Traces of Cage in Bologna

A couple of hours south from Berlin the autobahn is being widened as it leaves the former East Germany and plows south into Bavaria. The resulting traffic jam is a long one, and I take little comfort from traffic announcements on the radio that it’s even worse elsewhere: it seems there are cows on the autobahn heading towards Frankfurt.

The new lanes being built come courtesy of Germany Unity Project number 13, the German Democratic Republic hardly having enough cars to fill up an meager four-lane highway, not to mention one of six or eight.

When in the midst of such a mess I always think of Auden’s lines from In arcadia ego 

I well might think myself
A humanist,
Could I manage not to see

How the autobahn
Thwarts the landscape
In godless Roman arrogance.

The temporary electronic signs put up every couple of kilometers throughout the work zone show frowning faces announcing the distance still to be covered on the way out of the mess: 12km, 10 k, 8km. Halfway through the traffic jam the electronic mouth straightens to a straight line and finally turns to a smile just before the BMWs are allowed to shoot out into the open road. But in the traffic jam itself, the guilt of contributing to this carbon cloud is supposed to be assuaged by the comforting notion that the signs are powered by both solar cell signs and a little windmill—the symbols of the Germany’s supposed energy revolution.

Like drinking from carbon neutral coffee cups at an international climate change conference, the blatant contradiction between “green” road signs and the widening of this autobahn just about sums up the environmental future: fiddling for a technological solution while the backhoe heaps fuel on the blaze.


After our car has finally trudged through the worksite we take a detour somewhat East to the Regensburg cathedral. It was here that the present pope’s brother, Georg Ratzinger, was long-time choirmaster. He fleetingly appeared on the radar screens of the world press during the short-lived  scrutiny given Pope Benedict’s role as Cardinal in sustaining the culture of secrecy and blind-eye-turning to child abuse in the Catholic church. As director of music in Regensburg, Georg Ratzinger had slapped a few of his choirboys—excused in retrospective as normal disciplinary procedure in the good old 1960s and 70s.

In 2006 a new cathedral organ in Benedict’s honor was dedicated and the pope himself held the festive sermon in which he preached that  “the manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God.” In the case of the new Regensburg organ “manifold” is the right word, or perhaps better “grille.”  The thing made me think of the front of an Alpha Romeo. The façade is pure pipe, without ornament, the angels and saints having fled in fear from its blindingly polished chevrons. Like the pope himself it’s a glitzy affair, and if such frippery were ever in style, it is already out.  In the long life of the magnificent Regensburg cathedral, the Pope Benedict organ will likely prove to be so much costly ephemera.


 Onward to the the Kitzbuehl Alps. In our pension hangs a large map from 1934 of greater Germany stretching from East Prussia down to the Alps. The Sudetenland is forbodingly rendered and the Anschluss intimated. At breakfast the owner mixes among the guests, and I inform him of my fascination with this document looming over the diners. The room goes silent as I describe to him my interest in the gothic drawings of the vast area’s cathedrals and town halls, the majority of them swept away in the war.

Only in Austria can you can you enjoy your coffee and morning meat beneath a rendering of Greater Germany.


Getting over the Brenner Pass with the high-speed Germans, the Dutch with their trailers, and the Polish truckers is life-threatening stuff, so after crossing into Italy we take our breath in Trent.  For those on the Grand Tour in the 18th-century, Trent was the first Italian city to be encountered after coming down over the pass and through the South Tirol, chopped off from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire and given to Italy after World War I.

In the immediate aftermath of the Reformation Catholic churchmen came met in Trent to confront the Protestant threat and reshape the church.  The Council took place in Santa Maria Maggiore just off the Cathedral Square. After parking the car we made our way on foot through the city, immense cliffs rising up in verdant backdrop behind the grand palaces. I asked a half dozen people where I could find the Santa Maggiore.  None of them had ever heard of the church. For the 18th-century tourist Santa Maggiore was a must see precisely because the great Counil had taken place there, but five centuries on, the deeds and words of these rabid Cardinals are forgotten. When we find it, the church is completely empty: the modern tourists are elsewhere in the city.

Santa Maggiore also had had one of the most famous of the continent’s. It was built by German master and finished in the early 16th century.  As I describe in my book, Bach’s Feet, legends grew up around it that the builder was blinded so he wouldn’t be able to recreate this the musical marvel elsewhere.  Angered by this devilish act, God struck the organ three separate times over three centuries with lightning.  The 20th-century instrument that stands on the richly craved marble balcony—it survived the fires—is a disaster. Perhaps the original organ has gone to whatever part of heaven or hell occupied by all those Cardinals, whose dark decrees it inspired.


Bologna’s Museum of Music occupies a grand villa repurposed to house this astounding collection. A visit should be required of all tourists, but here again business is slow. The core holdings museum were collected by the humble and immensely erudite, scholar and musician, Padre Giovanni Battista Martin, an 18th-centur Franciscan monk. In preparation for his seminal history of music (never completed because so thorough was he that he never got past the Middle Ages), Martini gathered a huge number of treatises and manuscripts. He also built up a tremendous collection of portraits in oil of the great musicians of the day. Two of the many musicians who came to study counterpoint with him are here: Mozart, whose picture is not far from a manuscript showing his composition lessons corrected by his master, Martini; and a sumptuous painting by Thomas Gainsborough of Johann Sebastian Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian.

Currently at the museum exposition marking the Cage centenary displays many of his musical scores and writings spread amongst the holdings Martini and other materials.  The juxtaposition is often as striking as it is comic, as when a beautiful tome of complex vocal counterpoint from the 16th-century with elaborate filigreed borders lies next to Cage’s Night Musik for gaggle of pianists also operating radios—its “score” merely some unsigned note-heads (i.e., big dots) that can be placed randomly on transparent staffs. The pairing demonstrates beautifully the Cage-ian apotheosis of chance over craft. Cage’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg tried to force him to learn his counterpoint, but in the Bologna exhibit facing off against the glories of Martini’s collection, Cage mocks complexity. One gets the joke, perfectly delivered by the show’s curators, even if it only increases the admiration for real effort and skill.

In another room Rossini’s Erard grand piano is hooked up to some electronics, like a patient to his monitors. The instrument grumbles and buzzes as the strings pick up the imperceptibly motions of air and architecture.  Perhaps in the recent Italian earthquake north of here, the piano emitted a sympathetic triad in an outburst of unprecedented aleotoric harmony.

In the same room as this sound installation honoring Cage’s experiments in prepared piano, Rossini’s wig listens bemusedly, as Wagner and Verdi look down from the wall. This scenario gently unraveling the myth of the great man makes one grin, but one yearns to hear some Chopin on the elegant grand. But in this Cage Year randomness triumphs over reason.

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com







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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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