Sunday, April 29, 2012

Pirates! Prepare to Board

In Germany, state elections are coming up in Schleswig-Holstein on May 6, 2012, and in Northrhein-Westphalia one week later. For two reasons these elections are called Schicksalswahlen (Does not any election determine the fate or future of politicians or governments?):

Will Red-Green* (for the color-coding of Germany's political parties read my earlier blog) majorities seize power in those States and therefore take the majority in the Bundesrat (Germany's Senate) giving a decisive blow to Angela Merkel's Black-Yellow Federal Government?

Will the (Orange) Pirates replace the Free Democrats (Yellow) as the new liberal force in those state parliaments?

Cover of  Der Spiegel No 17
The Pirates are the result of a post-democratic movement where particularly young people are fed up with the aging caste of politicians and their entanglement in financial and/or sexual affairs. In fact, the classical liberal topics of freedom of the press, voting rights for women, and free trade are no longer anything to write home about, whereas freedom of the net with urgent questions like how much YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook people need polarizes the modern world. Still learning the political trade the Pirates were already elected into the state parliaments of Berlin and the Saar and with the wind in their sails they boom and thrive: Avanti Dilettanti as Der Spiegel titled a week ago. They demand free internet and free public transport for everybody. With their request the young Pirates honor some Ur-German heritage. Many old people over here still expect free services while for citizens in the States it is normal that all services used must be paid. The Pirates' first demand may be financially possible, the second one is utopia.

With intentions to vote Orange of up to ten percent the established political parties are irritated particularly the Green Party that the young generation had been in love with up to now . Desperately but somehow maladroit the established political parties try climbing the bandwagon or rather boarding the pirate ship. A good example is Bavaria's Ministerpräsident (governor) Horst Seehofer an avowed Christian politician who has fathered an illegitimate child in Berlin while away from his family in Munich. He wants to beat the Pirates at their own game in inviting his friends on Facebook to a party at a noble disco in Munich. Somehow, Horst must have misunderstood the Pirates' quest for liquid democracy when he offered the first drink free. Will one drink be sufficient to convince the party-goers to vote for Bavaria's Christian party?

Practicing liquid democracy in Bavaria (Photo FAZ)

Marina Weisband (Photo Wikipedia)
Presently the Pirates hold their party convention way in the north in Neumünster in Schleswig-Holstein. The party's secretary Marina Weisband urged the assembled deputies: „Lasst uns einen geilen Vorstand wählen” ("Let us elect an awsome party committee" or do you think her demand should be translated differently?).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bach Forever

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in 1685. Following his education and stays in Lüneburg, Weimar, Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and again Weimar he was offered the position of Konzertmeister at the court of the duke of Saxony-Weimar in 1714. In Weimar his sons Friedeman and Philipp Emanuel were born.

Memorial tablet with a grammatical mistake (wurde instead of wurden) at the place of Bach's first home in Weimar.  Now the tablet decorates the wall of the Elephant's parking lot
Later Bach was held in custody at the duke's court for a while before he was allowed to leave for Köthen in November 1717 to take up an assignment as Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Köthen. The contract he had signed without the consent of his previous ruler already in May of the same year. Was Bach's "imprisonment" the reason that it took such a long time before Weimar, the city of writers and thinkers, erected a monument in honor of the musical genius? Forget it, nowadays any reason is good to hold a Bach festival in Thuringia for the man who is known to many of us as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, Saxony.

Bach's bust in Weimar was cast in 1950 but posted at the present location between market place and Anna Amalia Bibliothek only in 1995
Three of the major opening events of the Thüringer Bachwochen concerned the topic Reformation and Music. Since they were scheduled in Eisenach our group took a coach that drove us from Weimar through blooming landscapes (what former chancellor Kohl had promised in 1989 to east German voters) on newly built first-class roads you will only find in the east of Germany.

 We arrived at the Bachhaus in the midst of demonstrators demanding the state government of Thuringia to continue subsidizing the Eisenach theater and in particular to spend an additional 2 million euros to fill this year's financial gap. The supporting words Luther had once said during one of his famous table talks were written on a banner: Fürsten und Herren müssen die Musikam erhalten, denn großen Potentaten gebühret, die guten freien Künste zu erhalten. Und da gleich einzelne Privat-Leute Lust dazu haben, können sie die nicht erhalten.

In school my teachers had once taught me: When you use a citation you must quote literally. So here we go again: Könige, Fürsten und Herrn müssen die Musicam erhalten; denn großen Potentaten und Regenten gebühret, uber guten freien Künsten und Gesetzen zu halten. Und da gleich einzelne, gemeine und Privat-Leute Lust dazu haben und sie lieben, und doch können sie die nicht erhalten.

Protest banner in front of Bach's monument in Eisenach
Only to translate the gist of it: Luther meant that the taxpayer should finance cultural activities since private subsidizing is not always guarantied. Is Luther a socialist? One of Germany's richness is the variety of its cultural heritage, the legacy of those small territories formed after the Peace of Westphalia. All those wannabe rulers wanted to show off with their own orchestra and theater. Nowadays their heritage is a nightmare for all public coffers.

Kitsch as kitsch can:
Bach's head illuminating the discussion panel
Before we were allowed to listen to music we firstly had to participate in a panel discussion and secondly sing in an ecumenical service. The panel at the Bachhaus with two specialized professors, the musical director of the Festival, and the Landesbischöfin of the Lutheran Church of Thuringia discussed Luther's influence on Bach's music. It was obvious that the 500 years anniversary of Luther's posting of the ninety-five theses loomed on the horizon. The region where the reformer dwelt is preparing for the 2017 commemoration: In the beginning was the Word.

1517-2017: 500 years of Reformation: Im Anfang war das Wort
I must admit that many of those wise ideas about Luther and Bach brought forward in the discussion between experts escaped my brain for my mind was concentrated on an early remark the bishop had made in her introduction. She had claimed that the makeshift of the church with the authorities had fortunately ended in 1919 with the toppling of the princes following the 2nd Reich's defeat in World War I. Sorry, but this was not just a makeshift. It had always been a two-fisted community of throne and altar fully united in the formation of obeying subjects.

Later in the public discussion my query concerning the bishop's remark was one of only two coming from the audience: I claimed that the pact between throne and altar did not end in 1919. It is sufficient to mention the Konkordat the Reich signed with the Holy See and the formation of the Lutheran Reichskirche during the Nazi period. Even nowadays the influence of the two Churches on German society is still important when regarding the number of church goers declining.

Later in the afternoon our group took part in an ecumenical service at the St. Georgenkirche jointly celebrated by the already known lady bishop and the catholic (male, what else?) suffragan bishop of Erfurt. It was Palm Sunday and I liked to sing those old hymns common to both Catholics and Protestants. We also listened to Bach's Praeludium BWV 244 in h-minor, during the service to his cantata Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (Step on the path of faith) BWV 152, and to the Fuge BWV 244 in h-minor as a postludium.

St. Georgenkirche in Eisenach
The highlight of the day or rather evening was Bach's Passion according to St. Matthew BWV 244 performed by the Scottish Dunedin Consort under the direction of John Butt again at Eisenach's St. Georgenkirche.

The orchestra was already assembled and I was waiting for the choir to appear but eventually only a dozen soloists stood in front of the musicians completing the whole set-up. This small company not only sang the solo parts but the choir parts too thus interpreting Bach's music with an unheard dynamic. The singers seamlessly continued without the usual pause between solo and choir. We listened for three hours with only one short interruption. Although some body parts started to ache Bach’s great music filled our hearts up to the end: Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (I tears of grief, dear Lord, we leave Thee).

Many regard this final choir to be the apotheosis of Bach's work. Yet, I have my special favorite: a weeping violin in concert with an alto: Erbarme Dich mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen! Schaue hier, Herz und Auge weint vor dir bitterlich. (Have mercy, Lord, on me, regard my bitter weeping, look at me heart and eyes both weep to Thee bitterly.)

Note: I found the pieces of music on Youtube where the final choir and the soprano aria are not interpreted by the Dunedin Consort.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Thuringian Food

Those who read my blogs know that I try to eat local food wherever I go. This quite naturally is lobster in Boston and Speckscholle or Labskaus in Hamburg.

In considering regional food and drink as a cultural heritage I stuck to the habit during my recent trip to Thuringia where I attended the Thüringer Bachwochen. The evening before our group set out for Bach's birthplace Eisenach we had dinner together at Zum schwarzen Bären (the Black Bear) Weimar’s oldest inn adjacent to the Elephant Hotel.

Our tour guide had chosen the traditional Thüringer Sauerbraten mit Rotkohl und Thüringer Kartoffelklößen (served with red cabbage and potato dumplings).

The quality of a Sauerbraten solely depends on the quality of the meat and the duration of marinating. Sauerbraten is known throughout Germany but there are important regional differences in the preparation. In the Rhineland e. g. they add raisins to the gravy.

The next day in Eisenach we had nearly no carnal but an over input of spiritual food. This meant that the following day back in Weimar I could tolerate for lunch a Thüringer Bratwurst on the market and a full meal the evening.

Traveler whenever you come to Weimar do not forget to taste a Thüringer Bratwurst on Weimar's market place at Bianka's wurst stand and you will no longer eat a Thüringer in other parts of Germany.

The Thüringer in Weimar is prepared on a charcoal grill and

Bianka serves it in a bun: simply delicious!

The evening I went to the restaurant Scharfe Ecke (Sharp Corner) where the Kloß-Marie (Dumpling-Mary) already greets you at the entrance.

Two of the items on the menu caught my attention. So I opened with a local onion soup (quite different from the one they serve in France) garnished with Thuringian micro dumplings and plum mustard and

continued with a Thüringer Rostbrätel (a marinated cutlet of pig neck, that is grilled over charcoal) served with roasted onions and (what else?) a dumpling.

I drowned the food with two glasses of Köstritzer Schwarzbier vom Fass. Köstritzer is a local lager running from tap in most places in Weimar and you may have noticed that I stuck to it during my stay.

Above is the photo of what you get when you order a large beer in the north of Germany i. e. above the Main river line. On the pictured glass containing only 0.4 l of Schwarzbier you can barely read: Nach dem deutschen Reinheitsgebot, Köstritzer Schwarzbier (According to the German Beer Purity Law - it was originally Bavarian – Dark [black] lager from Köstritz).

The beer of only 0.4 l that is served in northern Germany the Southerners call a Preußenhalbe for when you order a small beer in southern Germany you get already eine Halbe i.e. half a liter or 0.5 l.

A similar situation arises for wine. When you order a Viertele in the south you logically get 0.25 l. However, when you order ein Viertel Wein in the north of Germany you get only 0.2 l , a Preußen-Viertele as we call it in Baden.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Weimar's Elephant Hotel

The Elephant Hotel on April 1, 2012.
The rose building in the back is the famous Anna-Amalia-Bibliothek
While attending the opening concerts of Thuringia’s Bachwochen 2012 my group stayed in Weimar in the Hotel Elephant, a truly historical place.

Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxony issued a concession to Christian Andreas Barrtig

In 1696 the duke's cupbearer Christian Andreas Barrtig got a concession for an inn bordering Weimar's market square that he named The Elephant. Later it became a stagecoach station and was enlarged to house all the merchants and visitors. When in those days somebody asked at the city gate for Wieland, Herder or Goethe he was directed to the Elephant because people were sure that they were to be found there. In 1938 Thomas Mann made the hotel famous when it played a central role in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Charlotte Buff had been one of young Goethe's sweethearts but she had married another guy. Deceived and in a dark mood Goethe wrote his bestseller The Sorrows of Young Werther -- a (still) famous/infamous book, which brought early renown to Goethe. Mann takes Lotte's visit to Weimar and her stay in the Elephant in 1816 where she also met the aging Goethe as the starting point for his novel.

An early photo of the Elephant around 1860.
On the right Weimar's oldest inn: Zum schwarzen Bären from 1540.
In the 1920s the Elephant became the headquarter of the local Nazi party that as early as 1926 had two ministers in Thuringia's state government. In the same year the NSDAP held its first national party convention in Weimar when Hitler spoke from a window to the crowd gathered in front of the hotel.

Peeping through a window of the Haus Elephant the NSDAP boss is greeting the crowd on the market place
During the coming years the hotel looked somewhat rundown. With the pressure of the Nazis who had governed the state of Thuringia since 1932 and had taken power in the Reich in 1933 the old unattractive building was torn down and replaced in 1938 by the present construction.

The newly built Haus Elephant as a national-socialist shrine
The most important addition to the new building was a balcony meant for der Führer from where he could address the people in the market place. In the following years self-proclaimed Nazi dignitaries used to use it more than him.

New Year's eve dinner 1943 at the Elephant.
Note that the courses have rather low rounded prices but required those precious food ration card coupons.
Today's interior still breathes the Nazi architecture, a strange mixture of neo-realism and cold splendor like door frames made from marble and metallic luminous elements.

Entrance to a set of rooms
Following the Wende (the end of German division) new splendor with illustrious guests and their interpreter
Nowadays the balcony is crowned by Goethe's dictum: Here I am Man, here I may live up to it, the final line of the poem Osterspaziergang (Easter walk) taken from his drama Faust. The Führer's balcony now serves as a place for cultural displays. During my last visit Thomas Mann stood up there, this year star architect Walter Gropius and femme fatale Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel decorate the place.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Beer Tasting

During the past week Toni's place on Freiburg's Münsterplatz celebrated its 10th anniversary. On the occasion the Ganter brewery had revived a dark lager as the jubilee beer and Ganter's beer sommelier organized a tasting. My loyal readers may remember my wine marathon last year. This time the stuff to be tasted and tested was beer.

We must face it: the variety of beers brewed in Germany does not correspond to the number of ways bread is baked and sold in my country. You may already have guessed why: the reason is the German Reinheitsgebot, the famous purity regulation first issued in Bavaria (where else?) in 1516, stipulating that only barley malt, hops, and water may be used in the production of beer. However, in olden times beer tasted different even when brewed at the same brewery as the founding fathers had forgotten to codify the yeast. Only later when the fermentation of beer had been fully understood special yeasts for brewing were cultivated and added to subsequent charges assuring a similar taste. Although in Germany adding cherry syrup or caramel as they do in Belgium is not allowed there are still differences in the taste of beer depending on the type of yeast, the temperature, the length of fermentation, and the method and duration of storage before drinking.

The following photo shows the three beers that we as future experts had first to describe and then to identify. No, I am not and I was not drunk: I count four glasses too. The fourth glass, still full on the photo, was offered as a bonus after the hard work and contains the jubilee dark lager beer.
Sommelier Bernd Ruth told us that beer tasting (also called beer sensory) is distinct from wine tasting. 80% of our impression of the taste of beer is determined by the sense of smell whereas only 20% passes through the sense of taste. With wine it is just the other way around. On a tasting form (Verkostungsbogen) we had to note the color, the clearness, the foam, and the smell of the brew. As for the taste when drinking the connoisseur distinguishes between the beginning (Antrunk), the presence (Rezenz, whatever that means in German) and the past (Nachtrunk). This word in everyday German rather has a connotation referring to the practice of some hit-and-run drivers. Following a collision they rush home, open a bottle and drink until the police arrive to prove that they had been sober when they caused the accident.

The first of the tasted beers was easily identified as a Pils. For the second I had some difficulty to recognize it as a Weizenbier (weissbeer) for it had been served much too warm. The third one showing the brown color I got wrong for I had marked it to be the jubilee dark lager beer. It was, however, the Ganter Wodan strong beer that contrary to Bavaria, where such a brew is served during the Lenten season, flows from the tap in Freiburg throughout the year.

The following beers were all on the house but I did not stay on as the following morning I had to catch an early train taking me to my next cultural event in Weimar.