we were not wasting our time driving around, constantly going back and forth between downtown Boston and our apartment.

My parents arrived at midday on Friday, and Josh and I met their train at the train station. Josh had been on mid-term break last week, and he drove into town late Friday morning, and he and I met up at the train station.

We picked up my parents and we took them straight to Symphony Hall to hear Friday afternoon’s Boston Symphony concert. For Josh and me, it was our first visit to Symphony Hall and our first time hearing the Boston Symphony in Boston (although I have heard the Boston Symphony many times on tour, and all of us heard the Boston Symphony in 2007 in London). For my parents, it was their first visit to Symphony Hall in many years.

The concert was oddly arranged. The performance began with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6.

There was a dismaying number of ensemble lapses in the Tchaikovsky. I wondered whether the musicians were tired, having played the same program the previous evening.

The performance was not successful. It lacked concentration, focus, energy and emotional commitment. The performance also lacked elegance, a necessity in the music of Tchaikovsky.

After intermission, the orchestra performed a new work by Leon Kirchner. The composition only required a quarter of an hour, and I wish it had been immediately repeated. No one can judge the quality of a new work after a single hearing, but I found the work to be appealing, and I would like to hear it again. Kirchner is an important composer, and his music is seldom played.

The final work on the program was Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Maurizio Pollini was the soloist. It was Pollini’s presence that drew us to the concert.

Pollini gave a fine performance of the work, and offered moments of individuality in the Andantino, but the Schumann Concerto does not call upon the full range of Pollini’s talents. I am surprised he maintains the work in his repertory. I would much rather have heard Pollini play Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms.

I had not heard Pollini in six or seven years, and I was shocked how old he looked. Pollini is only 66 years old, but he looked like a man in his eighties. I did not think he looked healthy.

James Levine did not look healthy, either. In fact, Levine looked awful—he looked like a stroke waiting to happen. Levine is so obese he verges on immobility. He conducts from an enormous and unsightly chair. I assume the Boston Symphony has succession plans in place.

The Boston Symphony is having attendance problems. A couple of weeks ago, the orchestra announced a special two-for-one ticket offer, with free drinks thrown into the deal to boot. It is one of many signs Josh and I have observed in Boston of a city and populace under financial stress. Boston is a very, very poor city.

If the Boston Symphony truly wants to encourage attendance, it might begin by engaging better conductors and creating better programs. When Josh and I looked through the BSO 2008-2009 season brochure, we were distinctly unimpressed. It is possible we may not attend another concert for the remainder of the season. The only reasons we even attended Friday’s concert was because my parents were in town and because I wanted Josh to hear Pollini.

Josh and I definitely will not attend another Boston Symphony concert between now and Christmas. The only concert we have on our schedule between now and the holidays is a Dresden Staatskapelle concert on November 19, Josh’s birthday.

After the Boston Symphony matinee, Josh and I took my parents home.

We had not stopped to eat lunch, so as soon as we got home I prepared oyster stew to tide us over until dinner. Oyster stew is quick and simple to prepare. I used my mother’s recipe, which includes small amounts of potatoes, carrots and leeks.

We stayed in Friday night, and we mostly talked. My parents wanted to make sure that Josh and I are faring well in Boston. They seemed satisfied that we are getting by satisfactorily.

I did some serious cooking while we talked, because Friday night was the only night we were to eat dinner at home all weekend.

I made some of my father’s favorite foods. I made applesauce from scratch, and I made stewed tomatoes from scratch. I made stuffing (for pork chops) from scratch. I made a very complicated (and sharp) version of macaroni-and-cheese from scratch. I made biscuits from scratch.

We ate all of the above with fresh green beans and white corn, and it was a nice dinner. It was well worth the trouble.

We stayed in the first half of Saturday. In fact, we did not even leave the apartment until early afternoon.

We all slept as late as we wanted. When we were all up, we sat around the kitchen table for two hours, drinking coffee, eating cereal and all kinds of fruit, and reading the newspapers. When we had had enough of this, we ate a very late breakfast: omelets, breakfast potatoes, toast and a cinnamon streusel coffee cake. Only at this point did we even make the effort to get the day under way.

This was deliberate. First, I wanted my parents to sleep in on Saturday morning and get plenty of rest. Second, we only wanted to make one trip downtown on Saturday.

Since we had tickets for Boston Ballet’s Saturday evening performance of “Cinderella”, we arranged the rest of the day around the ballet performance. We planned to hit The Boston Museum Of Fine Arts in the middle of the afternoon, have dinner afterward somewhere downtown, and proceed to the ballet. This would enable us to fit everything we wanted to do into a single excursion of a few hours, with a single trip downtown.

It worked out beautifully. We all had plenty of rest before we set out, we saw precisely what we wanted to see in a leisurely fashion, and we did not attempt to cram too much activity into a needlessly long day.

The major temporary exhibition at The Boston Museum Of Fine Arts was “Art And Empire: Treasures From Assyria In The British Museum”, an exhibition that has been touring the globe for the last decade, earning unimaginable fees for The British Museum. We spent an hour and 45 minutes going through the exhibition.

We all had seen the great Nimrod Palace and Nineveh Palace reliefs at The British Museum in August, but there were additional Assyrian reliefs on view in this touring exhibition, although not quite of the same importance as the Assyrian reliefs on permanent display in London. There were also sculptures, cuneiform tablets, jewelry and domestic items in the exhibition.

The exhibition was of some interest, but hardly of great importance. Over-promoted and over-produced, with all kinds of pseudo-scholarly claims on its behalf made by exhibition organizers and presenters, it was precisely the type of exhibition I find most annoying: a primarily commercial enterprise masquerading as a cultural presentation. We paid $25.00 per person (plus a $3.50 per ticket handling fee) for the privilege of participating in this mercantile transaction. At least Josh, as a student, was entitled to a slight discount: his ticket cost only $23.00. We haven’t decided yet what to do with the two dollars we saved on Josh’s ticket.

After the museum visit, we ate dinner at a seafood restaurant.

The Boston Ballet performance of “Cinderella” was highly enjoyable. The physical production was borrowed from The National Ballet Of Canada and was of very high quality. The production was set in the 1920’s, which made no sense, but it least it provided the designer with a few opportunities to emulate the work of Erte.

The choreographer was James Kudelka, former Artistic Director of The National Ballet Of Canada. Kudelka’s work was vastly inferior to Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella”, still the standard version after sixty years, and it did not have much dance interest. Nevertheless, Kudelka’s work was passable—and, more important, it was stage-worthy. The story was clearly told, the characters registered, and Kudelka had inserted a few strokes of individuality into his interpretation that actually added to the ballet without re-writing it. It was a fun evening.

Of course, “Cinderella” has a beautiful score, one of the most bewitching of all evening-length ballet scores. The orchestra of the Boston Ballet was not a great ensemble, but it was far preferable to have a real orchestra in the pit than to have a pre-recorded version of the score played.

The dancers were quite good, and very skilled in their mime, almost more important in this production than the dancing. Our interest did not flag at all.

Josh and I chose the Saturday night performance of this weekend’s run because it featured the two finest dancers in the company in the roles of Cinderella and the Prince (or so we were told). We wanted to see the production in a performance displaying the company’s best dancers, and we assumed that my parents would want to see the best dancers, too. The leads were OK.

The Boston Ballet is presently suffering financial problems. For economic reasons, the company had to reduce its number of dancers from 50 to 42 this season. I wonder whether the company will survive the current economic downturn—dance companies are always the first to go under in a prolonged period of economic contraction and, among major regional ballet companies, Boston Ballet is generally considered to be in the weakest financial condition. It is a company worth preserving.

On Sunday morning, we rose at 8:00 a.m. and had a breakfast of pancakes and sausages. We did not hang around the apartment too long on Sunday, because we wanted to return to The Museum Of Fine Arts for another couple of hours before attending a matinee performance of Carl Maria Von Weber’s opera, “Der Freischutz”.

We headed out at 11:00 a.m. We wanted to return to The Museum Of Fine Arts in order to view three additional temporary exhibitions, and we also wanted to make use of our tickets a second time (the MFA has an unusual policy: tickets are good for a second museum visit within ten days of the first visit).

We viewed all three temporary exhibitions we wished to see. The most interesting, for us, was a small Winslow Homer exhibition. It displayed oil paintings and watercolors from the museum’s own collection of Homer works (the MFA owns what may be the most important cache of Homer works anywhere).

The second small exhibition we visited was devoted to European portraits, an exhibition assembled from the museum’s own holdings. It was pretty unremarkable.

The third exhibition we viewed was devoted to portrait photography by Yousuf Karsh. We walked through this extensive exhibition pretty quickly, because none of us has a great appetite for portrait photography. Karsh was a significant practitioner in his field, and there were several famous images in the exhibition, but photography exhibitions are of limited interest to us.

We ate a light lunch at the museum café before we departed for the “Freischutz” performance.

The “Freischutz” performance was more or less a disaster. The musical presentation was on a low level, and the stage presentation matched the musical presentation. For all practical purposes, this was an amateur performance and presentation of the great work.

Boston has two small opera companies, and “Der Freischutz” was a presentation of the smaller of those companies, Opera Boston. The whole affair was cheap and listless, and made me want never again to go anywhere near another one of the company’s offerings. Patrons who paid top price for “Freischutz” tickets ($129.00) must have been appalled by what they saw and heard. Happily, our tickets were only $34.00 each (with a $7.00 per ticket handling charge tacked on), so we did not feel too gypped. Nevertheless, the Opera Boston “Freischutz” was a gruesome experience. We left after the end of the second act and headed for the airport. Nothing in Act III could possibly have redeemed what we had seen and heard in the first two acts.

I think Josh and I gave my parents a decent weekend visit. They seemed to enjoy themselves. They seemed to be comfortable in our apartment. They picked a good weekend to visit Boston, a weekend in which there were a few things to do. They could have done worse.

For Josh and me, it is now back to the grind. The last two weekends have given us a break from drudgery, but weekend breaks for us are over for now, at least until Thanksgiving.

We’ll have to sustain ourselves with vivid memories of the microtones the Opera Boston chorus found in the rousing opening number of “Der Freischutz”. No doubt the chorus members were working from an unpublished Gyorgy Ligeti edition of the score.

I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Our Final Family Holiday Weekend In New York

Joshua and I drove down to New York last weekend so that we could spend the long Columbus Day weekend helping my brother and his family pack things for the move back home.

We did not arrive until just after 10:30 p.m. Friday night.

My parents and my middle brother were in town, too, to help out. They had arrived a few hours before Josh and I arrived.

We spent much of the weekend cleaning out closets and cupboards and drawers, and packing things into boxes, and stacking the packed boxes in the dining room.

My nephew thought everything was one great party. He tried to keep his eye on everything that was going on, and everybody, and he tried to stay in the midst of all the activity.

He knows what’s going on. He knows he will be moving to Minnesota soon—although he appears to believe that the sole purpose of the move is to allow him to spend more time with his grandparents. He also has the vague and incorrect notion that he will live with his grandparents when he moves to Minnesota (he thinks that “Minnesota” is my parents’ house). Once a day or so, he will even seek reassurance from his parents that they, too, will move to Minnesota along with him.

He also knows that he will have a baby brother or sister soon. He will frequently ask his mother when his new brother or sister will arrive. His mother will always answer, “In a few more weeks”, after which he will always inquire why she and my brother can’t go to the hospital and pick up the new baby right now (he has been told that the baby will come “from the hospital”). “Because it’s not ready yet” is always the answer, which then invites his response, “Why isn’t the baby ready?”—and the whole cycle of questions starts anew.

He also knows that he has a birthday coming up, and that he will be three years old soon. He knows that he will receive a cake, and gifts, but he also appears to believe that the new baby is connected to his approaching birthday, sort of a playmate-as-birthday-gift concept. In fact, I think he believes that the move to Minnesota, the new baby and his upcoming birthday are all somehow one integrated series of events.

He’s quite a little guy.

I don’t how I got through the first twenty-five years of my life without him. Today it seems as if he has always been a part of our lives.

My mother says he’s the spitting image of his father at the same age.

My father says he is a “take-charge kind of guy”, and that he probably will be running General Mills by his fifth birthday.

My brothers and Josh and I did most of the work this weekend. My sister-in-law is not particularly mobile right now, all in all, and we did not allow her to do anything except issue instructions. My mother insisted on doing the cooking, so we did not allow her to do any other work so that she could spend as much time as possible with her grandson. My father did a little helping-out, but he spent most of his time assisting my mother and playing with his grandson. In any case, four persons were more than enough to complete the project.

We succeeded in getting everything packed that can be packed until the movers arrive to take care of the rest of the job.

We had four tickets to Saturday afternoon’s performance of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” at the Metropolitan Opera, but we had trouble making use of the fourth ticket.

I wanted to attend the performance, and my mother wanted to attend the performance, and Josh wanted to attend the performance (but mostly out of curiosity).

My father had lost all interest in the performance a few weeks ago, when a change in conductor had been announced. He would only have attended Saturday’s performance if my mother had asked him to go with her, and she did not want to ask him, knowing how much he detested the replacement conductor.

My sister-in-law genuinely had no interest in going out on Saturday afternoon, but she valiantly offered to accompany us—if I paid her. However, she was quick to add that, owing to current constraints in the credit markets, she could, with regret, not accept a personal check, and that she would be required to be paid in cash. She said her current policy—dealing with out-of-town persons such as myself solely on a cash-only basis until market conditions settle—was not intended to reflect adversely upon my character or upon my credit-worthiness.

My middle brother could not be enticed to a performance of “Salome” under any circumstances, paid or unpaid, having attended (and hated) a staging in Paris five years ago.

That left my older brother. The only way of getting him to attend an opera performance is to bind and gag him, and take him to the performance by force. Doing so would have involved my answering all sorts of tricky questions from security personnel monitoring the entrances to the Metropolitan Opera, and I did not want to have to face that prospect.

Consequently, we tried to give the fourth ticket away. I called a law-school classmate who lives and works in New York, and offered the ticket to him. He declined—but, he said, he knew a tax attorney who was looking for a ticket, and he said he would call her and get back to me.

I thought he was blowing me off, and I was on the verge of calling someone else when I received a call from the tax attorney, who in fact did want a seat to Saturday’s “Salome”. The ticket was taken. We were happy to give the extra ticket to her so that it did not go to waste.

In hindsight, we should have skipped “Salome” and stayed in and watched college football games on Saturday afternoon. The performance was very disappointing.

The stage production was not a serious attempt to deal with the themes of the opera. The stage production was camp. I was surprised the audience did not hoot it off the stage. Josh, my mother and I had to stifle giggles numerous times—when we were not rolling our eyes.

My father was wise to stay as far away from the performance as possible, because the conductor was certainly not a Strauss conductor. Of course, I do not thereby mean to suggest that this conductor is generally effective in the music of other composers—although I suspect he may have a decent “Man Of La Mancha” in him.

The cast was not distinguished, either, except that it featured a competent Salome, Karita Mattila. Mattila was the only reason even to tolerate the performance.

Myself, I am getting tired of Karita Mattila. I seem not to be able to avoid her. This was the third consecutive Metropolitan Opera performance we had attended in which Mattila was the featured singer (we caught a Mattila “Manon Lescaut” performance in February of this year and a Mattila “Jenufa” performance in February 2007). Poor Josh has never attended a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in which Mattila was NOT the featured singer. Josh must think Mattila is the ONLY featured singer on the company’s roster.

My recent encounters with Mattila have not been restricted to the Met stage. The last time I attended a performance at Covent Garden (2005) was a Mattila performance of “Un Ballo In Maschera”, and the last time I attended a performance at the Paris Opera (2003) was a Mattila performance of “Salome”.

In April 2007, we even caught a Mattila lieder recital in Saint Paul.

I cannot manage to escape this woman!

At this point, I have had more than enough exposure to Mattila, and so has Josh, and so has my mother. Mattila is a fine singer, and a likable performer, but she is not one of the immortals.

I discussed Mattila’s strengths and weaknesses in detail when I wrote about her February 2007 “Jenufa” and when I wrote about her April 2007 lieder recital. (I hardly touched upon her February 2008 “Manon Lescaut” because she had been so obviously miscast in that opera.) Her New York “Salome” demonstrated precisely the same strengths and precisely the same weaknesses I have witnessed in the past and have discussed in the past.

I CAN say that Mattila’s Paris “Salome” from five years ago was finer than her New York “Salome”. Mattila’s voice was fresher five years ago, and in Paris she had James Conlon in the pit to support and assist her, which surely worked to her advantage. Conlon was on fire the night of that Paris “Salome” (it was the final night of the run—and my brother and I ran into Conlon the next morning at Charles De Gaulle as Conlon was preparing to catch a United flight back to Chicago). That “Salome” was the finest thing I have ever heard from Conlon—and it was the finest thing I have ever heard from Mattila.

Until Mattila moves on to Wagner, whose music is a perfect match for her gifts, I hope to avoid her in future.

We also attended a ballet performance while we were in New York. We had given some thought to catching a Broadway performance, but there was nothing on Broadway any of us even mildly wanted to see, so we abandoned that idea in favor of seeing something else.

We chose a ballet performance largely because my mother does not have much opportunity to attend ballet performances in Minneapolis. We decided to attend the Sunday matinee performance of San Francisco Ballet at City Center, and we decided to attend more or less at the last minute, the tipping point being a special (and secret) two-for-one ticket code we learned about from one of my brother’s neighbors.

Only my parents and Josh and I attended the performance. No one else wanted to go.

The first two ballets on the program were by Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director of San Francisco Ballet. The third ballet was by Mark Morris. The final ballet—and, as it turned out, the only one worth seeing—was Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments”.

San Francisco Ballet is an odd company. Unlike the two major New York-based companies, San Francisco Ballet dancers do not have uniform, perfect dance bodies and they do not strive for a uniform, integrated style.

Many of the San Francisco female dancers had bad backs (a term of art in ballet jargon), a deficiency that impeded any sense of line and balance, as well as bad feet (again, a term of art), a deficiency that made them look like dancing platypuses in anything technically difficult, such as Balanchine. It is not surprising that New York companies took a pass on all these dancers.

If anything, the San Francisco male dancers were even odder. The body variances among the males were even more pronounced—several had laughably short legs, others had laughably short or laughably long torsos, and yet others were unaccountably beefy—and their technical proficiency was low. Male dancers now rule at New York City Ballet, and it was jarring for anyone accustomed to NYCB to watch the male contingent from San Francisco.

It was definitely a motley group of dancers, much more suitable for a modern dance troupe than for a classical ballet company.

The program booklet revealed that a huge portion of the dancers in the company was from outside the United States, which was demonstrated, in spades, as a jumble of contrasting dance styles was pranced, in succession, across the stage. Each dancer appeared to have received an entirely different kind of preparatory training. There was no uniformity of style such as may be seen in the New York companies.

Ultimately, it was all rather comical. It was also all rather depressing.

The best ballet on the program received the best performance. Tomasson, a former dancer with New York City Ballet, is a Balanchine acolyte, and he knows how to teach Balanchine style, at least up to a point. “The Four Temperaments” did not receive a distinguished performance, but at least it was a serious performance, and the ballet came across as a recognizable masterpiece. I have seen better and I have seen worse Balanchine performances by regional companies.

Tomasson is very popular in San Francisco, which is regrettable, because he needs to be replaced. There was nothing to be seen on stage Sunday afternoon that any major ballet company would want to showcase on a national tour.

Just as Josh has acquired the vague notion that opera = Karita Mattila, Josh has also acquired the notion that ballet = ”The Four Temperaments”. Josh has only seen three ballet repertory programs, and “The Four Temperaments” has been featured on two of those three programs.

Josh disliked “The Four Temperaments” the first time he saw the ballet—danced by New York City Ballet in February 2007—and he disliked it even more after seeing it danced by San Francisco Ballet.

“I thought you said I would grow to love this ballet” was the first thing he said to me after Sunday’s performance.

“Well, I thought you’d see lots of other, different Balanchine ballets before you saw this one again” was my response.

Sunday evening and Monday were the best parts of the weekend. We had completed our packing duties by midday Sunday, so we were able to devote Sunday evening and all day Monday to entertaining my nephew.

More accurately, he entertained us.

He enjoys doing lots of different things now. He’s a little one-man beehive of activity. I don’t know how his mother keeps up with him.

He still rides his scooter and his fire truck around the apartment, but not as much as he used to. He has learned that it is much faster and much more efficient simply to walk wherever he wants to go.

He now prefers to play with toys he can take apart and put back together, whether it be building blocks, puzzles or little gizmos designed to fascinate three-year-olds.

He likes playing with balls now, throwing and kicking them around, throwing them back and forth, and even trying to catch them, which he cannot do yet. He likes colorful balls of all sizes.

He’ll do a little coloring now and again, but only for a few minutes at a time. Coloring does not hold his interest for any sustained period of time.

He still likes stuffed animals, and he constantly moves his stuffed animals around the living room and arranges them to his satisfaction.

He likes having picture-book stories read to him, and he has his favorite stories, which he likes to hear over and over. He will follow along, and look and point at the pictures, and talk about the pictures.

He still likes it when everyone sits down on the floor and plays with him, and he still likes horseback rides, and he stills likes to be held and swung through the air.

More than anything, he keeps his eyes on what’s going on around him. He really does not miss a trick now. He knows everyone’s routine down to the minutest detail, and he always wants to know the reasons for any variances. He is full of unending curiosity. He constantly asks questions, of everyone, about everyone and everything.

He’s still a good eater—and he certainly got plenty to eat this weekend.

On Saturday morning, he had his cereal and banana slices, after which I made him scrambled eggs, which he ate with potatoes and toast and washed down with cranberry juice, orange juice and milk.

For an early lunch on Saturday, my mother made whitefish cooked in lemon, which she served with bowtie pasta and shredded vegetables. He lapped it all up.

On Saturday, my mother put a pot roast in the oven as soon as we returned from the opera, and he ate pot roast, cheddar potatoes, lima beans, tiny carrots and strawberry jello with fruit for his dinner. He got ice cream for dessert.

On Sunday morning, after he ate oatmeal with raisins, I made him apple pancakes, which he likes, and I served them with sweet apple sausage, delivered from Minneapolis, which he also likes.

For his lunch on Sunday, my mother prepared for him boiled chicken, macaroni-and-cheese, and peas, which he ate with fried apples, one of his favorite foods.

My mother put a ham in the oven before we departed for the ballet on Sunday afternoon, and he had baked ham, mashed potatoes, white corn, more lima beans (his favorite vegetable) and a fresh cranberry salad for his dinner. He got angel food cake for dessert.

On Sunday night, my mother prepared dough for raisin bread, and I baked raisin bread first thing Monday morning so that he could have raisin bread with his breakfast, along with bacon (which he eats now) and eggs.

He was given tuna and noodles for lunch on Monday, along with peas (which he eats several times a week) and applesauce.

He had roast chicken with stuffing, mashed potatoes, more tiny carrots, green beans, and apple salad for his dinner Monday night. He ate a raspberry tart for dessert.

He still gets a snack every afternoon when he wakes from his nap. On Saturday morning, my mother made gingerbread men for him, since gingerbread men are one of his favorite foods. He ate gingerbread men and poached pears for his post-nap snack all weekend. He always eats the feet of the gingerbread men first.

My middle brother and Josh and I were sorry to have to leave him on Monday evening, but my brother and I had no choice because we had to return to work (Josh is on mid-term break this week). Josh and I will miss not seeing my nephew again until Thanksgiving, by which time he will already have settled into his new home in Minneapolis. (My parents remained in New York this week to continue to help my older brother and his family prepare for the move. Tomorrow my parents will take the train to Boston to join Josh and me for the weekend. They will fly back to Minneapolis Sunday evening.)

Josh and I will miss no longer having family members on the East Coast with whom we can visit on occasional weekends. I sometimes think I would not have survived law school without having been able to spend every few weekends with my older brother and his family.

The prospect of such weekend visits will very soon be a thing of the past.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Karajan's "Salome" . . . And Barenboim's Mozart

For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to Herbert Von Karajan’s EMI recording of Richard Strauss’s “Salome”, an opera we shall hear soon at the Metropolitan Opera.

Karajan conducted only ten performances of “Salome” in his entire career, and the EMI studio recording—made decades after Karajan’s early encounters with the work—was taped in preparation for Karajan’s final eight performances of the opera, presented at the Salzburg Festival in the summers of 1977 and 1978.

Karajan first conducted “Salome” in 1929, when he gave a single performance of the opera in Salzburg. The orchestra for that performance was the Mozarteum Orchestra Of Salzburg, an orchestra not generally associated with the music of Richard Strauss (and certainly not associated with Strauss’s works for large orchestra). The cast members for that initial Karajan “Salome” were singers whose names are unknown to me.

Karajan’s second performance of “Salome” was in 1956, when he conducted a single performance of the work at Teatro Alla Scala in Milan. Christl Goltz was the Salome of the La Scala performance. Max Lorenz sang Herod and Hans Hotter portrayed John The Baptist. The Karajan Zentrum, the most comprehensive and authoritative source of information on all matters related to Karajan, is unclear about the identity of the La Scala Herodias, listing only “Kenney” as the singer of the part. I assume the Kenney in question was Margareta Kenney, the Argentine mezzo-soprano who sang Herodias in the 1950’s throughout Central Europe, most famously under Clemens Krauss.

Karajan planned a Salzburg production of “Salome” in the mid-1970’s, but only after locating a singer he believed to be the singer of his dreams for the title role.

The role of Salome is one that makes impossible demands on the singer. Karajan had long despaired of ever identifying a singer who could offer a satisfactory performance of the role’s vocal requirements as well as offer a convincing physical portrayal of the character.

The role of Salome requires a sizable voice capable of riding Strauss’s gargantuan orchestra (and penetrating Strauss’s dense string writing), but such a voice is seldom housed in anything but the sturdiest, if not stoutest, of bodies. A mature, matronly Salome requires a significant suspension of disbelief for audience members, since Salome is supposed to be a lithe, 16-year-old Judean princess on the cusp of early womanhood. A singer with the voice to handle Salome’s vocal challenges cannot, as a general rule, be expected to look like the character whose story the opera tells.

The singer Karajan identified as ideal for the role of Salome was the then-little-known Hildegard Behrens, a former attorney who had taken up singing only in her very late twenties. Behrens was almost 34 years old before she even made her official debut (as Mozart’s Countess). Karajan first encountered Behrens in 1974, at an orchestral rehearsal of “Wozzeck” in Dusseldorf, and he immediately requested an audition.

At the time, Behrens’s career had been confined primarily to small German theaters. In fact, she was known not at all beyond Dusseldorf, her home theater, and Frankfurt, where she had made a couple of guest appearances. Her career, at that point, had been purely a provincial one.

Karajan’s selection of Behrens as his Salome changed all that overnight. As soon as it was announced that Behrens would be Karajan’s Salome in Salzburg in 1977, Behrens began receiving offers from major theaters everywhere. Even before her Salome was unveiled to the world, Behrens had made her Covent Garden and Metropolitan Opera debuts, singing Beethoven’s Leonore in London in 1976 and singing Giorgetta in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” in New York the same year (the latter to little effect, understandably, since Behrens lacked an Italianate voice and a deep understanding of Italian vocal style).

What Karajan liked about Behrens was her light, flexible yet sizable voice, precisely the type of voice he thought perfect for the role. He also appreciated her physical attributes. Behrens was thin and mobile, and moved well on stage (but Karajan, rightly, never called upon Behrens to do her own dancing in his “Salome” production, a professional dancer being engaged for that aspect of the role in Salzburg).

In short, Karajan was looking for a Salome who would be “the anti-Birgit Nilsson”, one of the reigning Salomes of the day (but a singer Karajan never cared for, on an artistic or on a personal level). In Behrens, he had found one.

By this time in his career, Karajan had a unique way of working in the theater. For his Salzburg projects, he would generally first assemble his cast in the recording studio and make a commercial recording of the opera, after which he would prepare its stage presentation for one of the Salzburg festivals, whether Whitsun, Easter or the main summer affair. The completed recording would be used during the production process, piped into the theater during technical rehearsals and even during preliminary stage rehearsals with cast members. Karajan believed this method of preparing a stage production to be very efficient.

His “Salome” recording, consequently, was made in May 1977 in Vienna (there was a single make-up session in May 1978). The recording venue was the Sofiensaal and the engineering team was from Decca, not from EMI. Although the commercial EMI recording was not released until late 1978, the session tapes were used during the Salzburg rehearsals leading up to the four “Salome” performances in August 1977 at the Grosses Festspielhaus. Karajan himself served as stage director for Salzburg’s “Salome”; the stage designer was Gunther Schneider-Siemssen. The primary cast members—the roles of Salome, Herod, Herodias, Jochanaan and Narraboth—remained unchanged for the duration of the project, beginning with the 1977 Vienna recording sessions, continuing with the four 1977 Salzburg performances, and ending with the four 1978 Salzburg performances.

The cast is one of the best on disc. In addition to Behrens as Salome, the Herod is Karl-Walter Bohm, the Herodias Agnes Baltsa, the Jochanaan Jose Van Dam, and the Narraboth Wieslaw Ochmann. Though this classic recording belongs—among the singers—to Behrens, all her fellow cast members reveal themselves to be among the finest exponents of their roles on disc, Bohm and Baltsa making a particularly fine (and unusually subtle) pair of decadents. Only Jose Van Dam offers slight disappointment—his voice lacks the richness, youth and glamour necessary to convey fully John The Baptist’s chasteness and religious fervor, the very qualities that fascinate Salome and propel the drama forward.

“Salome” is a great psychological drama, with a great psychological text (Oscar Wilde, adapted from the French) and a great psychological score. Both text and score explore the interior worlds of its main characters, often in remarkable if not frightening detail. The score may be Strauss’s most profound creation. It is surely his most subtle, and the sole Strauss opera in which the composer operated at peak inspiration from first bar to last.

Karajan understood the psychological requirements of the drama and the score better than any other conductor who made a commercial recording of the work. He first creates and then builds an intolerable dramatic and musical tension as the interweaving melodic fragments unfold, develop and transform themselves, all happening in the first thirty minutes of the opera as the characters are introduced and the dramatic situation is established. Once the drama is under way and the great multi-level, multi-party psychological battles between Salome, her mother, her stepfather and John The Baptist are in play, Karajan maintains a most powerful concentration, alternately tightening and relaxing musical tension but never once losing grip on the drama.

One of the greatest strengths of his reading is that Karajan knew where the “rest moments” are in the score, moments built into the work so that listeners may sit back and take a breath while they digest—briefly—what has just occurred in the drama. When these “rest moments” are not observed, “Salome” becomes little more than a grim, one-dimensional journey into grotesquery—but when these “rest moments” are handled properly, as they are here, they become an essential element of the drama, enriching and heightening listeners’ fascination with the various psychological maneuverings unfolding and playing out as the work progresses.

One problem common with most “Salome” performances and recordings is that the “rest moments” often result in musical and dramatic tension grinding to a halt. When this is allowed to happen, the musical argument becomes fragmented and the drama becomes disjointed. The work loses its focus and its irresistible allure. “Salome” becomes episodic, even piecemeal, in which case audience members generally stop taking the work seriously as drama and instead simply sit back and wait for the big musical moments to occur.

To work, “Salome” must be all of one piece, swallowed whole. The work must grab the attention of audience members in the opening bars and not allow that attention to wane until the work’s final resolution. If tension is allowed to dissipate in any “Salome” performance, even for a moment, rationality is allowed to intervene into the proceedings in the minds of audience members. Any intrusion of rationality allows audience members to reflect upon what is happening onstage, and to cease to take the work seriously—even to dismiss everything as sheer foolishness. This is inevitably the ultimate outcome in any unsatisfactory “Salome” performance. In such circumstances, the work fails, and there has been no point in performing the opera in the first place.

Rationality kills “Salome”, as the composer well knew. Strauss built the score very, very carefully, constructing it so as to prevent audience members from relaxing and distancing themselves from the drama’s tightening screws. “Salome” is intentionally shaped to prevent listeners from disengaging from the drama while the work is in progress (this is one of the reasons the work was written to be given without intermission). No one knew this better than Karajan.

Karajan is helped immeasurably by the members of the Vienna Philharmonic. He obtains remarkable work from the orchestra, hardly a surprise, since the orchestra had maintained “Salome” in its active repertory for decades and, further, had performed the work annually under Karl Bohm’s baton at the Wiener Staatsoper the preceding several seasons.

Nevertheless, there is a freshness in Karajan’s “Salome”, as well as a concentration and a sense of purpose, that simply was not within the realm of Bohm’s talents. There is more drama and more emotional involvement from Karajan—and much more control—than Bohm was ever able to muster, at least in the music of Wagner or Strauss (the music of Mozart well may have been another matter). The Vienna Philharmonic in this recording does not even sound like the same orchestra heard in tapes of contemporaneous performances of “Salome” under Bohm at the Staatsoper. (In the late 1970’s, around the very time of this “Salome” recording, the Staatsoper finally convinced Bohm, on account of age, to give up exclusivity to this score in the theater and to allow Zubin Mehta to take over some “Salome” performances in Vienna.)

Great Strauss conductors may be divided into two categories: those who emphasize the homophonic quality of Strauss’s writing (Furtwangler, Ormandy) and those who emphasize the polyphonic quality of Strauss’s writing (Reiner, Szell). Karajan was unique in giving equal consideration and weight to Strauss’s homophonic and polyphonic requirements, a quality that comes to the fore in his “Salome” recording. Every musical strand is perfectly clear, precisely balanced so as to emerge from and then disappear back into the overall orchestral fabric. At the same time, Karajan knew as much about Schenkerian harmonic analysis as anyone, and was surely the greatest of all masters of Strauss’s elaborate chromatic vocabulary.

“Salome” is the perfect score for Karajan to display his mastery of the many facets of Strauss interpretation. Much of the writing is a sequence of diatonic linear motives, whether in the voice parts or in the orchestral leitmotifs, all of which are also susceptible to purely chromatic analysis and treatment. At the same time, even when polychords and chromatic motion form the basis of the music’s progression, the shape of individual musical phrases generally admits a purely diatonic analysis and treatment, too. This dichotomy, for Karajan, was no dichotomy at all. He was able to give full voice to the score’s linear and harmonic facets in equal measure, and simultaneously. No other conductor has ever been able to do this (other than the composer himself). The music of Strauss had become innate to Karajan sometime in the 1930’s, and he never was to lose his profound understanding of Strauss’s music, and its ingredients, for the rest of his life.

Karajan’s recorded “Salome” is an overwhelming performance, a performance of utter genius. It is one of the very finest of Karajan’s many, many fine opera recordings. His work here makes otherwise respectable efforts of “Salome” conductors (such as Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf and Giuseppe Sinopoli) seem incompetent in comparison.

Karajan is aided in his work by a Salome who, in audio, offers what most be the most convincing portrayal of the role ever recorded. Behrens offers the insights of a great actress, capturing subtleties in the text and music that other interpreters have never managed to locate, let alone convey. Her handling of the text is superb—almost every word may be understood; many of her utterances are unforgettable—and she gives her lines and musical phrasings a specificity and an intelligence lacking in other recorded accounts of the role. She displays a voice capable of convincing the listener that she truly is a 16-year-old girl, even though the voice easily rides over the waves of orchestral sound. By any standard, this is a great performance for the microphone.

(I have no idea whether Behrens’s youthful voice, in the theater, had the power necessary to cut through Strauss’s orchestral writing as easily as it does in the recording studio. I know no one who heard Behrens’s “Salome” at Salzburg—and when Behrens, many years later, was to return to the role, her voice had changed.)

I never heard Behrens. I regret that.

Behrens was a very individual artist. Many knowledgeable music-lovers liked her immensely.

Of course, many did not.

My parents heard Behrens a few times at the Metropolitan Opera, but never in “Salome”. They recall Behrens as a gifted performer, with a magnetic stage presence. They contend that she generously gave of herself in inhabiting a character and that she had a remarkable ability to shape and to elucidate a text. They insist that Behrens was a compelling stage figure.

However, my parents generally hedge when discussing the actual quality of Behrens’s voice.

The most acute assessment of Behrens’s vocal skills comes from my father, who once had the opportunity to hear Behrens in concert, free from the accoutrements of the theater, singing Beethoven’s “Ah, Perfido” and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. My father says that Behrens’s concert appearance (in the mid-1980’s, before her voice had deteriorated beyond repair) revealed her to be a mostly inadequate vocalist.

My father says that Behrens had six or seven truly “good notes”—notes in which the voice demonstrated richness, clarity, power, beauty of timbre and ease of production (as well as accuracy of pitch, apparently never one of Behrens’s strong points)—and that Behrens relentlessly emphasized that handful of good notes at the expense of musical line and musical sense, more or less turning Beethoven and Wagner into hash.

My father says that Behrens’s “Ah, Perfido” was simply embarrassing. However, he says that her Wesendonck Lieder was fascinating, but perversely so. Behrens emphasized her few “good notes” mercilessly, contorting Wagner’s musical lines into all sorts of weird fragments and shapes in order to showcase her limited vocal strengths. My father says her performance was like hearing a non-English speaker offer a purely phonetic account of The Gettysburg Address, full of bizarre emphases and phrasings—a fascinating, even riveting experience, but surely not what was required.

That concert was the one occasion on which my father saw Behrens from a few feet away, and was able to observe her vocal production at close proximity.

He had had to fly to New York on a Sunday afternoon for a Monday business meeting. After he had arrived in New York and had checked into his hotel, he had had just enough time to walk over to Carnegie Hall to hear a Sunday evening concert by the Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s, with which Behrens was appearing that evening (the conductor was Michael Tilson Thomas). Prime orchestra seating was no longer available from the ticket window, but front-row seats were still available. It was just a few minutes before the concert was scheduled to begin, so my father bought a front-row seat, planning to move upstairs at intermission.

However, he had such a good view of Behrens during the first half of the concert—which included “Ah, Perfido”—that he decided to remain in the same seat for the second half of the concert, too, in order to observe Behrens’s Wesendonck Lieder from close range.

My father says that, when singing her six or seven good notes, Behrens was relaxed and free, with a natural singer’s posture. However, whenever trying to reach her other notes, Behrens inhabited an entirely different body—the muscles in her neck, shoulders and back would tighten noticeably, and she would become a different singer, one visibly under strain.

My father says that his Carnegie Hall experience with Behrens suggested to him that Behrens should have become a stage actress, and not a singer, and that Behrens’s successful opera career had had far more to do with her obvious intelligence—and Behrens’s “Salome” recording demonstrates, above all other qualities, great, great intelligence—than the quality of her voice.

Behrens made a good number of commercial recordings in her heyday, but her EMI “Salome” is the recording for which she will always be remembered. Her other complete opera recordings—“Fidelio”, “Freischutz”, “Tristan”, “Elektra”—are largely forgotten today, known mostly by devoted Behrens fans.

“Salome” is always a great listening experience. In a fine recording, the opera is just as enjoyable at home as it ever is in the theater—and it is unlikely that I shall ever encounter a musical performance of “Salome” of the same high quality as the one available in the EMI recording.

The music of Richard Strauss is not to everyone’s taste. My mother, for instance, loathes the music of Strauss. In the case of my father, he can take or leave Strauss.

My middle brother hates Strauss. He has a hatred for Strauss for which I am supposed to be solely responsible, since I “dragged” him to a performance of "Salome" at Opera Bastille in 2003. After the passage of five years, I am still fielding complaints from him about that “agonizing” evening.

Myself, there are many Strauss works I love, and many Strauss works that leave me cold. Even the Strauss works I love most, such as “Salome”, took me some time first to learn to admire and later to learn to love. Strauss is a composer whose music is not always congenial to music-lovers, and I understand and respect that.

Josh does not like the music of Strauss. In fact, Karajan’s “Salome” is only the second Strauss album Josh and I have listened to together (the first was Felicity Lott’s Strauss lieder recital on ASV). Josh and I have purposefully avoided listening to Strauss discs owing to Josh’s dislike for the composer.

The first couple of times we listened to “Salome”, Josh absolutely hated the piece. By the third listen, he began to appreciate some qualities of the work—first and foremost, Strauss’s staggering mastery of orchestration—but it cannot be denied that Josh is definitely not yet a fan of “Salome”. I wonder what Josh will make of the work when he hears it in the theater.

To spell us from a nonstop dose of music from the greatest exponent of Late Romanticism/Early Modernism, we have been cleansing our ears with a disc of music from The Classical Period: Daniel Barenboim’s recording of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Numbers 14-16 on the Teldec label, with Barenboim playing and leading the Berlin Philharmonic.

The Mozart disc is not distinguished, even though Barenboim’s Teldec Mozart cycle was his second recorded go-around with the Mozart concertos. Barenboim has never been much of a Mozartean, as pianist or as conductor, and he has never been much of a Classicist. Everything Barenboim plays and conducts is done in a highly Romantic style. This approach may be apt for the music of Wagner and Bruckner, but this approach cannot be carried over successfully to music of other composers from other eras—unless the musician in question is an absolute genius, or at least a musician operating on a far higher plane than Barenboim.

The disc has one interesting feature, and that is the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic. The playing is interesting mostly for the sound that Barenboim draws (or rather does not draw) from the orchestra. The strings are far too bass-heavy, and offer playing devoid of color and transparency. This recording was made in 1997, only eight years after Herbert Von Karajan’s death, and yet the orchestra is barely recognizable as Karajan’s orchestra. Karajan would never have allowed such muddy, featureless string playing. The thousands of colors Karajan could summon at will from his string section are nowhere to be heard on this disc.

Further, this orchestra is not even recognizable as the Berlin Philharmonic of Claudio Abbado. By 1997, Abbado had worked extensively with the orchestra for eight years, further developing its transparency of sound and lending an Italianate warmth and elegance to the orchestra’s music-making. There is no evidence on this disc of Abbado’s excellent work in refining the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Were it not for the exquisite wind playing, the orchestra on this particular Barenboim recording would be identified by most listeners as The Radio Orchestra Of The Saarland.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


In addition to Saint-Ansgar-Kirche and Englische-Kirche, four remaining Hamburg churches are also located only yards away from the great Saint-Michaelis-Kirche, whose giant tower completely dominates this area of Hamburg. All four are Seemannskirchen (Seamen’s Churches). Fittingly, all four Seemannskirchen are situated on the street that directly connects the grounds of Saint-Michaelis-Kirche with The River Elbe.

Hamburg’s Seemannskirchen were created to meet the spiritual needs of Scandinavian sailors and their families in what has long been one of the world’s great port cities. Only one of the four church buildings survived the Second World War relatively unscathed. The other three churches—which occupy three adjoining properties—saw their structures destroyed during the war and had to erect new buildings in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The oldest and largest of the Seemannskirchen, right on the waterfront, is the Swedish Gustav-Adolf-Kirche, which opened in 1906. Gustav-Adolf-Kirche occupies what appears to be a large office building with a steeple on top—and that is more or less what the building represents.

The church itself occupies a portion of the second story of the building. The rest of the building is devoted to office space, recreational facilities, guest rooms and food services. The church is a virtual home-away-from-home for Swedish sailors laid up in Hamburg, and includes every possible convenience and service. We visited the interiors of the building one weekday and examined the church’s sacred spaces, all of which were very Wilhelmine indeed, just like the building’s exterior. The staff members on the day we visited, all Swedish, were exceedingly gracious, and they even tried to feed us—twice!

The Danish Sailors’ Church was erected in 1951, and its exterior looks exactly like many 1950’s churches in the Upper Midwest, vaguely representative of what was then considered to be the height of modern ecclesiastical architecture.

The interior of the church was much more interesting. The large chapel, paneled in a variety of rich woods of different colors, textures and shapes, was splendid. The high, vaulted ceiling had unusual proportions and unusual angles, and the window glass and the light fixtures were striking, original and beautiful—as well as timeless (and not irresolutely and irredeemably 1950’s, thankfully). The Danish staff members were gracious, too, and welcomed us heartily.

The Norwegian Sailors’ Church next door was built in 1957. It, too, is an unmistakable product of 1950’s ecclesiastical architecture.

We were unable to visit the interior of the Norwegian Sailors’ Church, as the building is open only for scheduled services.

The Lutheran Finnish Sailors’ Mission next door was built in 1966 and occupies what appears to be a bland and unremarkable office building. One would never know that a chapel is contained within such an entirely indistinctive structure. The Lutheran Finnish Sailors’ Mission is much like the Swedish Gustav-Adolf-Kirche, providing a comprehensive array of services for Finnish sailors and their families, whether they be in Hamburg on permanent or temporary bases. We visited the Lutheran Finnish chapel, a plain but dignified sacred space. During our visit, the Finnish staff members were hosting a large party for children of Finnish sailors stationed in Hamburg, and they told us about the many services offered by the Lutheran Finnish Sailors’ Mission. They, too, were welcoming and gracious to us—and they even tried to feed us, too!


Hamburg’s Englische-Kirche—officially, The English Church Of Saint Thomas A. Becket—is another Hamburg church only yards away from Saint-Michaelis-Kirche.

The church has a long history. In 1611, merchants from Great Britain settled permanently in Hamburg, establishing the first British outpost of traders and bankers on the continent. With interruptions for various wars, this British presence in Hamburg has continued for almost 400 years. Currently over 100,000 British nationals reside in Hamburg, and their presence may be noted everywhere. Even British customs have seeped into the city’s habits, none more prominent than the English afternoon tea, now a Hamburg ritual. Hamburg is the only city on the European continent in which this English custom has taken root (but Hamburgers generally forgo sandwiches and scones, and simply have cake with their afternoon tea).

Within a year of British merchants arriving in Hamburg, the Anglican Church, under the control of the Bishop Of London, was granted religious freedom by Hamburg authorities. For over two centuries, British merchants in Hamburg were the only non-Lutherans permitted to worship in the city (by contrast, Hamburg authorities only granted Roman Catholics the right to worship in 1848), a conspicuous example of economic interests taking precedence over religious principles.

In 1807, during the Napoleonic occupation of Hamburg, the British Merchant Guild was expropriated by French officials. After France’s occupation of Hamburg ended, the British Merchant Guild was awarded compensation by The City Of Hamburg. The compensation was used to build Englische-Kirche.

Ole Jorgen Smid designed the church building, which was completed in 1838. Englische-Kirche is the purest Neo-Classic building in all of Hamburg. The church is of quadrangular construction, with a front façade decorated with a portico supported by four Ionic columns.

The interior is surrounded by a loft, and looks little different than the interiors of the many Neo-Classic churches of London erected at the same time.

The building was severely damaged by bombing in World War II and required thorough renovation after the war.

Hamburg’s Englische-Kirche is no longer governed by the Bishop of London. The Hamburg church is today subordinate to the Bishop Of Gibraltar.

We did not attend Anglican Service at Englische-Kirche. We were in Hamburg only for two Sundays, and we attended Sunday morning service at Saint-Michaelis-Kirche on one Sunday (because a Bach cantata was incorporated into the service, performed by soloist and orchestra) and on the other Sunday we attended Sunday morning service at a large, modern but nondescript church (because Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass was incorporated into the service, performed by soloists, chorus and orchestra).

However, on the Sunday morning we worshipped at nearby Saint-Michaelis, we made a quick visit to Englische-Kirche half an hour before Anglican Service was scheduled to begin in order to view the interior (the church is open only at service times). We were greeted warmly and openly, and we felt badly that we did not remain for service.

Friday, October 03, 2008


Hamburg’s Saint-Ansgar-Kirche lies on the site of the original Saint-Michaelis-Kirche and, consequently, has been known as “Kleiner Michel” (“Little Michael”) ever since Saint-Michaelis-Kirche relocated and rebuilt on a much larger scale almost four hundred years ago. Saint-Ansgar-Kirche is located only 200 yards from today’s Saint-Michaelis-Kirche.

The first Saint-Michaelis-Kirche was a cemetery chapel built in 1600 and enlarged six years later. That building was demolished in 1750 since it was no longer needed, a “new” Saint-Michaelis-Kirche having been constructed from 1647 to 1669. However, when the “new” Saint-Michaelis-Kirche was destroyed by lightning only a few months after the original Saint-Michaelis had been demolished, “Kleiner Michel” was hastily rebuilt in order to offer the parish at least a temporary home. That 18th-Century building was to survive until World War II.

In 1807, “Kleiner Michel” was made available to Napoleonic occupying forces for Catholic masses, there being at the time no Catholic churches within Hamburg’s town borders (practice of Catholicism had been prohibited in Hamburg from the time of The Reformation).

In 1824, The City Of Hamburg purchased “Kleiner Michel”. The city donated the building to the Catholic Church once Catholic worship was again permitted in the city starting in 1848.

The 18th-Century building was destroyed by bombs in 1943. A new church of brick construction was raised after the war. This new church was consecrated to Saint Ansgar, the founding figure of Christianity in Northern Germany.

Saint-Ansgar-Kirche is a very handsome church, and we enjoyed visiting it very much. It is anything but a small church, but it certainly does not approach the vast scale of nearby Saint-Michaelis-Kirche, which indeed does make a dwarf of “Kleiner Michel”.

The photograph below shows the rear of Saint-Ansgar-Kirche, with Saint-Michaelis-Kirche in the background. Saint-Ansgar is typical of Hamburg buildings in that it has very detailed, even intricate brick construction and features architectural elements borrowed from Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque architecture as practiced throughout Northern Europe. The modern-day bell tower, naturally, looks out of place in such a fine building.

The church maintains an active professional concert schedule. We did a good amount of concert-going while we were in Hamburg, but we did not catch a concert at Saint-Ansgar, primarily because we found programs at other concert venues more appealing to us.


In July, Joshua wrote about some of our experiences in Hamburg, which we visited in November 2006.

When writing about Hamburg, Josh wrote about four of Hamburg’s five Hauptkirchen (main churches), the five principal Lutheran houses of worship in central Hamburg.

The fifth Hamburg Hauptkirche, and seat of the North German Lutheran Diocese, is Saint-Michaelis-Kirche.

Saint-Michaelis-Kirche is the largest and most famous church in Hamburg. One of the city’s most important structures, sacred or secular, Saint-Michaelis-Kirche is the most important Protestant Baroque building in all of Germany. It is also the newest of Hamburg’s old historic churches.

The church is situated near The River Elbe. Its 132-meter Baroque spire is one of the city’s landmarks, used as a guide for ships sailing up river to Hamburg Harbor. The photograph below, from 1927, shows Saint-Michaelis-Kirche’s proximity to The River Elbe. The church is situated on a slight rise above the riverbank. The ship in the photograph is the Polonia.

The present Saint-Michaelis church building is the fourth on the site. Completed in 1786, the church was built to a restrained Baroque design by Johann Leonhard Prey and Ernst Georg Sonnin.

Although the church survived The Great Fire Of 1842 that destroyed most of Hamburg, Saint-Michealis-Kirche burned to the ground in 1906, victim of a welding accident during scheduled repair work. The church was reconstructed according to the original plans between 1907 and 1912.

The church suffered irreparable damage during World War II—it was burnt out, although the walls and tower were left standing—and, once again, had to be reconstructed according to the original plans.

The church seen today is a faithful reconstruction of the original 1786 Baroque structure, although cheap post-war buildings, situated alongside the church, mar the magnificence of this great edifice (surely intended to be set apart from all nearby structures).

The photograph below is from 1946, and shows the wartime destruction of the area around the church. Although the church appears to have survived the war unscathed, the church was virtually destroyed during the war, little more than an empty shell after fires swept through the city. The roof of the church that appears in the photograph was a temporary effort, hastily attached at war’s end to preserve the integrity of the structure as much as possible until reparations could get under way. Given the vast destruction apparent in the photograph, it is hard to believe that the area around Saint-Michaelis-Kirche was one of the least-destroyed areas of the city of Hamburg.

The church is dedicated to the Archangel Michael, whose bronze figure guards the entrance to the church. Standing above the portal, Michael is shown conquering the devil.

The church interior is plain but impressive, with white and gold embellishments lending the interior an almost theatrical flair. The interior is designed in the form of a Greek cross, with arms of equal length, and arched ceilings. The interior architecture, artwork and organs are sumptuous and massive. The church accommodates over 3,000 worshippers.

The church has an intriguing crypt, which hosts an exhibition providing an interesting overview of Hamburg from the beginning of the church’s existence to the present. The crypt is the burial place of composer Carl Philipp Emmanual Bach as well as many other notables from Hamburg’s history.

The tower still hosts a 300-year-old tradition: a single trumpeter plays a hymn, facing North, then South, then East, then West, at 10:00 A.M. and again at 9:00 P.M. each weekday.

We visited Saint-Michaelis-Kirche four times during our two weeks in Hamburg.

On our first visit, we explored the church’s exterior and interior, and heard the daily Noon Prayer Service, at which each of the church’s three magnificent organs was played for five minutes. It was a lovely 30-minute service—psalms were read and prayers were uttered between organ selections.

On our second visit, we heard a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem, performed by a professional chorus and orchestra, an annual event in the very building in which Brahms’s work was first performed. The church was brilliantly illuminated that evening, and it provided a glorious venue—resplendent white everywhere, framed by subtle etchings of gold—in which to hear Brahms’s music.

On our third visit, we attended Sunday morning service, at which a Bach cantata, with professional forces, was incorporated into the service.

On our fourth visit, we stood outside to hear the trumpet player perform high atop the tower at the appointed hour (we could barely hear him). After the trumpet hymn, we toured the crypt and went to the top of the church tower, which afforded marvelous views over Hamburg (although the wind was whipping us around the platform so violently that we became terrified for our safety, in large part because only one thin metal rod stood as the lone barrier between the entirely open platform and the ground hundreds of feet below).

For visitors German and foreign alike, Saint-Michaelis-Kirche enjoys a poor reputation. Unlike Hamburg’s other Hauptkirchen, Saint-Michaelis-Kirche does not employ retired persons as church vergers. Instead, it hires unemployed handicapped youths to serve as guides to the church. In our experience, these youths were not well-equipped to deal with the public.

Saint-Michaelis-Kirche is the only church in Hamburg to charge a “voluntary” contribution to gain admittance to the church interior—even for services—and this contribution is anything but voluntary. The church vergers treated visitors like swindlers until two Euros per person were handed over directly into their outstretched hands. We observed numerous German visitors complain loudly about the brusque way in which monies were collected, and we witnessed one young lady from Munich get into a frightful argument with one of the young vergers about his rudeness in collecting money.

Additional fees were required to visit the church crypt and to visit the church tower—my recollection is we had to pay eight Euros per person to buy a combination crypt/tower ticket, in addition to handing over two Euros per person each time we wanted to visit the church interior—and the performance of the Brahms Requiem we attended involved substantial charges, too, for tickets.

All in all, Saint-Michaelis-Kirche did quite well by us. We ended up depositing more than three-hundred American dollars into church coffers before we departed Hamburg.

The church comptroller was probably sorry to see us leave town.