The European-American relationship has always been marked by traffic in both directions. It’s nowhere more apparent than through the windshield of a car.
So impressed with Hitler’s Autobahns as a means for moving modern armies, Eisenhower introduced them to the United States. America then used them to perfect the black arts of urban sprawl. After some foot-dragging the Europeans have taken up the flag, adding to it their own colors. The big blue box of IKEA is as universal feature of the landscape as the Golden Arches.
For the 18th-century traveller moving farther from the city was to move back in time. Now it’s the opposite: the “historic center” has become a museum.
Set at the northern entrance to the Harz Mountains in the gently rolling Westphalian countryside, Halberstadt lay near the Western border of East Germany from 1945 until reunification in 1990. One enters the town first through the bright car dealerships and do-it-yourself centers of the recent capitalist years through some socialist factories and empty apartment blocks of the socialist era. The spectacular towers of the large churches rise above this this dour urban scene, the green hulk of the mountains hovering just beyond.
Halberstadt’s historic center was largely obliterated by Allied bombs that fell just a couple of weeks before the end of World War II. The Cathedral square was mostly spared, though the bombs took out part of the Cathedral itself. It was rebuilt quickly and with impressive artisanal skill and resources mustered in desperate economic times for East Germany.
Begun in the 13th century the Halberstadt cathedral was one the few and also one of the largest examples of the French gothic style in Germany. Its vast proportions—the transept vault is nearly thirty meters high and its length runs to more than a football field—were generated largely by rivalry with nearby Magdeburg, whose cathedral also survived the war.
The contest between the cities and their cathedrals extended from overall size to the interior decoration. Aside from its fabulous statues and rood screen, the Halberstadt cathedral had one of the first large organs in Germany. Finished in 1361, it was equipped with four keyboards—two for the hands, one apparently for the knees, and one for the feet. 150 years after its completion the great musician and historian Michael Praetorius from nearby Wolfenbüttel included in his landmark treatise Syntagma musicum a woodcut not only of the console, but also of the twenty small bellows operated by two busy pumpers. The antique console with its big keys and levers had been set aside and preserved until Praetorius’ day but had already disappeared by the time the bombs fell in April, 1945.
That original organ was replaced by a still bigger instrument in the late 15th century. With clockwork historical periodicity that instrument was in turn replaced 130 years later with a monumental baroque creation of the early 18th-century. Halberstadt and the surrounding towns were famous for their organs, rich in variety and ambition, and often vast even in relation to the large churches in which they were placed. The pipes of the third cathedral organ were later sacrificed to the tide of progress, but even modernity kept its hands off the miraculous, richly carved case that still rises three stories in the west-end gallery. Angels flutter in the air as if lofted by the singing breath of the pipes. Atop the behemoth machine two saints clothed only in acanthus briefs carry the city’s coat-of-arms beneath a diaphanous shroud held up and parted by another squadron of angels. The towers of pipes are garlanded with wooden carvings that from the church floor look like hops. If that is what they are meant to represent they are the perfect reference to the German tradition of supplying enough beer to fill the largest pipe for the organ dedication feast.
The 1960s instrument inside this tremendous case ranges from bland to shrill, though the cavernous acoustic would bring out the finer qualities of a foghorn. In the lower reaches of the organ façade visual the intrusions of modern Venetian blinds added to allow for dynamic expression are a shame but cannot do mortal damage to this architectural and ornamental testament to Halberstadt’s glorious organ past.
A handful of other tourists are to be seen in in the square and cathedral, but Halberstadt on a Monday in August is pretty much empty since the many museums are closed. The most interesting of these is the Temple of Friendship of Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim. Born in 1719 in nearby Ermsleben, Gleim worked for a time in Berlin, before returning to his native region in 1747 to take up a post as secretary for the Halberstadt Cathedral. Removed to the provinces, he missed the lively literary and artistic circles of Berlin and amidst his duties pursued a prolific correspondence with all the leading writers of the day. Most remarkably, he began assembling a large collection of portraits of his literary and artistic friends and acquaintances. His holdings eventually numbered some 150 oil paintings that crowded the walls of the second floor rooms of his house next to the cathedral.
On his death in 1803 Gleim’s library and portrait collection were removed from his dwelling but kept largely intact. In 1862 they were returned to his house, which became a museum. The pictures now hang again in his Friendship Temple. Jean Paul, Lessing, Herder among many others are there, including musical friends from Berlin such as Frederick the Great’s teacher Johann Joachim Quantz. Over the entrance to first of the two rooms of the temple is a portrait of a young Gleim holding his flute. He made his name beyond Halberstadt with poetry glorifying the Prussian military and there was no more ardent admirer of the flute-playing Frederick the Great than he.
The museum was closed but, as in Gleim’s day, this visitor was welcomed into the Friendship Temple nonetheless. The director suggested that the exchange in portraits in Gleim’s middle-class, non-aristocratic circle was an utterly modern enterprise that anticipated Facebook by 250 years. I pictured the young billionaire Zuckerberg among the bewigged poets and painters . To be friended by Gleim was held to be a great honor. I sensed that a fundraising trip from Halberstadt to Silicon Valley might be in the works. If the dollars are to be unleashed, however, the Gleimhaus better first get on Facebook.
Halberstadt’s rich organ history finds continuation both quirky and nearly timeless in an undertaking announced on signposts along the drive into town: the John Cage Organ Project. In the Sankt Burchardi church in a cloister that still shows plentiful signs of socialist neglect a performance is underway of Cage’s Organ2/ASAP composed in in the 1980s. That’s not “as soon as possible” but exactly the opposite: As Slow as Possible. The project was meant to get underway in the year 2000, using the millennium as the midpoint to mark the 639 years since the dedication of the cathedral organ in 1361 and the conclusion of ASAP in the year 2639. Things got off a little slower than expected and the performance didn’t begin until 2001. Never mind. What concert ever begins on time? In very Cage-ian fashion the work began with a year-and-a-half rest. The inauguration of the silence at the beginning of the piece was a celebratory event.
It being Monday church hosting the seven century concert was closed and our hosts in the Gleimhaus were unable to track down the man with the keys to let us in. So we made our out to the cloister and listened carefully for the “music”: children playing; former East German retirees passing the time beyond the cloister gate; but no organ. We moved towards what looked like the church and huddled around near the entrance and could make out the breathy sound of a wobbly cluster emanating from the skeletal organ assembled for ASAP. This sonority——called Impulse 13 in the score—has been going on since the July 5th and will continue until the next change just under a year from now. No one was around to ask if a recording will be made available …
However bizarre our posture may have looked, it seemed a fitting way to acknowledge the Cage centennial: our ears to the dusty church door listening out for the sounds of eternity. Or perhaps just the angels sniggering—along with the composer himself.
Next week: Traces of Cage in Bologna