Pedal to the Metal on the Autobahn

It was not the tireless wind now being harnessed by Germany’s Energy Transition (Energiewende)—that same force discussed last week in this space—but the fires of internal combustion that sped us south, from Norden and its famous Arp Schnitger organ on the North Sea to the hilltop basilica of Weingarten with its baroque dandy of a King of Instruments. Weingarten is not far from Lake Constance, a large body of water shared with Austria and a sliver of Switzerland. The trip is a nine-hour drive if the autobahns are clear, assuming you survive the harrowing highspeed antics and teeth-grinding traffic jams of the German summer season.

During the last federal elections in Germany two years ago, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party, the portly and irascible Sigmar Gabriel, merely suggested the possibility of introducing a nationwide 75mph limit on the autobahns. He was immediately shouted down by the automakers, the speed-loving citizenry, and politicians, even those from his own ranks. Aside from preventing countless deaths, such a sensible reform would have contributed significantly to fuel savings. As in many areas of German cultural life clean energy as political program is mirrored by lots of dirty energy consumed down below these loftier ideals and attendant rhetoric.

Given all the talk and action devoted to renewable power in this country you’d think the roads would be rapidly emptying of cars. It is true that gasoline consumption has been tailing off in Germany, from the high mark of 723,900 barrels per day in 1993 to 454,310 barrels in 2010.

But the start of the European school holidays is not the time to stoke optimistic thoughts about an impending Götterdämmerung for the devoutly worshipped automobile. The last days of July and the first days of August count as a dismal period to perceive any decline in emissions since legions of the population jump into cars and head out onto the roadways towards beach or Alp or somewhere in between: the Germans in their gleaming Bavarian muscle cars; the Dutch pulling their trailers; a few Italians gesticulating in the traffic jams; suicidal motorcyclists; and everywhere truckers from all across Europe.

Even while ever more windmills rise in the north, the beloved German autobahns get extended and widened, new interchanges added. Bavaria has essentially blocked the construction of the so-called energy superhighway—rivers of high wires bringing electricity from the windy north to the populous and industrious south. The Bavarian cold shoulder turned towards this electric highway contrasts starkly with the region’s overheated love for the autobahn.

The E43 belongs the network of so-called European super highways that cross international borders and runs from Sicily to the north of Sweden and from Scotland to Kyrgyzstan—and alongside Würzburg in the northern part of Bavaria. Beaten down by the alternation of frightening speeds and gridlocked boredom we broke our journey in several places, most memorably in Würzburg for a visit to the archiepiscopal palace largely destroyed in the Allied bombings of seventy years ago. Tiepolo’s paintings of the four continents still adorn the ceiling above the cavernous central staircase, which survived the war thanks to the sturdy but elegant design of its architect, Balthasar Neumann. Tiepolo’s airy and virtuosic frescoes make the space a Sistine Chapel of the eighteenth century.

When Alexander Cockburn visited Würzburg in 1957 he came by barge on the Main River. I thought of him as we slogged up the E43 encountering a massive new interchange currently being carved out of the once-gracious hillside of vineyards and fields above Würzburg in the valley below. These unsustainable road-building habits slam on the brakes of the Energiewende.

Speaking of brakes, German drivers are the busiest there are when it comes to fancy footwork. On the highways they pedal with a venegeance: heavy on the gas to blast past the slower-moving craft that has unwisely ventured into the fast lane; slamming on the brakes when a vehicle doing a “moderate” 100mph doesn’t yield quickly enough; clutching decisively in order to downshift and leapfrog a Slovenian big-rig. Aside from being insane,  the whole high-speed folly is incredibly wasteful. Here’s venturing that the amount of carbon required by all this braking is worth dozens, even hundreds, of windmills.

Having not so long ago published a book on the Germans and their mastery of musical feet at the organ, I began to see this maniacal autobahn ballet in longer historical terms as an outgrowth of pedal technology more generally. One scholar has hypothesized that the rise of the organ pedals in the German monasteries (hosts to many cutting technologies, and therefore to be thought of as the Silicon Valley of the Middle Ages) ran parallel to, or even derived from, other innovations like the foot treadle on the lathe. By the time of J. S. Bach, the organists of the north and central Germany were the only capable, even flamboyant, pedalers in the world. All other nations of Europe left their feet to idle, occasionally deploying them to hold a single note or poke out the occasional cadence.

The non-exploitation of the feet in arts and crafts is surprising. Imagine how much more efficient and healthier it would be if, even as I type this, my feet were getting into the act: scrolling and highlighting here; punctuating and deleting there.

While crawling along in smoggy autobahns—though definitely not when doing a gentle 85mph and concentrating more intensely than at the concerts I’d played at either end of the trip—I mused on the virtuosity of German automotive feet. Having given my own lower appendages free rein when seated at the controls of Schnitger’s masterpiece in Norden, with its three manuals for the hands and ample keyboard for the feet, I was ready to pedal like crazy in the decidedly undersized Renault that would carry us south to Weingarten.

The organ in Weingarten was finished in 1750 the same year Bach died. It took thirteen years of unremitting labor by the builder, Joseph Gabler. Aside from the seemingly insurmountable technical hurdles he encountered in his drive to get his masterpiece to sprawl amongst and above the west-end windows of the vast abbey, Gabler also wrestled with the shapes and content of individual pipes in his search for unique, otherworldly sonorities. Given these literally far-flung ambitions, it is little wonder that when Gabler died in 1771 he was in massive debt.

A legend grew up around the most famous of the more sixty stops in the Weingarten organ: this is the vox humana, a reed register meant to imitate the human voice. Having tried and failed with many different alloys and types of wood, Gabler finally agreed to sell his soul to the devil for the coveted recipe. The resulting stop was so convincing that it seduced the monks and rendered devout prayer impossible, especially when the sound of the vox humana emanated from the soprano—i.e., feminine—range of the keyboard.

Suspected of foul play, Gabler was interrogated on the archbishop’s orders and the organ builder confessed to his crime. (One can only imagine the manifold uses of organ pipes in Gabler’s torture sessions.) After his confession, Gabler was sentenced to be burned on the same pyre that would melt the metal pipes of his diabolical vox humana. But before the execution, the archbishop demanded that Gabler fabricate a replacement for the satanic stop to be destroyed. The organ builder made this one so well—though the legend doesn’t say in what ways, if any, he strayed from the devil’s mixture—that he was spared by the archbishop. It’s all fantasy, of course: different versions of this story crop up about organ builders and other instrument makers throughout the ages.

As for the Weingarten pedal board, Gabler built one of a limited compass of just an octave-and-a-half. This makes it impossible to play the big, pedal-heavy works of Bach. In the early 1980s the Weingarten organ was restored by the Kuhn firm of Switzerland; this was the same time the great north German master Jürgen Ahrend was bringing the Norden instrument back to its former glory. Kuhn extended Gabler’s pedal to the more than two-octaves found on northern instruments. The reason for this change was that the feet must have more room to run—and, most important, to play Bach. I suspect he would have approved of this expanded pedal board.

Bach was also an expert on the design and construction of organ, the was the most advanced technology of pre-industrial Europe. Thus I could imagine him admiring the latest automotive developments from Bavaria.

Bach was also one of the great walkers of music history. But rather than crossing Germany from north to south by foot nowadays, here’s guessing he’d more likely have opted for a BMW 6-series Gran Coupe, a fearsome machine that goes from zero to sixty in just over three seconds and can be seen here doing a leisurely 195mph on the autobahn in a drizzle. Ergonomically and technologically this car is the latest successor to the German organs of yore. The greatest of all show-offs at the organ, Bach would surely have enjoyed piloting this Faustian rocket, pedaling all the way.

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