Saturday, February 26, 2011

1931 Germany

After ten years of revolution, political instability, hyperinflation and the burden of onerous war reparation payments, Germany began to enjoy a degree of economic and political stability by 1929. The country’s future, for the first time since the early World War I years, looked promising.

The Wall Street Crash Of 1929 put an end to that promise.

The effects of the Crash began to be felt in Europe by early 1930. By 1931, European economies were in full-fledged crisis.

Germany was especially hard-hit, as the country was required—despite the fact that Germany's economy was on the verge of complete collapse—to continue to send billions of marks overseas each year as part of its post-war obligations.

By January 1931, Germany was in dire straits. There appeared to be no way out of the financial morass, even if foreign governments were to grant the nation a moratorium on reparation payments, which foreign governments were unwilling to do.

The situation was ripe for the populace to turn to radical measures—which, in time, was precisely what happened.

The photograph below depicts unemployed dockworkers at Hamburg’s harbor in January 1931. The workers are milling about, waiting for the unlikely prospect of day work.

When we were in Hamburg in 2006, I believe we walked under the very bridge that appears in the photograph, although none of the buildings in the photograph survived World War II.

By the summer of 1931, bank panics were the order of the day throughout Germany.

The photograph below shows anxious crowds of depositors outside a Berlin bank in July 1931, waiting to withdraw their money. In the U.S. of 1932 and 1933, the scene would have been called a bank run.

Unemployment in Germany skyrocketed in 1930—and continued to rise sharply throughout 1931 and 1932.

The photograph below shows an unemployed man in 1931, his meager belongings in tow, sitting on the entrance steps of a Berlin commercial firm.

By 1931, there was no longer any effort on the part of police to prevent the unemployed from loitering near business establishments—a grim sign of how bad the situation had become.

Charitable efforts were widespread throughout the country, but they were insufficient to address the depth of the problem the country faced. Germany was dealing, not only with an army of unemployed, but with countless disabled war veterans, all of whom required assistance.

In the photograph below, from October 1931, a charitable organization collects donations in Berlin for the unemployed and the war disabled.

The horse-drawn wagon, a jarring sight in a major metropolis in 1931, looks out-of-date, out-of-place and positively pitiful—and the charitable workers look as if they are themselves as much in need of assistance as the persons for whom they are collecting.

Bank runs throughout Germany continued to be a daily occurrence until March 1933—when, as in the U.S., they finally ended with the installation of a new government and new banking measures.

The photograph below shows yet another run on a Berlin bank in November 1931.

Eminent German financial institutions that somehow had survived the immediate post-war years, and all the crises and privations those years entailed, were unable to survive the aftermath of The Wall Street Crash. By 1933, the state-created Reichsbank, established in the 19th Century, was the only large financial institution remaining in Germany.

In times of crisis, or in times of great despair, people turn to solutions that, in normal times, would never be thought possible.

One of the results of the October 1929 Crash was the rise of Hitler, who within forty-one months after the Crash held Germany firmly in his grip.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cortege Hongrois

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "Cortege Hongrois".

New York City Ballet Weekend II

On Saturday, January 22, Joshua and I attended the matinee and evening performances at New York City Ballet. Both performances were devoted exclusively to George Balanchine.

It was not until we arrived at the theater on Saturday afternoon that Josh and I realized that Balanchine had been born on January 22, and that two all-Balanchine programs were New York City Ballet’s way of celebrating what would have been the master’s 107th birthday.

The audiences on January 22 were the finest ballet audiences I have ever experienced at New York State Theater (or anywhere else, for that matter). The audiences were supremely knowledgeable, even by New York City Ballet standards, which are surely the highest in the world. Every Balanchine aficionado in New York must have been in attendance—the house was packed for both performances—and everyone appeared to be in a festive mood. The atmosphere was electric.

Our presence in the theater was entirely fortuitous. Josh and I had had no idea, when we purchased our tickets online, that January 22 was to be a Balanchine celebration in all but name. Josh and I had traveled to New York simply because we liked the programs on offer; everything else, for us, was a bonus.

The Saturday matinee program was the best program of the weekend. On the bill were “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”, which Josh and I had seen the night before, “Duo Concertant”, “The Four Temperaments” and “Cortege Hongrois”.

The Saturday afternoon “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” performance was better than the Friday evening performance. The dancing was crisper and had more elan, and the principal dancers were much finer, than what we had witnessed the night before. The company, I believe, was inspired to give of its best on this special day—and gave the kind of performance one waits years to encounter. I am not certain I have ever seen anything finer than the Saturday presentation of “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”. The performance was effortless, and effervescent.

On the matinee program, there was one Balanchine work new to me: “Duo Concertant”. It was the only ballet of the weekend that I had not already seen at least once.

“Duo Concertant”, created in 1972 for New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival (held one year after the composer’s death), is danced to the Stravinsky piano/violin work of the same title.

According to the notes in the program booklet, Stravinsky’s piano/violin duo was known to Balanchine since shortly after the work’s 1932 premiere and was to become one of Balanchine’s favorite pieces of music—and, having known the piece for forty years, Balanchine decided after Stravinsky’s death to set the music to choreography. “Duo Concertant” is, consequently, one of Balanchine’s few ballets in which he violated his self-imposed rule not to set chamber music to dance. (Among many other things, Balanchine believed—rightly or wrongly—that chamber music was unsuitable for dance because it was “repetitive”.)

“Duo Concertant” is the ballet in which the dancers, famously, merely listen to the music during the first movement, standing next to the musicians at the side of the stage. During the three danced movements, the dancers (there are two) periodically rejoin the musicians and, once again, simply listen. “Duo Concertant” is a fascinating ballet, and probably a masterpiece. At its conclusion, I instantly wanted to see the ballet again.

Following “Duo Concertant” was “The Four Temperaments”, a template of twentieth-century classicism and one of the calling cards of New York City Ballet.

January 22 was Josh’s fourth encounter with “The Four Temperaments”—he had previously seen the ballet danced by NYCB in 2007, San Francisco Ballet in 2008 and Boston Ballet in 2010—and he has grown to appreciate a ballet he initially thought was “dry and academic, sort of like the music”.

The January 22 performance of “The Four Temperaments” was very fine, probably the finest performance of the ballet I have ever witnessed. There was something unique in the air on that particular Saturday afternoon—the dancers were giving, and relaxed, and enjoying themselves immensely—and the performance of “The Four Temperaments” benefited from the sense of celebration.

When “The Four Temperaments” had concluded, and the final curtain brought down, and the house lights brought up, I turned to the lady sitting next to Josh and asked, “They [the dancers] are having a special day, aren’t they?”

Her response, in New Yorkese: “Believe it, baby. They’re on fire.”

The matinee concluded with “Cortege Hongrois”, the last of four works Balanchine created to music taken from Glazunov’s “Raymonda”.

Blanchine—who as a child had danced in Marius Petipa’s staging of “Raymonda” at the Mariinsky, and who had met Glazunov during one of those “Raymonda” rehearsals—first worked with the composer’s “Raymonda” music in 1946, when he and Alexandra Danilova had staged a complete “Raymonda” for Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo. The 1946 staging has never been revived; it may not have survived, as most Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo ballets were not notated.

After establishing New York City Ballet, Balanchine turned to Glazunov’s “Raymonda” score three times to borrow music for three separate and discrete abstract ballets, all created for NYCB dancers.

In 1955, Balanchine choreographed “Pas De Dix”, using music from Act III of “Raymonda”.

In 1961, Balanchine created “Raymonda Variations”, using music from Act I of “Raymonda”.

In 1973, Balanchine created “Cortege Hongrois”, using—once again—music from Act III of “Raymonda”, including some music already used in “Pas De Dix”.

“Cortege Hongrois” is an unusual ballet for Balanchine. It is a mixture of classical dancing and character dancing, with the classical dancers en pointe and the character dancers in shoes. It is, in all but name, a final-act divertissement, modeled upon the final-act divertissements favored by Petipa, in which colorful “ethnic” or “folk” dancing provided a significant portion of the entertainment. It is the character dancing that makes “Cortege Hongrois” unique in the Balanchine canon: in no other Balanchine abstract ballet does character dancing feature.

In theory, “Cortege Hongrois” should work splendidly, as it was precisely the kind of entertainment that Balanchine could manufacture in his sleep.

However, I do not believe that “Cortege Hongrois” is a successful ballet. “Cortege Hongrois” is a case study in which Balanchine is seen going through the motions, trying to craft a joyous, crowd-pleasing, program-closing work, but without much success.

There is no inspiration and no conviction in “Cortege Hongrois”. The choreographer had long since evolved beyond this type of confection by 1973—it was the sort of ballet Balanchine had needed to create in the 1950’s in order to give the public an accessible closing ballet in hopes that the non-specialist public would return for more performances—and it no longer brought out the best in his talents. I suspect that Balanchine, while making “Cortege Hongrois”, knew that his heart was not in the project: he was never again to return to such territory for the rest of his life.

There was nothing wrong with the performance on January 22, but it was apparent that the audience’s attention was much less riveted to the stage for “Cortege Hongrois” than it had been for the previous three ballets on the program. Despite its infrequent appearance on NYCB programs, “Cortege Hongrois” does not galvanize the dance-lover—and it did not galvanize the January 22 audience, which was distinctly unenthusiastic in its response. What should have provided a roof-raising conclusion to the Saturday matinee program was anticlimactic if not wan.

“Cortege Hongrois” is a rare—but not entirely uncountenanced—example of Balanchine operating on autopilot. Even the greatest artists create work that does not reveal them at their finest.

And “Cortege Hongrois” certainly is not a disgrace. The ballet even has a few charms.

It is, however, hard to believe that Balanchine, only months earlier, had created “Symphony In Three Movements”.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Walpurgisnacht Ballet

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "Walpurgisnacht Ballet".

New York City Ballet Weekend I

The fourth weekend of January, Joshua and I went down to New York. The purpose of our visit was to catch three performances at New York City Ballet.

On Friday evening, January 21, the company danced George Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”, Jerome Robbins’s “Dances At A Gathering” and Alexei Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH”.

“Walpurgisnacht Ballet” was created in 1975, at the invitation of Rolf Liebermann, for a new production of Gounod’s “Faust” at The Paris Opera (a now-famous production in which the opera was set during the time of the Franco-Prussian War). The ballet was to enter the repertory of New York City Ballet in 1980.

“Walpurgisnacht Ballet” was the second Balanchine ballet whose origins may be traced to Liebermann. In 1963, Liebermann had engaged Balanchine to create dances for a production of Gluck’s “Orpheo Ed Euridice” at the Hamburg Staatsoper. The Hamburg Gluck dances were to reemerge thirteen years later at New York City Ballet as “Chaconne”.

Despite its creation for a production of “Faust”, “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” is abstract; the choreographer made no attempt to depict the events called for by the opera’s scenario.

“Walpurgisnacht Ballet” has always reminded me of “Serenade” insofar as both ballets are purely abstract works yet highly suggestive of incident. Both ballets are gentle if not pastoral, yet neither lacks mystery or drama—and both sport a major climax at the end.

Both ballets are danced on a bare stage and involve the endless unfolding of complex geometric progressions. Both ballets require refined, virtuoso dancing. Purity of style is paramount: imperfection of port de bras or epaulement is glaring; the slightest overextension becomes a shocking event. I am surprised that “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” is not performed more frequently than it is, both by NYCB and other companies, since the ballet clearly is from Balanchine’s top drawer. I could easily watch the ballet a hundred times.

On January 21, when he saw the ballet for the first time, Josh said that he, too, could see countless elements of “Serenade” in “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”—and not simply because the cast requirements are similar (one male dancer and seventeen female dancers for “Serenade”; one male dancer and twenty-four female dancers for “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”). Both ballets, unmistakably from the hand of the same master, show Balanchine working in a state of grace.

The January 21 performance of “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” appeared under-rehearsed, most evident in the female principal and male principal, both of which were tentative in their roles. Balanchine’s ballet, nonetheless, was the highlight of the evening’s program.

I would be pleased to see Balanchine’s ballet performed within the context of an uncut presentation of the Gounod opera. Despite its restraint and cool tone, “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”, an example of purest Classicism, strikes me as perfect choreography for Gounod’s very objective and very French musical interpretation of Goethe’s masterwork.

My parents attended a performance of The Paris Opera production of “Faust” in 1976 during The Paris Opera’s visit to the United States as part of America’s Bicentennial celebrations. My parents recall that, for the U.S. tour, Balanchine’s ballet had been excised from “Faust” (probably because The Paris Opera Ballet had been left behind in Paris)—but they nonetheless recall the performance with special pleasure because that Paris Opera “Faust” provided them with their only opportunity to hear the great French tenor, Alain Vanzo. Other than those 1976 tour appearances with The Paris Opera, Vanzo never appeared in a fully-staged opera production in the United States.

My parents were not to catch “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” until the autumn of 1980, when they saw the ballet on the same evening that Darci Kistler, the last of the great ballerinas coached by Balanchine himself, made her professional debut—at the age of sixteen—in Balanchine’s one-act recension of “Swan Lake”.

Only days later, I was born.

The “Dances At A Gathering” that followed “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” operated on a much lower plane.

I have never been an admirer of Robbins’s “Dances At A Gathering”, and the performance of January 21 did not cause me to change my mind.

The ballet is too long—it lasts over an hour—and the ballet has a hopeless 1960s sensibility that I find unattractive. Of more importance, Robbins lacked the sheer genius of Balanchine when it came to creating dances for the dance.

Performed to Chopin, “Dances At A Gathering” features ten dancers, five male, five female, working singly or in groups of two to ten, put through a variety of maneuvers. There are suggestions of romance, and disappointment, and despair. Portions of the ballet are playful, portions of the ballet are mournful—but most of the ballet is uneventful. Twenty minutes of choreography have been stretched to occupy sixty minutes.

“Dances At A Gathering” has been staged by countless companies throughout the world since its 1969 premiere, so the ballet obviously has its adherents. Myself, I have never understood the ballet’s appeal.

Things are not helped by having to listen to eighteen Chopin pieces in succession. Two Chopin works at a time are more than enough for me—I hold the minority view that Chopin was a composer for the salon—and being forced to listen to Chopin for an hour is, for me, a chore if not an outright punishment.

Matters were made worse on January 21 by the fact that the pianist was not good—and the instrument in use featured a hard, brittle sound.

It was an unrewarding hour.

Balanchine’s ballets are timeless. An observer without background information would be unable to “place” Balanchine’s ballets. There is nothing of the 1970s in “Walpurgisnacht Ballet”, just as there is nothing of the 1930s in “Serenade” and nothing of the 1940s in “The Four Temperaments” or “Symphony In C”.

Robbins’s ballets, on the other hand, are pure artifacts of the times of their creations. “Dances At A Gathering” positively screams “1969”, just as “Interplay” heralds “1945” and “Glass Pieces” trumpets “1983”.

“Dances At A Gathering” would benefit from re-costuming. The 1960s color scheme is outdated and now looks garish if not ridiculous—and the costumes for the male dancers need to be totally rethought (and the boots retired).

The art of costuming at its zenith was not displayed in “Concerto DSCH”, either. The colors were not pleasing, the designs nowhere near the level of accomplishment routinely achieved by Madame Karinska for Balanchine during the master’s lifetime.

(Balanchine always demanded that his dancers be dressed—and lighted—to the highest standard. While Balanchine was alive, premieres of new ballets were sometimes delayed, at considerable expense, because Balanchine was not happy with the costuming. Sometimes at his request completed costumes were discarded entirely and new ones created, the most famous case being “Vienna Waltzes”. Shortly before the scheduled premiere in 1977, Balanchine decided that synthetic materials would not do, as they lacked the necessary “swoosh” for the ladies’ gowns. Consequently, he ordered Madame Karinska to remake all costumes for the female dancers from pure silk, at a cost of more than half a million dollars, a not insignificant sum at the time. Of course, the end result, seen onstage, is glorious.)

Josh and I had attended a performance of Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH” in January 2009, just a few months after the ballet’s 2008 premiere, and we were eager to see the ballet a second time. Set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, one of that composer’s most vapid and least successful scores, the ballet’s frivolous surface and gaiety are illusive—there are grim undercurrents beneath the surface.

When we saw “Concerto DSCH” two years ago, I believed the ballet was, in part, a comment on Stalinism.

The score guided me in that belief. Composed in 1957 as a birthday gift for the composer’s son, Maxim, who played the concerto worldwide over the following ten years, the Piano Concerto No. 2 may be interpreted as the composer’s sigh of relief over the end of Stalinism (all the while looking over his shoulder at the footprints left behind). The score’s deliberately banal surface scarcely concealed the composer’s frazzled nerve endings.

Having experienced “Concerto DSCH” a second time, I no longer see Stalinist associations in Ratmansky’s ballet. My earlier impressions were wrong, I believe. The ballet is, more likely, nothing more than the choreographer’s exploration of the fragility of human relationships. The ballet’s undercurrent of tension is an expression of human—not political—stress.

I thought I would see more in “Concerto DSCH” on second viewing than on first viewing. “Concerto DSCH” was, I thought, a ballet that would reveal more and more secrets with each successive encounter.

Once again, I was wrong. “Concerto DSCH” offered no more richness upon a second encounter than it had offered on first acquaintance. In fact, I liked the ballet less in 2011 than I had liked it in 2009.

“Concerto DSCH” was so unprepossessing on second viewing that I now believe it inferior to Kenneth MacMillan’s 1966 ballet, “Concerto”, danced to the same score—and MacMillan’s “Concerto”, despite a few attractive moments, is anything but a masterwork.

A great deal of energy is on display in “Concerto DSCH”, especially in the first and third movements, but ultimately the ballet does not amount to much.

A second viewing of “Concerto DSCH” revealed alarming parallels with the ballets of Robbins. Among other things, cast members not dancing remained onstage, observing the work of their fellow cast members (a longstanding—and irritating—Robbins tic). The Robbins parallels did not redound to the benefit of “Concerto DSCH”.

Of greater concern, portions of “Concerto DSCH” are borrowed from Maurice Bejart. The opening of the ballet—a female dancer emerging from a circle composed of other dancers—is one of the most tiresome devices of the 1960s and one of the most tiresome devices of Bejart. I am surprised that the choreographer had the face to use such a stale gesture in 2008 (and I am, further, surprised that New York dance reviewers did not bother to mention use of this particular Bejart cliché in their worshipful reviews of “Concerto DSCH” at the time of the ballet’s premiere).

It is not unusual for ballet lovers to change their opinions of a ballet upon repeated viewings. As a general rule, the greater the choreography, the more the ballet lover likes a work over time—and the worse the choreography, the less the ballet lover likes a work over time.

My interest in Ratmansky’s work took a serious nosedive after my second look at “Concerto DSCH”.

It is an over-praised, and not particularly good, ballet—and I am not interested in seeing “Concerto DSCH” again anytime soon.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hamburg Kunsthalle II

This photograph depicts the original Hamburg Kunsthalle, an 1869 neo-Renaissance structure that, miraculously, emerged from World War II largely unscathed. (In contrast, Hamburg’s Central Train Station, two blocks to the south, was totally destroyed by Allied bombs.)

A second, neo-Classical building was added to the Kunsthalle in 1919. A third, international-style high-rise building (from which this photograph was taken) was added in 1997.

Only the original Kunsthalle building is of architectural interest. The 1997 building, especially, is very poor, hopelessly out-of-date by more than thirty years at the time of its completion.

Das Hans Sachs Ballet

Portrayed in this photograph is “Das Hans Sachs Ballet”, an indescribable presentation danced—presumably to the music of Richard Wagner—during the World Chess Championships in Munich in 1936.

Spectators must have been spellbound.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Very Strange Man

I have shot two horses, burned a third, and strangled a dog.

Ingmar Bergman, on the set of his only English-language film, “The Serpent’s Egg” (1977).

Bergman’s statement, apparently not made in jest, was in response to the protests of cast and crew, who objected to a scene involving the butchering of a live horse.

Happily, the views of cast and crew prevailed. The scene was not filmed.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Audience Is Requested . . .

The audience is requested not to refrain from talking during the overture. Otherwise they will know all the tunes before the opera begins.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Friday, February 11, 2011

Candied Goethe

I am, normally, totally immune to kitsch.

However, last weekend—while Joshua and I were visiting an antique shop—I picked up a couple of items that probably fit the definition of “kitsch”.

I bought two opera plates from France.

Between the 1880s and 1920s, a French porcelain manufacturer commissioned and produced a set of twelve plates, each plate devoted to an opera then popular with the French public. Production of the plates continued in France until the worldwide Depression of the 1930s.

The plates produced in France are somewhat prized, although they do not command a high price on the collectibles market because significant numbers of the plates were issued. Extreme rarity the plates do not possess.

In the 1940s, the original French manufacturer licensed eight of the series of twelve opera plates to two American plate manufacturers, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. The plates manufactured in the U.S. acquired astonishing popularity during World War II, perhaps because Americans sympathized with occupied France.

The original French manufacturer also licensed eight of the series to a Japanese plate manufacturer in the 1950s. There are, consequently, four different versions of the opera plates circulating.

The plates produced in the U.S. and Japan are smaller in circumference than the French originals and are of much lower quality both in terms of porcelain and painting. The manufacturer and country of issue are stamped upon all four versions of the plates, so the buyer may ascertain which particular version of the plates he is buying—and the version of the plates I encountered and purchased was that of the original French manufacturer.

One of the plates I purchased was the “Faust” plate.

I have always believed that Charles Gounod’s “Faust” is one of the finest operas ever written—and I have always believed that “Faust” must be performed uncut, that the ballet must be included, and that all four intermissions must be observed. Anything less destroys the structure of Gounod’s masterpiece.

The other plate I purchased was the “Mignon” plate.

I have always believed Ambroise Thomas’s “Mignon” to be a greatly-undervalued opera, a work of incomparable grace and charm. “Mignon”, in my view, should never have disappeared from the active repertory.

My mother loves French opera, and my sister-in-law loves French opera, so I shall offer one plate to my mother and one plate to my sister-in-law. Each recipient shall have the option of hanging the plate in her kitchen—or putting the plate in a drawer, never to emerge.

As for me, my fondness for “Faust” and “Mignon” is genuine—but, in my father’s words, my fondness signifies nothing more than a love for “candied Goethe”.

Am I not as immune to kitsch as I suppose?

(I love Jules Massenet’s “Werther”, too.)

Saturday, February 05, 2011

5 February 1945

It was on this date in 1945 that Heinrich Himmler, in return for five million Swiss Francs (U.S. $1,250,000) paid by Jewish organizations operating in Switzerland, allowed 1200 Jewish prisoners of Terezin (Theresienstadt) to be transported to safety in Switzerland.

One Himmler motive: by allowing a few hundred Jewish prisoners to leave with their lives, he hoped to dispel the widespread notion in the rest of Europe that Jewish persons were being exterminated in Reich-occupied territories.

Himmler’s operating assumption was non-operative.

The photograph below depicts the arrival of a train transport at Terezin in 1943.

“I Stand At The Door And Knock, Knock, Knock”

Behold, Behold,
I stand at the door and knock, knock, knock.

Behold, Behold,
I stand at the door and knock, knock, knock.

If anyone hear my voice,
If anyone hear my voice,
And will open, open, open the door,
I will come in.

This famous children’s bible song, known to everyone, is my nephew’s favorite Sunday School song. He often sings it to himself during the week while he is playing with his toys.

The song—music and lyrics both, with lyrics borrowed and adapted from Revelations—is undeniably catchy, and must appeal to children.

Until I heard my nephew sing the song to himself one day during the Christmas holidays, I had not thought of the song since I was a child.

My mother tells me that the song was my favorite Sunday School song, too, although I do not remember having a favorite Sunday School song.

My nephew started Sunday School in September of last year. Apparently things have been going well for him at Sunday School, because he looks forward to going each week. In addition, he must be behaving himself in the presence of outsiders, because my brother and sister-in-law have not been asked to withdraw him.

Sunday School for preschoolers is, above all, about socialization: the kids learn to interact with each other. Aside from singing a few songs and listening to a bible story, the kids spend the hour playing games organized by their Sunday School teachers.

Sunday School, however, is no longer referred to as Sunday School at my family’s church. In the last couple of years, the church has started to call Sunday School “Kids’ Ministries”—except that “Kids’ Ministries” evolves into “Student Ministries” for those in grades six and above.

Other things, too, have changed at my family’s church in the last couple of years.

The church has introduced late afternoon/early evening service on Saturday for those that cannot be bothered to attend service on Sunday morning. Until recent years, when I noticed this peculiarity arising in Protestant denominations, I thought only Roman Catholic churches adopted such practice.

Further, there is now a “traditional” Sunday morning service as well as a “contemporary” Sunday morning service at my family’s church.

The church calendar is becoming more and more complicated!

Most of the new endeavors at my family’s church have come about as the retirement of the church’s long-time pastor, who has served for more than twenty years, approaches. Once the current pastor steps down, I question whether my parents will remain happy in the local Presbyterian parish. I believe it possible that they will revert to The Lutheran Church, in which they both were raised as children—and, surely, the rest of us will follow.

My nephew’s Sunday School is contemporaneous with Sunday morning service, so he no longer attends service with the family. My mother says that our pew now seems empty without him.

My nephew celebrated his fifth birthday at the end of October. It is impossible for me to believe that he is five years old—and yet it is impossible for me to believe that he has not been an integral part of my life since the day I was born. I cannot imagine life without him.

I can see my older brother in him a thousand times over. He is a virtual replica of my brother. I was not around to observe my brother in his earliest years—he was six years old when I was born—but, observing my nephew now, I no doubt see glimpses of my brother when he was the same age.

My mother sees so many similarities between father and son that she says it is often difficult for her not to call my nephew by my brother’s name. That, I suppose, is one of the hazards of being a grandmother.

Joshua and I keep in close touch with my nephew. Every day or so, we send his mother email messages containing amusing pictures or stories for his benefit, and she sits with him at the computer, showing him the pictures and reading him the texts.

Animals are always a big hit with my nephew, so Josh and I send him lots of animal pictures and short animal stories. He especially likes bears of all types—and he wants his parents to get him a bear as a pet!

My nephew knows that Josh and I will return to the Twin Cities soon. He frequently asks his mother whether Josh and I will be back “next week”.

This proves that he now measures the passage of time by weeks, which he did not do one year ago.

I wonder whether this is one of the benefits of attending Sunday School.

Church Of The Holy Spirit, Munich

The Church Of The Holy Spirit ("Heiliggeistkirche") in central Munich.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

When Mechanization Falters

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, German industry was the most highly-developed and most heavily-mechanized in the world.

There was one area, however, in which Germany was woefully behind the times: agriculture.

Mechanization of agriculture in the United States began early in the 19th Century and has remained aggressive ever since. A similar level of mechanization, however, did not reach Germany until after World War II. In fact, as late as 1950, most agricultural work in Germany was performed by manual laborers.

There were serious consequences for Germany’s failure to adapt technology to its agriculture economy. One such consequence was that the nation was on the verge of starvation during much of World War I. From 1914 until the conclusion of The Great War, Britain’s Naval Blockade of The Central Powers prevented Germany from importing agricultural product necessary to feed its populace. The result: coffee and tea disappeared virtually overnight during the war years, as did citrus fruits; meats, eggs, potatoes, vegetables, cereals, grains and sugar were in critical short supply by late 1915, when the nation was forced to create turnip-based substitutes for almost all food items (turnips were the only agricultural product that remained widely available in Germany during the war years).

During the fifty-year period prior to World War I, Germany had imported bounteous foodstuffs from South America and Africa, all needed in order to feed its growing populace. From 1865 to 1914, the German Merchant Marine was one of the world’s largest and finest, successfully keeping the nation fed via overseas sources. Importation of foreign food product ceased with the onset of war.

Until advent of the German Merchant Marine in the 1860s had resolved the nation’s longstanding incapacity to feed itself, Germany’s failure to produce sufficient agricultural product was the chief cause of German emigration to the United States. From the 1820s until the beginning of The American Civil War, many German jurisdictions actually encouraged—if not rewarded—emigration to the U.S. as a means of addressing Germany’s persistent food shortage. It is owing to Germany’s policy during this period of actively encouraging emigration that at least one-quarter (and perhaps as much as one-third) of today’s U.S. population can trace its roots to German heritage.

The photograph below, from 1904, documents a key activity in German life long after comparable scenes were inconceivable, if not outright incomprehensible, in North America: threshing wheat by hand.

Before mechanization, threshing wheat was a collective effort in which all German generations participated. In the photograph, children look on as men beat wheat husks in order to separate wheat from straw.

Mechanization of German agriculture began to take hold early in the 20th Century on a very limited basis, although such mechanization was piecemeal, uneven and not-at-all widespread.

The photograph below, from 1910, portrays the earliest effort toward mechanization of German agriculture: farmers use a primitive motorized tractor and reaper to harvest grain.

Germany’s need for imported agricultural foodstuffs continued long after the end of World War I. One reason for Germany’s longing for territory in Eastern Europe and—especially—The Ukraine was the need for agriculture bounty. The search for fresh, reliable sources of food was one of the precipitating causes of Germany’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1941.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Hamburg Kunsthalle

The Central Staircase of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, Germany’s largest art museum.

The Kunsthalle occupies three buildings. The building in the photograph is the oldest of the three, completed and opened to the public in 1869.

Visitors enter the Kunsthalle on ground level through the doors at the bottom of the staircase, and ascend to the galleries on the second floor.

The Kunsthalle, a fascinating yet immensely frustrating museum, is nowhere near as stately and impressive as this photograph suggests.

The foyer at the top of the Central Staircase is one of only two rooms in the Kunsthalle that is remarkable.

The other is the Grand Foyer on the ground floor, sheathed in marble and lined with marble columns. The Grand Foyer is now home to a very fine and very elegant restaurant.