Organistic in San Francisco: a Pointless and Necessary Escapism

I’m in San Francisco for an organ concert tomorrow night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on the edge of the city’s Tenderloin District, and a stone’s throw from St. Mary’s catholic cathedral, that giant cross-shaped popsicle mold in white marble. The locals would say the shape corresponds to that of a washing machine agitator: after its completion in the early 1970s, the structure was baptized “St. Mary Maytag” by the locals.

Rather than stones, maybe the denizens of this hill will soon be throwing Molotov cocktails instead. Yesterday as I practiced on the stunning north German-style organ that appears to have been transplanted from the golden age of Lutheran church music three centuries past into the pastel hues of a sumptuous Victorian interior, I heard shouts and chants outside and the thwack of helicopters overhead.

As the intensity of the unseen crowd built, I left off bashing through some Bach on the Lutherans’ organ, and had a look outside to see the entire student body of the Sacred Heart School across from the cathedral at the corner of Gough and Ellis streets massed and shouting “Trump not our president!” A San Francisco motorcycle cop sped by and gave the kids the thumbs-up—a sign, perhaps, that a future secessionist uprising here could count on the support of the police.

Whether this spirited fun fueled by youthful rage leads to anything larger is an open question.  But it was an encouraging picture.

The thought of churches and smooth political transitions, acceptance and outrage, put me in mind of the infamous photograph taken March 21st, 1933 of the handshake that sealed the end of the Weimar Republic. With it the German president Paul von Hindenburg opened the newly-elected Reichstag in Potsdam with Adolf Hitler as its Chancellor. While the pair grips each other’s hands, Hitler in the frock coat of a legitimate politician bows with apparent respect before the hoary, medal-heavy Prussian General, who just the year before had defeated the Nazi party chief in the presidential election.  Only a month earlier, in February of 1933, Hindenburg had signed into law the Reichstag Fire Decree that suspended many civil liberties in the country. When Hindenburg died the following year Hitler abolished his post and appointed himself head of state.

Visible in the background of the photo, beyond the German soldier fittingly placed in the center of the image, is the façade of Potsdam’s Garrison Church, the religious home of the Prussian Army.

The church was finished in 1732 during the reign of the Prussian monarch Friedrich Wilhelm I, the so-called Warrior King, whose greatest interest was in his personal guard of soldiers taller than 6’ 4”—a unit nicknamed the Potsdam Giants.

Friedrich Wilhelm loved war and hated the arts. Soon after he was crowned in 1713 he summarily disbanded his own father’s famed orchestra; many of those talented musicians went on to work at another court one hundred miles away in the town of Cöthen. A few years later Johann Sebastian Bach took up directorship of this musical ensemble.

Even though Friedrich Wilhlem gave little attention and practically no money to the arts, he did approve a lavish organ for his beloved army’s church. It’s a fact that raises some unpleasant associations between the King of Instruments and militarism. After all, the organ was an invention of antiquity, and used by the Romans to accompany gladiatorial combat among other bloody pursuits. Whether Friedrich Wilhlem knew this distant history or not, he understood that the sometimes frightening power of the organ could—and by his thinking, should—inspire a crusading spirit in his men. For Friedrich Wilhelm the garrison church instrument was clearly the Soldier King of Instruments.

The builder of the Potsdam organ was Joachim Wagner, who had a few years before completed a massive instrument for the garrison church of nearby Berlin; this organ had not only fifty stops, but was also adorned with an impressive array of wind-powered automata including timpani-thumping soldiers and Prussian eagles that menacingly flapped their wings.

His instrument for the Garrison Church in Potsdam was half the size smaller and not as high-tech, but likewise decorated with the spears and helmets that encouraged thoughts military of heroism in those who saw and heard the organ and sang rousing hymns to its accompaniment.

Bullied and brutalized by his father, Frederick the Great came to the Prussian throne in 1740. He loved music, even played the flute every night with a band of great musicians he quickly assembled, a group that included as harpsichordist, Johann Sebastian Bach’s second son Carl Philipp Emanuel. In generally suspicious of religion, Frederick the Great appears not to have had much interest in the organ. Though of a deeply artistic temperament, he fought far more wars than his supposedly more belligerent father.  It was Frederick the Great who led Prussia to its European ascendancy, and the world to war between 1756 and 1763, after having already fought two other wars of expansion in the 1740s.

In 1747 Johann Sebastian Bach came to Potsdam and improvised the beginnings of A Musical Offering for Frederick and his assembled musicians in the royal palace.  During the trip he also played the Garrison Church organ, and is said to have pronounced it a “very fine work.”

The Garrison Church was bombed in World War II but not completely destroyed. It stood as a hollowed-out ruin for two decades. By the middle of the sixties efforts were started to rebuild the structure, still loathed by many as a symbol of Hitler’s rise and of Prussian militarism. The East German leadership decreed that it should be destroyed, yet in a nearly unexampled display of dissent, several city councilors voted against its destruction   Nonetheless, the church was demolished in 1968. For several years now an initiative has been underway to reconstruct it, though as a symbol not of militarism but of reconciliation.  Such rebranding is never so easy, however. The project’s supporters had hoped to dedicate the church next year on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but a civic group aimed at preventing the plan has since also been formed, and the initiative is, like so many others in reunified Germany, in limbo.

It was in anticipation of that same 500th anniversary that I was invited by the church and the San Francisco American Guild of Organists to play this concert. Spurred on by the choruses of protest from across the street I returned to my baroque organ music, its escapism seeming both pointless and necessary these days. Amongst the church towers and looming vaults of catholic marble I thought of that handshake, trying not to remember that it also happened to coincide with another anniversary: Bach’s birthday.

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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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