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Summer Nights in Emden and Uttum

Often in June I am traipsing around Northern Europe playing organ concerts in well-preserved Baroque towns. I always think of Adorno’s great line when I arrive at the square with its view of the church I’ll be playing in. “They [the forces of reaction] have made him [Bach] into a composer for organ festivals in well-preserved Baroque towns, into ideology.”

The thing is, Adorno hated the organ and I love it.

This year, however, the unfriendliness skies have kept me home. What I miss almost as much as making music in these beautiful buildings and on what Adorno wrong-headedly called “the shrill and rasping Baroque organs” is the northern light, especially at Midsummer—the longest day of the year around June 21st. So I’m in a nostalgic mood for a summer of music-making late into the seemingly endless twilight of say, fifty-four degrees North at the wonderful 17th-century organ in the aptly-named town of Norden, which means North in German)

Instead, I’ll be spending the summer mostly in the middle of New York State, at forty-one degrees North—the same latitude as Rome and Barcelona.

In this nostalgic mood, here my memories of a few nights in the mid 1990s I spent at the very Norden organ. The result of those nights can be heard on a CD of mine  devoted to the organ works by Delphin and Nicolaus Adam Strungk. The music of the latter was studied and admired by J. S. Bach; the music of the former is almost always fantastical, sometimes bizarre and more than a little self-indulgent. If one listens carefully to the CD one can hear the screech of a Norden owl at Midsummer during the younger Strungk’s extraordinary Ricercar on the Death of His Mother composed in the dark December of 1685.

Midsummer 1996

After a five-and-a-half hour train journey from Belgium, I arrive at Emden, the penultimate station on the rail line running along the northwestern edge of Germany.  Emden is port city on the Dollart, a large round bay which opens onto the North Sea and separates this region of Germany from the Netherlands.  Fifteen miles across the Dollart the smokestacks of the coal plant in Delftzijl blink through the haze.  The great Dutch organist, Klaas Bolt, who grew up near Delftzijl, once told me with a grin how on the night of September 6, 1944, hundreds of people from his town sat on the dike above the Dollart and cheered as the Allies bombed Emden into oblivion.  What he didn’t tell me is that the bombs destroyed three-quarters of the houses of Emden and left the important shipyards untouched.

There is almost nothing left of the old city of Emden apart from the skeletal remains of the large Medieval church which once stood near the harbor.  Among the ruins lies the huge bell, which hasn’t been moved since it fell to the ground along with the church tower on that 1944 night.  The most striking architectural feature of the city to survive the bombing is the five-story concrete bunker across from the market square. The town was “reconstructed” in the 1960s, and has the sterile look of mass re-fabrication. The windows and the brick is where one sees it most easily.

Ever time I come to Emden I visit the park near the center of town and walk by a monument erected in the 1960s for the refugees from Greater Germany who escaped in the oncoming Red Army and were relocated in camps around German towns where the natives were often resentful of the influx.  Chiseled into the top of the grey slab is the inscription “To Unforgotten Homelands” beneath which are the names and coats -of-arms of East Prussia, West Prussia, Danzig, the Sudetenland, and several other former cities and regions of the Greater Germany. A black gravestone-like monolith was erected on the site of the Emden synagogue in 2006; three larger black granite steles engraved with the names of Emden’s murdered Jews were erected in the city’s Jewish Cemetery in 2008.]

Last time I walked ten miles from Emden to the small village of Uttum, where we were staying, and where I lived for a year. But just before I got to the village I tried to leap a small canal and fell in.  This time I take a taxi. The driver is a friendly Greek who tells me that although he has lived and worked in Germany for 33 years he is not considered a German.  “That’s not right,” he says.  One of his relatives went to the U.S. and made out very well and the taxi-driver wishes he had gone there too.  But now it is too late for him and he will stay in Germany even though he feels mistreated here.  He drops me off in the tiny village of Uttum and as he pulls away he gives a hearty, “Welcome to Germany,” —completely devoid of any bitterness.

Uttum clings to a small mound of earth above the reclaimed marshlands.  Our friend Stephan lives in the middle of the village at the top of the hummock.  The ivy has covered completely covered the western side of his house, pushing its way through window frames, seeping under the eaves into the attic, blanketing cardboard boxes, old suitcases, and his children’s bikes.  His wife and four young children have left him and he is now all alone in the house.  He is kept company by the swifts, who have nested in the chimney and by the garrulous jackdaws who squabble and laugh constantly in the beech tree, whose branches envelope the house from above.  I wonder what his über-fastidious neighbors think of the way Stephan is encouraging the place to become a Wagnerian house of nature.  He admits that nearly every one of the Dorf’s residents looks at him funny.

The current state of the place reflects Stephan’s fundamentally Romantic character; he loves to laugh and has an impulsive streak that has him racing over the flatlands in his Triumph motorcycle or doing stunts over the village in his bi-plane. But some things he takes far too seriously.  When I lived next door I once babysat for Stephan and his then-wife so that they could go to a screening of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life in Emden.  They returned home more than an hour earlier than planned, overwrought. Stephan had failed to see the film’s comedy of it.  “Ach, Mensch,” he intoned, “What is the meaning of life?”

There are some large new housing developments going in nearby villages.  Even this region, once the most remote part of Germany, is filling in with escapees from the industrial heartland of the country.  A new Autobahn connects the area to Amsterdam and another one is pushing the final stretch to the North Sea.

The landscape is farbusier than even a few years ago.  Everywhere white windmills rise above the flat fields. In some pastures great banks of them clutter and wheel in the seemingly constant wind off the North Sea.  On the northern approach to Uttum a set of bright blades tumble just beyond the once lonely profile of the Gothic church with its ancient, square tower.

I’m here to play concert and make a recording on a famous 17th-century organ in the town of Norden on the North Sea some ten miles from Uttum.  In search of quiet, we record at night.  The main problem however, is that there isn’t much night to be had. The first session is Midsummer—the longest day of the year.  We have gotten permission from the town to set up a roadblock along the main street in front of the church to stop traffic and its noise.  The public works department has provided us with two impressive barriers each with blinking lights and a steel sign with large black letters spelling the word, UMLEITUNG—detour.

But none of the dozen or so taxis that park in the marketplace across from the church obey the sign, and they zoom past at regular intervals.  I go out and plead with them to obey the rules; they nod and smile , but continue to ignore the signs.

We have to make lengthy pause to let the drunken Midsummer revelers stumble past the church at 2am when the bars close.  This gives us a couple more hours of fairly quiet time until the morning trucks start up with their deliveries. Because a large church acts as an amplifier for all the ambient sounds around it, the mikes pick up nearly all the sounds of the festive night.

The next evening we start again in the last bit of twilight. After night seems officially to have begun, a piercing birdcall begins echoing through the church.  I go out to see if I can chase the nocturnal being away with some gesticulating or with a stone. At the back of the church, I see a large owl silhouetted against the grey midnight light.  I try to scare him off, but he is unfazed.  His call is continual through the scant darkness hours.

We record in bits and snatches, knowing that all unwanted intrusions can be effaced with a virtuosic command of digital editing technology hour, so that no one would ever know what went on outside the church on those nights. The CD will be pure music, divorced from time and place. After staggering into the morning light after the third session, I resolve that next time—if there is one—I record live.  And this time the owl stays. At least a screech or two.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

 

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