27 June 2023

So it goes.....

 Dresden, and associated thoughts....

Pescara Beach, (too) many years ago.....
(Michael, Me, Hil & Gerry)

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die.  He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.  All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.....

Kurt Vonnegut , Jr.
The Children's Crusade

And what, Mein Freund, has this ever so slightly silly pic go to do with the price of fish?

Well, for a start, we had fun....  But, sadly, now that Gerry's gone, this piece is for him.....

Because, around the time that photo was created, I may of [sic] lent Gerry my copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, which started him off on a life-long love of Vonnegut.... 

And, by coincidence perhaps, I just got back from Dresden (or Florence on the Elbe, as it was once known) which was destroyed by British and American bombing that created a firestorm in February 1945, with a loss of maybe 35,000 civilian lives.

Destroyed City Center of Dresden. Bundesarchiv Image, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Kurt Vonnegut, was there, an American prisoner-of-war, and his novel is partly about the bombing. Before World War II, the city, Germany's seventh largest with a population of 600,000, drew visitors to see the 18th-century Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and the Zwinger, an impressive palace complex commissioned by Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, (he who liked to demonstrate his strength by snapping horseshoes in half).

The Old Markt in Dresden, c 1750/51, by Bernardo Bellotto

Collections of Renaissance and Baroque paintings in the Semper Gallery, included works by Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck. In the 19th century the presence of composers Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner established Dresden as a force in the Romantic movement.

But all changed at 10.15 pm on February 13th 1945, when, in the space of about 15 minutes, RAF bombers dropped 880 tons of high explosives and incendiaries (the first of four waves over two days) on the town centre. Götz Bergander, an 18-year-old who survived the raids in a shelter, later described what it was like: There was an indescribable roar in the air - the fire. The thundering fire reminded me of the biblical catastrophes that I had heard about in my education in the humanities. I was aghast. I can’t describe seeing this city burn in any other way. The colour had changed as well. It was no longer pinkish-red. The fire had become a furious white and yellow, and the sky was just one massive mountain of cloud.....

Donald Miller, a(n - please yourself) historian, explained what happened: People’s shoes melted into the hot asphalt of the streets, and the fire moved so swiftly that many were reduced to atoms before they had time to remove their shoes. The fire melted iron and steel, turned stone into powder, and caused trees to explode from the heat of their own resin. People running from the fire could feel its heat through their backs, burning their lungs. He also recounted that many of the victims, possibly as many as two thirds, may have died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

In the words of Winston Churchill: The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing....

So it goes

After the war, with the division of Germany into East and West, Dresden remained in ruins.  This was the opera house in 1977:

And the famous Frauenkirche remained a pile of stones until years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Of course the city was resurrected, but the GDR wanted to leave the marks of Western Aggression for all to see, and so they raised their version of Crawley New Town on the ashes of the old:

And put their mark on the functional and brutalist:

You could say, as Vonnegut did, And so it goes..... But, although the restoration is still ongoing, phoenix Dresden arises now in splendour.  The Semperoper, the Opera House of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden (Saxon State Opera), has been rebuilt to the exact detail as it was in 1878 (the 1841 version had burned down in 1869 after an incident with the state-of-the-art gas lighting):

Inside it is grand but not cramped:

The gardens and fountains of the Zwinger are currently being restored:

But inside is magnificent, like the almost ridiculously opulent neighbouring Residenzschloss (Royal Palace), official residence of the rulers of Saxony, and in particular home to August the Strong (him of the horseshoes - see above).

In the decades following its destruction in the war, the remains of this palace were protected and it is now a Residenz Der Kunst und Wissenschaft (Palace of the Arts and Sciences).... Though there is a more than a touch of the exotic, or should I say, the madness of the Oligarch, about some of the rooms?

This is the Turkish Chamber, which houses a twenty metre long, eight metre wide and six metre high Ottoman Tent, made of gold and silk, in which Augie liked to dress up as a Sultan. A leaflet tells me that there are more than 600 objects in an area covering 750 square metres [which] illustrate the magnificent abundance of the Türckische Cammer ....  [And while I know this is not accurate, I am tempted to say that it is from this that the word Kitsch originates....]

Anyway, back to basics.  In 1997, the day that Diana died, our friend Michael was in Dresden, lodging at the execrable Ibis Hotel, and the Frauenkirche on the Neumarkt was literally a pile of stones.  Look at it now, by day:

By night:

On the inside:

And from the top:

And from the bottom, where there's a piece of the original church as a memorial:

It hasn't had an easy ride, this Florence on the Elbe.  Apart from almost total destruction in the War, the river Elbe burst its banks in 2002 and did a great deal of damage (the Opera House, for example, was inundated and all sets and costumes were ruined).  The brown in this picture is floodwater, the Zwimmer is just below the centre:

And there are architects and engineers who have also wrought havoc. In 2009, after Dresden was inscribed as cultural landscape in 2004,  the World Heritage Committee decided to remove Germany's Dresden Elbe Valley from UNESCO's World Heritage List due to the building of a four-lane bridge in the heart of the cultural landscape which meant that the property failed to keep its outstanding universal value as inscribed.  Tut.  Tut.....

But, as the sun goes down:

And I raise a glass of Zwickelbier on Brühl’s Terrace of the Radeberger Spezialausschank (try saying that when you've had a few....)

Yes, I raise a glass to my friends, especially to my late friend Gerry, here seen with me at another favourite spot, near where I used to live outside of Rome:

And then later I raise another glass in the Augustiner Beerhall:

Whoops! Wrong photo...... you weren't supposed to see that.... But as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, in the first sentence of Slaughterhouse 5,

All this happened, more or less.....

And I could tell you a lot more.

But another time.....

Vonnegut wrote:

Over the years, people I've met have often asked me what I'm working on, and I've usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, "Is it an anti-war book?"

"Yes," I said.  "I guess."

"You know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti-war books?"

"No.  What do you say, Harrison Starr?"

"I say, 'Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?'"

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, and they were as easy to stop as glaciers.  I believe that too.

Der Krieg (War), Triptych by Otto Dix, 1929/32

And even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

And so now death has taken you too, Gerald, like it took Vonnegut before, and it will take us all one day.

And the wars keep coming. And the glaciers are receding. But, for the moment, at least, the world keeps turning and the sun rises and sets and the river flows, flows to the sea 
(Where ever that river goes 
that's where I want to be.
Flow river flow, let your waters wash down.
Take me from this road to some other town.)

So it goes

You always were an Easy Rider, Gerald.  May your soul be at peace.  I wish you were still here, like I wish that time could stand still for a moment, or that we could go back, for example back to Giannutri where we spent the night in the Roman ruins having taken a little acid that Richard Eddie gave me and the bushes became centurions and the night spun with the stars going so fast and clear and the sea a spangle of light and laughter and you told me about your love for Maria.....  

Or when we ate at Le Tre Scalini in Via Panisperna one night with the waiters in starched white jackets who moved the tables back and cleared the floor and we danced to a harmonica to celebrate someone's something....

Or when we sang Forever Young with the kids at school and everyone was happy and we thought it might last forever.....

The long day closes

And somewhere there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs, the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. World War Two in Europe was over.

Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street.  The trees were leafing out.  There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind.  There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses.  The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.

Birds were talking.

One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, 'Poo-tee-weet?'

Kurt Vonnegut


In Memoriam

Gerald Brian Firth

1934 - 2023

People aren't supposed to look back.  I'm certainly not going to do it anymore......


So it goes

23 June 2023

Wacky Bachy

And so to Leipzig..... (Bach to the Beginnings)

On May 30th, 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach, aged 38, took up his post as Thomaskantor at the morning service in St Nicholas’ Church.  He and his family had been in Leipzig for a week. He conducted musicians and choir in a new Cantata, Die Elenden sollen essen, (The Poor shall eat), BWV 75.


Over the next four years he composed around 150 new cantatas as well as The St John Passion and The St Matthew Passion. He was extraordinarily productive, whether you like it (his work) or not.

Petra Flemming - Basketmaker, 1979


I claim profound ignorance of almost everything, but, having visited Bach’s birthplace and other towns associated with him in 2015 (please see https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2015/06/j-s-bach-funky-genius.html for more of this) I felt the need to follow him to the grave (which is kind of inevitable in itself.....)


My ignorance is well-tempered, however, as I have been practising the Eighth Prelude from the 48 Ps & Fs since The Beatles came out with A Hard Day’s Night (and I still can’t play it (Bach) properly).  But it does mean I have some idea of how many sharps and flats JSB could get on a page. 


And Leipzig was his apogee, perhaps. Gone were the days when he drunkenly fought a Zippel Fagottist(bassoonist) who hit him with a stick (Arnstadt, 1705) or when he would trek to Lübeck to see Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ (or was it to woo the master’s tochter?) No this was a serious and mature musician with his second wife, various children and four wagonloads of household goods.....

Petra Flemming - Basketmaker's Wife, 1979


He got the job in Leipzig because Telemann turned it down – not everyone can say that. His responsibilities included the musical education of the boys in the Thomasschule; music in all four principal churches of Leipzig, under their clergy; and the musical aspects of the municipal celebrations, under the town council. His contract stipulated that his behaviour should preserve the good order in the churches and that the music should not last too long.


Cantata 75 lasts about 35 minutes, in two parts, so almost broke his contract, but it was met, according to the press, mit guten applausus.


Cantata 75 was the third piece performed at the Opening Concert of the tercentenary celebration of Bach’s arrival in Leipzig, and I was privileged to have a seat in the ThomasKirche to hear it. It was exciting, and uplifting, despite the simple fact that I didn’t really understand a word (I am a little rusty on the Gospel text, Luke 16: vv19-31, about poor Lazarus and the rich man, though I recall the Fairfield Four singing about him at the Ryman Auditorium).  


The church has changed a great deal in the years since Bach strutted his stuff here, but there is a certain sense of continuum.  I sit next to a couple from the city of Bielefeld, a city of 334,000 residents, dating back to the 9thcentury, which owes its fame to a joke made in 1994 when a student posted a message denying its existence, a joke that Mrs Merkel picked up in 2012.  The ribaldry went so far that in 2019 the city offered €1m to anyone who could prove that it didn’t exist.....  Of course there was no proof that my new friends were really from Bielefeld.....


Sorry..... Where was I?


The following night I attended a second concert, this time in the Nikolaikirche, another of Bach’s main churches, but again much changed since the early eighteenth century.  This concert, under the direction of Hans-Christoph Rademann, was a more user-friendly evening that the Opening Show.  There was simultaneous translation of the explanatory notes and the music was all Bach.  I heard voices encouraging me not to fear death – death is not negative (Mein Tod ist nur ein Schlaf....)  I heard the pizzicato passing of time; the wavering of the orchestra at the beginning of BWV 48 which suggests waves of water, and uncertainty; and the oboe in BWV 60 mimicking a hen and chickens as Bach reminds us of the protective power of nature.....


It was a marvellous concert, though I recently read something that Eugen d’Albert (a member of the Bach Geselschaft) wrote in 1906:  There are those who can sit and listen to Bach’s cantatas for two hours at a stretch and say they enjoy it and do not grow tired of it.  They are either incorrigible pedants or unmitigated dissemblers.....


Perhaps I am nothing but a shallow fraud. Bernard Levin said (in 1975) I know that Bach was one of the greatest geniuses ever to adorn the human race, and that he wrote some of the most sublime music in all history.  But he leaves me, literally cold.... 

But Nina Simone said, Bach made me dedicate my life to music....  

Ulrich Hachulla - First Day of Retirement, 1976/77


I don’t know.  It’s all a bit beyond me, perhaps. I came to Leipzig to hear Bach where his music was first performed, and I have done that.  Tick.  But I really should have gone Bach to the Beginning and heard just one cantata as part of a Sunday service.  That, perhaps, would have been genug.....


Anyway, the serious stuff over, a Litre of Pils in the Augustiner am Markt revives the parts that were wilting a little in the heat, and then there’s Lang Lang (郎朗playing Bach’s Greatest Hits behind a high hoarding in the Market Square....  Such open-air recitals are normally free to the good citizens of Leipzig (and beyond) but Lily LangLang charged the city so much that they had to pass on the expense.  What would Johann have thought of that?  (And he don’t even play the Klavier).


Anyway, since I was here, like a proper tourist, there are sights to see.  First up, the Bach Museum.  OK.  Yeah.  A bench and some kind of organ manual (manual organ?)  Some things that go ding.  A few pics of yesteryear and a window that give a view of a statue. My advice, if you can take it, is go to Eisenach if you want the real thing....


Next, the Bayerischer Bahnhof, first opened in 1842 and closed in 2001.  It is Germany’s oldest preserved railway station, but now only rises above the S-Bahn Mitteldeutschland system.  However, you can forget that, for today the Bayerischer Bahnhof is famous for its hospitality and culinary delights – and it is known as the home of Gose, a beer specialty from Leipzig which was brought to Saxony-Anhalt in the year 1738. {Originally Gose comes from Goslar, a small town in Lower Saxony... and so on (oooh, that makes me thirsty!)}

Joachim Kratsch - In Memory Of, 1973


And then, the ugliest construction that side of Slough, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Monument to the Battle of the Nations), a 300,000 ton, 91 metre high, granite monstrosity dreamed up by poet Ernst Moritz Arndt in 1814 to honour the fallen in the one decisive victory over Napoleon on German soil.  600,000 soldiers from 20 countries took part and 100,000 were killed or wounded.  For good measure, typhus broke out in Leipzig after the skirmish, and a further 10% of the local population succumbed.  100 years after the event, the monument was completed.  Over 100 years after that, it is still there.....

I am offered a separate diversion by the Leipzig Tourist People - a boat trip on the extensive canal system.  Why not?  And so, for almost an hour and a half I could have been in Birmingham -  factories turned into apartments, crumbling houses in overgrown gardens, thick green waters swirling past - except for the extraordinary abundance of all sorts in canoes and similar craft, paddling gently towards oblivion with the distinctive aroma of wacky baccy floating in the air..... 


What else?  I sense you may be tiring of Leipzig and its charms?  But one more delight is to be found in the MdbK.  Say that again?  The Museum der Bildenden Künste, which is, to put it mildly, a rocking fine museyroom, sensitively organised over several floors, with art and artists arranged by theme or school, from Lucas Cranach the Elder through Caspar Friederich to Max Beckmann and artists of the Leipzig School.

Norbert Wagenbrett - Girl on the Street, 1987


Which takes us, almost inevitably, to the Gedenkstätte Museum in der Runden Ecke (the Round Corner), primarily an exhibition about the Stasi, the former secret police in East Germany, (one time employer of Vladimir Putin) as Leipzig’s history is inextricably confused by the GDR period during which everyone spied on everyone else.  For forty years, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany infiltrated society with suspicion and physical and mental violence.  Until 1989 this building housed the Leipzig District Administration for State Security.  This secret service apparatus penetrated into the most private aspects of people’s lives, sowed mistrust among neighbours, and violated the most elementary human rights.  Almost every aspect of freedom was suppressed, from friendship to art, music to thought.


Definitely worth a visit (though, of course, for purely historical reasons - these things couldn't happen today....).


To reflect on this, I drink more Gose beer in Gosenschenke Ohne Bedenken, (which could translate as Unscrupulous Beer Hall, but which might more generously be Beerhall Without Hesitation....) a fair walk north of the centre.  Here the skinhead barman anticipates retirement (in two years) when he will decamp to Chang Mai (Thailand) where (with no sense of irony) he intends to shed the problems of immigration which he sees as having ruined Germany (he quotes knife crime as one of the biggest problems).  His beer is good.  Not sure about his vision.

Otto Thielicke - Refugees, 1948


And to finish, some Allasch (a caraway liqueur, peculiar to Leipzig) in the First Whiskey Bar, where celebration goes on late into the night with other Bach enthusiasts due to the resignation of one Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson....


As I wander off into the night, I think of Bach again.  All this modern stuff.  If, I muse, Johann Sebastian Bach were alive today..... 

.....He would be turning in his grave.


Boom, Boom!

Leipziger Straßenmagazin KiPPE 
(The Leipzig Big Issue)

The poor shall eat.....

Gerhart Kurt Muller - Foreman, 1971/72