How They Do Commemorations in Berlin


I am distrustful of memorial services, not only because of the way memory is exploited by and manipulated through them, but because they inevitably indulge in the most embarrassing forms of kitsch, forms which music often decorates or even fundamentally.

I am spending this year in Berlin, Germany, a country weighted by the culture of commemoration and guilt as is no other.  Normally, I live next to the Ithaca, New York’s 19th-century city cemetery, a picturesque and now very dilapidated twenty acres designed in the 1840s in accordance with the naturalistic impulses of the rural cemetery movement of which Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Mt. Auburn cemetery is the first and most famous example.

On a Memorial Day a couple of years ago early in the morning I came across a collection of veterans, police and firefighters gathered around the Firemen’s Monument at the northwest corner of the graveyard with a commanding  view up Cayuga Lake stretching to the horizon. A black granite bench commemorating September 11 was placed in the shadow the weathered marble firefighters monument within a year or two of the attacks. The men were solemnly gathered around these memorials as a crystal clear performance of Taps came from a uniformed bugler some thirty feet away amidst the graves rising up the hillside. Not wanting to disturb the solemn gathering, I kept my distance from firemen but to do so had to pass within a few feet of the lone musician. As he finished Taps he motioned me towards him, and I obediently approached. He had a confession to make. He held the silver bugle out towards me and showed that it contained a digital insert that had done the bugling for him. He had simply held the instrument to his lips with gloved hand and made some pantomimic gestures suggesting the exertions of an embouchure. I’m not sure if this need to confide in me was motivated by guilt or by the compulsion to include someone outside of the fraternity of servicemen in his musical conspiracy.

What he was holding was a Ceremonial Bugle,  which goes for $530 and, according to its manufacturers, is “a dignified method of playing Taps at military funeral when a live bugler is not available.” The Ithaca bugler was a (re)enactor playing himself in real time.

The melancholy arpeggio of Taps has long conditioned its listeners immediately to enter a state of patriotic devotion if not reverential sorrow. The faultless faux-performance of this Taps, so utterly devoid of the human touches of cracking high notes or wayward intonation, distills musically the repro kitsch mode of the commemoration industry.

The week before the tenth anniversary of September 11 was an eventful one in Berlin. Three days before two young men, one a Palestinian the other of Lebanese descent, were arrested, at which time they were possession of large, bomb-making quantities of chemicals as well as falsified papers. The storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo added to the tension, especially since the German government has consistently opposed Palestinian efforts to join the UN. A strong backer of Israel, Chancellor Angel Merkel has nonetheless been recently criticized publicly by her former political patron Helmut Kohl for letting Germany slip towards international irrelevance. Kohl was particularly distressed by the fact that Obama’s trip to Europe last spring did not include a visit to Germany, the first time since World War II that an American president omitted the country from his itinerary.

Sunday the 11th brought a perfect day to Berlin, without a cloud in the sky. It was a perfect coda to a rainy summer. An interfaith service for the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the attacks took place at the American Church in Berlin, situated in the large and leafy triangle that is the Dennewitzplatz in Schöneberg in what used to be the American zone of the divided city.

Surprisingly perhaps, the highly publicized occasion drew only enough people to fill perhaps two thirds of this bulky 19th-century church with brick facade and booming acoustics. I sat next a diplomat who’d just returned from a trip to Baghdad. His three-year stint in Germany was coming to an end in a couple of weeks. He’d be back in Tempe before the end of the month, the car waiting and the gardeners hard at work getting his place ready. I asked him if his child was in the John F. Kennedy School choir, which sang a modulating setting of Amazing Grace later in the service.  He shook his head. “I’m a member of the congregation,” he said. “Someone’s got to be.”  If a September 11 media-saturated service with American generals, the U. S. ambassador Philip Murphy, the German politicians in attendance, and a powerhouse roster of musical performers couldn’t begin to fill the church one had to wonder about the robustness of American expatriate religious sentiment in Babylonian Berlin.

It was the first time I’ve entered a place of worship through a metal detector, though given the fundamental role religion has played in spurring on the world’s endless conflicts, one wonders why such technology has not been more frequently employed. It was unclear whether these security measures were undertaken because of the date of commemorations and its potential for reprisal or because several rows of prominent German politicians were coming to the service. Merkel’s anticipated appearance never materialized, probably much to Kohl’s chagrin.  Instead her foreign minister and coalition partner Guido Westerwelle of the Liberal Party was the top ranking member of the government. Though in coalition, the Liberals and Merkel’s CDU are currently at each other throats over the Euro crisis, so that it was perhaps unsurprising that Merkel and Westerwelle did not appear together for these commemorations. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder came shuffling along with other retired politicians. The Green Party candidate for Mayor of Berlin and former Cabinet Member in the previous government, Renate Künast showed up and greeted her affable old boss Schröder, then took her place on the left flank of the lefties. She ducked out midway of the service. There was only a week to go before the Berlin elections and much campaigning still to be done.

The service had more music than sermonizing and prayer.  Members of the congregation were unsure of the exact nature of the event: was it a concert or a service. In the end they clapped after each number. When the praying and homilizing finale came one almost expected applause there too.

Some twenty minutes of music introduced the proceedings, with the excellent internationally-active American sopranos Tamara Haskin and Phoebe Fennell delivering powerful readings of Richard Strauss’s “Beim Schlafengehen” and Samuel Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night” respectively.  Amidst these succession of luminous and longing-filled ruminations the politicians entered in stages, taking their seats on one side or the other of the central aisle as they would have done in the Bundestag, the left-leaners shuffling off to the left, the right-leaners to the right. When the German President Christian Wulff showed up the congregation stood as if following the lead of King George II for the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus. But the music was not Handel, but Fauré’s Pie Jesu spontaneously reorchestrated by an antiphonal chorus of press photographers, their cameras clicking furiously from the right transept. Only during the obligatory moment of silence that followed later did the shuttering cease.

The cameras were particularly vocal during U.S. Ambassador Murphy’s comments, which beat the same old patriotic drum: the point of such commemorations, he said, was not only remembrance but action. Calls for peace, especially in God’s house are necessary, but the War on Terror—not named but clearly implied—requires long-term resolve. The crusade must continue.

There were prayers from men (no women) of god in Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, German, and English representing monotheism of the Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant), Jewish, and Islamic persuasions.

The quality of the music making was high, from the school choir, to the church choir, to the professional contributions.

But the most memorable and powerful was the trumpet “soliloquy” of Paul Brody , an American expatriate who has lived in Berlin for some twenty years and is involved with experimental theatre projects here and elsewhere in Europe, To pursue the confrontation of Klezmer traditions with jazz, produces creative children’s music, and is undertakes many other diverse musical ventures.  His September 11 improvisation began with a three-note minor motive, ending on a stuttering, repeated note. Brody melded in Klezmer chromatic touches that came across not as opportunistic multi-cultural clichés and interfaith blandishments, but as necessary elements of a moving musical discourse, aimed not at comforting or convincing but at querying. The pursuit of an unknowable message produced notes that were slightly whispered, doubting, fragile, yet the forceful ascending fourths of Hindemithian high-up in his range that came later were crystalline and pure, but far all their technical mastery expressive nonetheless of vulnerability. This was not the triumphalism or tears of the fanfare or the funeral, but a much more sincere into the limits of human control over events and their memorializations. After the strivings and adventures of the soaring trumpet, Brody recalled the opening motive at the end the soliloquoy, making  a musical whole, tonally and structurally closing this piece, which had premiered and vanished in the course of three minutes. Yet this return did not suggest finality but instead the open-ended,  deeper questions, far beyond the routines of rituals, that should be asked on such occasions, but never are.

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




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