Learning and Lust in Berlin’s New Library

Germany celebrated twenty years of reunification on October 3. Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a child of the GDR, has declared the merger a success at last, in spite of shrinking populations and the massive deindustrialization in what are still condescendingly called the New Federal States of the East. Merkel points to the fact that unemployment in East Germany, in spite of the worldwide financial crisis, is at its lowest since 1991, falling from 20 per cent five years ago to around 11 per cent in 2010, even in the face of the worldwide economic crisis. That’s a lower jobless rate than California’s according to the most recent statistics—a powerful slap to the California Governor’s German-speaking face.

On the cultural front, the project of German Reunification is more than simply power-washing the Brandenburg Gate. In Berlin the neo-classical buildings of the Museum Island, where the now-demolished Communist capital building once stood, have been refurbished to form what Germans claim is the greatest ensemble of museums in the world. Art objects once in West Berlin have been returned to the center of the united city. Most famously the bust of Nefertiti, which the Egyptians have been demanding back for years, took up residence in the completely renovated Neues Museum one year ago. After being evacuated in World War II she spent half-a-century in West Berlin’s Egyptian Museum.

The Berlin State Library, called the Stabi by Berliners, was a powerful symbol of the division of the city. The old building of the State Library in Berlin (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin und Preussischer Kulturbesitz) was in the eastern part of the city, looming next to the great avenue, Unter den Linden, in the heart of the German capital, right across from the Bebelplatz where the Brownshirt book-burning took place in 1933. No books were taken from the State Library, but only from the University Library on the other side of Unter den Linden. The cultural competition of the Cold War produced the new State Library just on the west side of the Berlin Wall. Designed by Hans Scharoun, who also did the nearby Philharmonie, the new library was finished in 1978. The great concert hall now shows its age, undergoing a rather traumatic asbestos abatement operation.

Finished just before World War I, the old building—Haus 1 as the librarians call it—is a massive affair with a face of of ponderous scrolls and hulking statues. It is here that the unparalleled collection of autograph copies of works by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and almost every other great figure of German music are housed.

Though the library fared better than did the obliterated and now-reconstructed State Opera House on the other side of Unter den Linden, it did not escape the war untouched. Whole forests of German oak must once have been felled to panel the cathedral-like grandeur of the library’s central reading room, but it burned with the bombs of 1945.

A modern structure of glass will fill the giant hole now at the center of the block that the library encloses and where the reading room once was. If all goes according to plan the facility will be finished by 2012 after many years of construction. These renovations will transform the library from the post-war mix of Prussian gloom and socialist flimsiness into a site of austere modernist splendor.

One can follow the progress of the project on-line at the website of the architect H. G. Merz, head of the firm hg merz, whose lowercase brand reflects the prevailing aesthetic of his sleek buildings and interiors. (Cube encased in books and drenched with natural light from a ceiling made up of a grid of skylights. It has sleek reading stations placed on long sleek desks with super sleek stainless steel reading lights.

For any one who spends a long time in libraries, nostalgia is a disease to be resisted, because it can be easily succumbed to. Herz Reading Room seems designed to inoculate the researchers from this threat, though one could also interpret the space as being hyper-nostalgic: it is entombed by books with the light of knowledge descending from heaven.

Anyway, I will miss the old place.

All the holdings of the State Library were removed to the countryside during the war, but the Russians confiscated many items stored in the eastern part of the country they conquered. They deposited Mozart and Beethoven manuscripts and some Bachiana in the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow, Poland. There is no sign, sixty-five years after the war, and twenty years after the lifting of the Iron Curtain, that some of manuscripts will ever be returned to Berlin, at least by peaceful means. Many Poles think of them as war reparations, Germans see them as war loot. While the score of Beethoven’s Ninth was returned in the 1970s when Poland and East German were socialist sister-states, Così fan tutte is still in Krakow, retaining the same call number it had while in Berlin. If it ever returns to Berlin, no re-cataloging will be necessary.

Often I’ve put in an order for an old book and the slip has come back with the word “Kriegesverlust” (Lost in War) stamped in red-ink in some vintage font that makes one think of GDR socialism. That manuscript or book has either been destroyed, or the librarian will inform you that it’s “somewhere in Russia” or “somewhere in Poland.”

Other stories have turned out better for the Berlin Library. In 1999 German musicologists re-discovered the holdings of the Sing-Akademie Berlin in the basement of the Archive-Museum for Literature and Art in Kiev. The Sing-Akademie was a private choral society in Berlin most famous for performing J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829 under the direction of the young Felix Mendelssohn.

The Sing-Akademie had the most important collection of Bachiana, much of which it sold to the State Library in order to pay the mortgage on its building just around the corner. It also had a large catalog of works by other 18th-century masters, and the so-called Old Bach Archive, a series of works compiled by J. S. Bach in the 1730s meant to chronicle the musical past of the Bach illustrious clan. For a decade now this material has been back in Berlin.

The old music reading room was a mecca for music historians, just as the new one will be. But like most renovations, this one will get rid of lots of good stuff. Out on the curb of Unter den Linden will be the post-War Socialist décor: the tan-wood bookshelves, fake-leather-backed chairs, and the sputnik-like lights with their clusters of round globes and groovy plastic fins. The Socialists were good on lights.

The Music Reading Room will always be crawling with Americans. In the old place I always got a kick out of sitting at the “manuscripts” table, where researchers stare at big brown folio pages set on the reading stands. They hunch forward deciphering the scratches and scribbles and entering them on their computer keyboards. There would be the Japanese guy with his white gloves tenderly turning the pages or the Bach specialist gazing off into the distance as if communing with the spirit of the composer.

For anyone who loves old things, and especially old books, an open manuscript is an invitation to look, and it is very hard indeed to avoid that urge to nose your way near to someone’s work space to see what he or she has ordered from the Stabi’s vault and now examines with such earnest attention.

Once, a woman working next to me noticed that the title page of my manuscript had “C. P. E. Bach” written on it in large florid letters. She leaned nearer and she whispered inquisitively, “Are you working for PHI?” I had no idea what she was talking, imagining for a second that she was using some kind of Cold War password or an obscure musicological code and that we were back in the days of the divided city. I bided my time with an ambiguous head movement. “Which volume are you working on?” she asked, assuming my head movement signaled a positive response to her question. Finally I realized PHI stood for Packard Humanities Institute and the PHI the woman next to me was referring to the edition of the works of C. P. E. Bach, J. S. Bach’s second son and one of the most famous and influential composers of the second half of the 18th century. This important, complete edition is being funded by David Packard, the inheritor of Hewlett-Packard millions, or perhaps billions. The beautifully produced hard-back volumes can be got super cheap thanks to the Packard subsidy. Mr. Packard’s great love was Hollywood Golden Age movies and he poured some of his inheritance into renovating a wonderful old Art Deco movie house, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto. He once told me to get my feet off the seat in front of me at a late showing of Ninotchka, and I’ve held a grudge ever since. For five or six years now, operatives of the PHI come to the library and exhume one or another C. P. E. Bach manuscript, some of them until only a decade ago still in that Kiev basement.

The librarians in the music reading room oversaw from a nearby counter the commerce with these precious manuscripts. When infractions were made, these dreadnoughts would sweep out from their berths er. When a scholar unwittingly reached for a pen, rather than a pencil he would within seconds feel a shadow over him. If a cellular phone rings the owner will be ejected from the library immediately. In the West End of London a man is probably right paying serious money to be told off by women in full leather rig pretending to be stern German librarians. In the Stabi you could have the pleasure free of charge, mostly minus leather. In the new building, I’m sure research techniques will be policed with modern surveillance cameras in the walls or ceiling.

Thirst for knowledge is not the only urge that drives the researcher. During one of my sojourns in the library, a wild-haired professor in his 50s began sitting across from me at manuscript table. When I looked up a second time, a much younger female assistant at his side was operating the sleek black computer. In contrast to many of the frowning pedants in the Reading Room, the gray-haired professor’s face radiated enthusiasm, even joy. One doubted that the manuscript was the sole object of his scholarly ardor. Every time the pair whispered to one another about the possibilities that a given note might in fact be a G-sharp not a G-natural, and his elbow brushed lightly against some part of her body, one could sense that the other scholars at the manuscript table registered the contact. Many were the warnings shots across their bow fired from the big guns of the dreadnoughts behind the desk. The professor and his assistant always arrived late and left early.

Will the erotic impulse that, however intensely sublimated, lies behind so much scholarly striving be dampened or stoked in Herz’s new Reading Room? Here’s betting that in the digital age, knowing there’s a hidden camera watching will be just what some researchers are looking for.

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

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com