Back with Bach in the GDR

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1746 organ by Zacharias Hildebrant in Naumburg, Germany, played by J. S. Bach.

Organists have long been present at, indeed participants in, great political events:  the 759 Byzantine delegation from Constantinople to the French court of Pippin the Great, the diplomatic mission that is said to have reintroduced the organ to Western Europe; the blind masters Antonio de Cabezón and Arnolt Schlick adding aural luster to the 1520 coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Aachen, Germany; Eddie Layton at his Hammond Colonnade in The Bronx spurring the New York Yankees to a three-peat in their subway series against the Mets in the Year 2000.

Then there were all those state visits by British monarchs to far-flung colonies, not to mention their kids’ royal weddings, rituals aided and abetted by organists’ hands and feet busy at multiple keyboards and pedals. The sun never sets over the empire of the organ.

Organists were often invited to make for music, and even mingle with, sovereigns and courtiers. A celebrated British organist with ties to—and long service under—the Royal Family once informed me that Prince Andrew was certainly the best qualified to take the orb and scepter once Elizabeth II croaked. The organist had it on good authority that when the time came, Andrew would leapfrog his older brother and land on the throne. Jeffrey Epstein would have been thrilled by the succession.

Parallel to these musicians’ roles in public rites are their clandestine operations: the organist is often hidden in the choir loft, free not only to let loose rousing musical communiqués on the tuba mirabilis (a bombastic stop found on large British organs), but also to scheme, surveille, and do many other things not sanctioned by God or State.

Skill at the King of Instrument can turn the organist into an espionage asset.  In a Europe divided between Catholic and Protestant after the Reformation, music could serve as a passport to cross the fiery divide without getting immediately burned at the stake. The expatriate Englishman Peter Philips, a fanatical adherent of the Roman church, was arrested and tried as a spy in 1593, and probably carried out frequent low-level missions—shuttling documents to, and exposing Protestant infiltrators on, the Continent. The peripatetic seventeenth-century virtuoso Johann Jakob Froberger developed a profound keyboard style that was an immediate giveaway of his identity as soon as he touched the keys. But that striking uniqueness was likely an advantage, too: Froberger’s artistry could also provide a distraction, allowing intelligence to be gathered under the cloak of art.

In 1960s Cold War Europe, the Czechoslovakian secret service dispatched their agent Jaroslav Rheinberger, described in the Encyclopedia of Cold War Espionage, Spies, and Secret Operations as a “handsome bisexual organist,” to London to make the acquaintance of Conservative Party leader—and eventual Prime Minister—Edward Heath, himself a former Oxford University organ scholar. Rheinberger was charged with convincing Heath to come to Prague to play the large instrument in St. James’ Church. There the lifelong Tory bachelor was to be seduced, and then blackmailed. Heath never got his hands on that Bohemian organ: the scheme was thwarted by British counterintelligence.

A minor chapter in the long history of the organ as a tool of international relations could perhaps be written about the study trip made by a group of some twenty American organists and organ builders to German Bach country in the first week of September 1989, exactly thirty years ago.

Save for a couple of student years in the north and occasional musical trips beyond his home turf, Bach spent his entire life in narrow band of central Germany extending from Eisenach, the town of his birth, to Leipzig, 120 miles to the east.  In September of 1989 the entire Bach homeland was still on the socialist side of the Iron Curtain.

The East German States of Thuringia and Saxony boasted a huge inventory of historic organs: some 700 remained from before 1800, including many played by Bach himself. During the Cold War few musicians and builders from the United States, an important center in the revival of organ performance styles and construction methods based on historical models, had visited the region to play and study these instruments so crucial to understanding Bach’s organ music, one of the great monuments of artistic achievement in any discipline.

I was one of the members of the study tour, and in spite of my connections to that bastion of radical thought, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, no overtures were made to me by East Bloc organ intelligence operatives. The newspaper was then flying a quote from Lenin (“Be as radical as reality”) from its masthead. I’ve no idea if I made a faint blip on America’s spying radar when my documents made their way through the security apparatus.

Rich in organs, the Thuringia and Saxony were poor by comparison to their Western neighbors. When it comes to the treatment of antique instruments, however, it can be a curse to be wealthy at the wrong time.  Money encourages scrapping the old and replacing it with the new—often of far inferior quality. Similarly, funding can lead to premature renovation that, due to insufficient knowledge of the artifacts, ends up destroying the very qualities that should have been preserved. While some pernicious repairs of old organs (those that survived Allied Bombs) had been done by East German firms, the long-term fate of many instruments was helped by economic stagnation. There remained a host of important, fascinating organs to see, hear and play in 1989 on the eastern side of the inner-German border, then still one the most heavily defended frontiers on the planet. Socialism had helped these instruments in magnificent dilapidation.

In spite of the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, the East German leader Erich Honecker could still claim at the start of 1989 that the Berlin Wall would stand another 100 years. Yet fissures were beginning to appear, though no one suspected how quickly they would lead to the utter collapse of the socialist system.

Organized by the Westfield Center, an American organization dedicated to the study of historic keyboard instruments, our trip had required much advanced planning and considerable attention to bureaucratic protocols, especially given the tense geo-political situation. Only ten days before our arrival, the Pan European Picnic had taken place on the Hungarian–Austrian border. As part of that initiative a checkpoint had been opened for three hours. Hundreds of East Germans seized the moment to flee to the West.

On Sunday, September 10th, the last day of the tour, our group visited the small, almost perfectly preserved organ in the village Störmthal on the outskirts of Leipzig and participated in the church service. The organ dates from 1723 and was dedicated by Bach at a service for which he wrote and performed a new cantata and played organ solos. 266 years later, not many locals were present in the church.

The following day, September 11th, 1989, with our group back in West Germany, Hungary opened up its border and a huge exodus ensued. Less than a month later at the 40th anniversary celebrations of the German Democratic Republic, Honecker was still blustering about the vitality of the East German state as tanks missiles paraded through East Berlin, but he was removed as party chief ten days later and the Wall fell three weeks after that.

In spite of cracks along the Hungarian border in August of 1989, there was no sense in early September among the American organists and organ builders busy with Bach that the Workers and Farmers State of East Germany was about to go belly up.

Indeed, we were given the full red-carpet treatment on the border at Fulda on entering into East Germany. Greeting us there was a full contingent of German shepherds on leashes and stern guards in gray uniforms wielding mirrors on poles that they used to check under our bus. The guards rifled through our bags for illegal currency, making sure that we had only East German marks that had been acquired at the laughable exchange rate of one-to-one with their Western namesakes.  There was not much to buy with this money except scholarly editions of Bach’s organ music printed on low-quality paper.  Thirty years on, I still play from several of these volumes. They’ve lasted nearly as long as the GDR did.

Our tour was assigned a state guide, who was surely charged with keeping an eye on us, too.  One of the organists was quickly put off by the venison served on our first night and promptly declared himself a vegetarian. The next morning, he asked our guide in English what was being served for lunch: “You will eat pig muscle” came her reply.

On the roads leading between towns and villages with historic organs there were few cars. The smooth West German autobahns had not yet invaded. Instead, we jolted over the slabbed roadways. In the countryside the slag heaps in the distance were as high as the churches housing fascinating organs, with their massive pedals, prized gravitas, and kaleidoscopic orchestral colors. The enormous powerhouse of the organ at Naumburg, which Bach dedicated in 1746 was then still unrestored.  The instrument had been fitted with an electric action and alternative console, but the original was still to be marveled at in its original position another balcony. There was the bench that Bach sat on, the bone keys his fingers played on, even the paper labels on the hefty stops knobs he had drawn.  Undiminished was the glorious sound of the organ with its immense power and endless variety. Equally as eye-and-ear opening was the instrument in the castle church of Altenburg  that Bach also examined and approved in 1739.

Mingling with local organist and others was kept to a minimum: there were lectures and demonstrations, and we were quartered exclusively in state-sanctioned hotels. The most memorable of these was the Leipzig Merkur. The forlorn glitz of its lobby—at whose center stood a fancy sports car of a make never spotted on the empty roads—was all meant to symbolize the technological and consumerist sophistication of the GDR but served only to prove the opposite. Sadly, our trip allowed for no late-night beer fests with our socialist colleagues beyond the watchful eye of the state, but it did foster a sense of dedication to shared cultural values with those we met. Music was made, and with it bonds between musicians and makers supposedly from opposite sides of the ideological and geographic border.

Things changed with lightning speed after our week in Bach country. While our group of organists could not rightly claim to have sparked the blaze of freedom that so quickly followed our visit, history might credit us with spreading a bit of tinder—and not just in the form of flimsy Eastern German bills.

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