The Bachhaus in Eisenach describes itself as the world’s first Bach museum. Ironically, it’s not the house old J S was born in, and he seems to have been keen to leave Eisenach early and reluctant to ever go back. Perhaps with good reason: even today, it’s the one town we visited in the former GDR that is still obviously suffering economically, and the one place on our travels where we didn’t feel welcome, but did feel ripped off. However, we’d come not for Bach, or for Eisenach itself, but for the Wartburg, perched on a rock high above the town.
‘The weight of history’ is a phrase that kept occurring to us on this tour, but in few places was it as palpable as in this extraordinary confection of a medieval castle. This is where the 13thcentury contests of Minnesingers were held that form the basis of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and many other legends. St Elizabeth of Hungary (and Thuringia) was chatelaine here, and was canonised just four years after her death in 1231. Luther hid out here, disguised as ‘Junker Jorg’ and wrote much of his translation of the New Testament while under cover, and you can see the cell where he worked, purportedly original. Which is more than can be said for his so-called cell in the Augustiner Monastery in Erfurt, which has been rebuilt at least twice. And in 1817, exactly 300 years after Luther kicked off the Reformation, German students held a fraternity meeting in the Wartburg, a meeting which is seen in retrospect as an important milestone on the road to German unity, thus making the castle today a pilgrimage site for certain right wing nationalist groups as well as for Protestants from all over the world.
So it’s no wonder that Goethe (yes, him again) proposed that this slumbering giant should be reawakened as a museum, though it was Carl Alexander of Weimar, the grandson of Goethe’s employer, who eventually took on the task of the castle’s restoration. The result is an extraordinary challenge to our notions of ‘authenticity’. From the outside the Wartburg looks like every child’s dream of a medieval castle (and it inspired Mad Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein), and at its core is one of the most important secular Romanesque buildings to survive in Northern Europe. But Carl Alexander’s architect Hugo von Ritgen turned the interior into a delirious dream of what the 19th Century thought a medieval castle should look like. The end result no doubt disappoints many visitors seeking an ‘authentic’ medieval experience—one TripAdvisor comment calls it ‘disappointing kitschy neo-classical’—but for anyone with an interest in the myths of nation-building, the impact is thrilling and overwhelming. This is ‘bildung’ on the scale, not of an individual, but of an entire emergent nation (see Part 3). This is the image of a fantastical, colourful, German history that Nazi ideology would so distort, and one has to work hard to get past that distortion, and to appreciate the idealism and the optimism with which something like the Wartburg was created.
Even the GDR co-opted the Wartburg in a new phase of nation-building, as in 1967 the castle was the site of celebrations of: the GDR’s national jubilee, the 900th anniversary of the castle’s (legendary) founding, the 450th anniversary of the start of Luther’s Reformation, and the 150th anniversary of that primal student gathering in 1817. Phew!
At the heart of Luther’s Reformation is the idea of the individual’s unmediated relationship with God. If we had any doubt that this focus on the individual was already deeply rooted in German history and culture, it would have been swept away by our next visit, to Naumburg Cathedral. Here I have to make a confession: I have been wanting to visit Naumburg for almost fifty years, ever since I first made the acquaintance of a very special lady, the Countess Uta. Naumburg Cathedral is unique in German art. When the church was rebuilt in the early 13thcentury, it was decided that the west choir (an unusual feature of certain German churches) should be dedicated to the 12 ‘founders’ of the original church, and that they should be commemorated in 12 lifesize and almost freestanding stone sculptures. These are among the first and the most impressive portraits of named individuals in all of medieval art, and the greatest of all is that of Uta, wife of the Margrave Ekkehard. When Umberto Eco was asked which woman from art he would like to have dinner with, he immediately chose Uta. Her beauty has haunted me for much of my life and, I can tell you, the reality does not disappoint.
Except, this is not a portrait. At the time these twelve sculptures were executed, their subjects had been dead for about 150 years. If they are based on living individuals, and it’s hard to believe they’re not, then those individuals were entirely different people. And it seems that the touches of paint—on eyes, cheeks and lips—which are so important in giving life to Uta’s beauty, may be largely or wholly the result of various restorations from the 17thto the 19thcentury.
And Uta, like the Wartburg, suffered from being co-opted into Nazi ideology, promoted as an ideal of Aryan womanhood—restrained and demure—in contrast to her sister-in-law across the choir, Reglindis, whose inappropriate smiling (I kid you not) was thought to be due to her inferior Polish ancestry. So many layers to strip away, as the 19thcentury ‘restorers’ stripped away the Baroque trappings of the Cathedral to get back to its medieval core. In all those layers, is there such a thing as an ‘authentic’ Uta? Naumburg, by the way, is a wholly delightful town, worth at least a day of anyone’s time.
And so our epic tour came to an end, as we returned to the German city we know best, Munich, and, by happy coincidence, to a major exhibition which somehow epitomised all the conflicting ideas and issues that we’d been exposed to on this holiday-cum-pilgrimage through German history and culture. Munich’s Kunsthalle is a remarkable temporary exhibition space in the middle of an upmarket shopping mall, rather is if the Royal Scottish Academy were relocated to inside Harvey Nick’s. And the exhibitions it mounts are no less remarkable. Du Bist Faust explored the impact of Goethe’s two-part epic on two centuries of art and music, moving step by step through the familiar story, and in doing so showing how quickly Goethe’s ‘authentic’ philosophical vision had been simplified (many would say cheapened) by such manifestations as Gounod’s opera Faust(for a long time known in German-speaking regions as Marguerite to distance it from the great original). And showing also how Goethe ensured that the late-Medieval legend of the learned doctor who made a pact with the devil would become an inescapable metaphor for the human condition.
Perhaps Faust is the greatest, most ‘authentic’ of all German myths, because it subsumes all the others and touches so deeply on something within all of us. Can it be coincidence that the historical Faust—if there really was such a man—was a near-contemporary of Luther? Is Faust’s disgust with a lifetime of learning actually a rejection of the whole concept of bildung, and is his pact with Mephistopheles—the spirit of negation—a black mirror of that striving for a secular perfection? And if the drive towards German unity in the 19thcentury was a kind of national bildung, was the subsequent failure of the Weimar Republic and the collapse into totalitarianism, a kind of Faustian pact? Is any quest for perfection, for utopia, for authenticity, doomed to be perverted into its dark opposite?
Goethe’s Faust Part 2 ends with a ‘Chorus Mysticus’ (in Philip Wayne’s translation for Penguin):
All things corruptible
Are but a parable;
Here finds fulfilment;
Here the ineffable
Wins life through love;
Leads us above.
But what if ‘Earth’s insufficiency’ is all there is? Returning home to a garden rampant with three week’s untamed Spring growth, we were drawn more to the final words of another great European masterpiece, Voltaire’s Candide: ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin’.
And so we crossed from Austria to Germany, leaving behind the family tragedies of the Habsburgs, and also the gemütlich sentimentality of Mozart in Salzburg, and entering the heady and high-minded world of Luther, Bach, Goethe and Schiller, and the double-edged question of German unity. We were about to spend a week in Erfurt, capital of Thuringia, which region, though once part of the GDR, is at the very heart of Germany, both geographically and culturally. And we were about to steep ourselves in a philosophical milieu that is best summed up in the single, untranslatable term, bildung.
‘Bildung’ is defined by Peter Watson, in his exhaustive (and exhausting) study, The German Genius as referring to ‘the inner development of the individual, a process of fulfilment through education and knowledge, in effect a secular search for perfection’. The term is not widely known in English circles, except in the form bildungsroman, applied to a novel, like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which depicts the growth of an individual. It came as no surprise to learn that the first bildungsroman was written by Goethe, whose pervasiveness in German culture has no match in English, unless you combined Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Ruskin into one.
Erfurt is about the size of Aberdeen and, having been spared the worst ravages of Allied bombing, is, like Bamberg and Regensburg, a lively working city which just happens to have a centre made up largely of buildings dating back to the Renaissance and earlier. And, as noted in Part 1, most of those old buildings have been restored to the point where they look ‘as good as new’. There are few cars, lots of trams, bicycles and pedestrians, and a mix of river, canals, trees, and characterful old streets that reminded us of Bruges (though with many fewer tourists!). Our Munich friends were surprised that we could spend as much as a week there (as if we’d said to a Londoner that we’d spent a week in Doncaster), but it is a welcoming and endearing town and an ideal centre for touring the fascinating region of Thuringia and beyond.
Erfurt’s sense of its own centrality in German history and culture is amply demonstrated by the impressive series of 19thcentury murals in the Rathaus (Town Hall). In the main council chamber these depict, as you would expect, scenes from the city’s history, ranging from the more or less accurate to the downright apocryphal, but in the grand staircase fantasy had been allowed free rein. Here the murals tell the story of Faust (the original legend with its gory end, not Goethe’s version), an equally dubious tale about a local count, and the fantasy version of the life of Tannhäuser (a historical figure) which Wagner retold. Even the murals of Luther’s life include scenes with no documented basis. I was reminded of the famous lines from The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!’.
I’m fascinated by the world of German theatres and opera houses, and Erfurt has a particularly fine example, which opened in just 2003. We were very fortunate that on our first night in the city we caught the final performance of a studio production of Cavalli’s opera La Calisto. Opera lovers of our generation will have happy memories of a famous 1970s Glyndebourne/Peter Hall production of this delightful opera, starring Janet Baker, no less. But that Raymond Leppard arrangement was on the grandest and most sumptuous scale. Erfurt’s production was no doubt closer to the 17thcentury original: eight singers, and an instrumental ensemble of just 14. But this was no dry effort at authenticity: alongside the violins, viols, harpsichord, and cornetto that Cavalli might have expected were a batch of modern wind and brass instruments, creating a wonderfully rich sonority at key points. And the production wittily merged Greek and Thuringian themes: for example, the satyr whose antics spark the plot was one half goat-leg and horns, one half dirty lederhosen, while Pan had combined his Mediterranean attributes with those of the thoroughly German folk figure of Rübezahl. It was a truly wonderful production and performance, well nigh flawless, and a tribute to the standards that even the second rank of German opera companies can achieve. ‘Historically informed’? Certainly. ‘Authentic’? To the spirit of the original, I have no doubt.
Our first excursion from Erfurt was just 15 minutes on the train, to Weimar. This truly is the cultural centre of Germany. Bach first made his name here, Goethe, Schiller and Herder all worked together here, and later Liszt made it his base of operations for many years. And of course this small provincial town was where the first attempt at a German Republic was proclaimed in 1919, and where, in the same year, the Bauhaus was founded. That’s a lot of history to bear for a town that, even today, has fewer than 70,000 inhabitants.
On our previous trip, a few years ago, we had visited Goethe’s house: an eerie experience, as there are no labels or captions, and no electric light, and the excellent audio guide persuades you that a member of Goethe’s family might turn the corner at any moment. This time we visited the corresponding Schiller house, and had a very similar enthralling, and enlightening, experience, even though a much greater proportion of the contents were not linked to Schiller’s family, but only generally to his time. One gets the sense that the importance, in Germany, of these two great writers lies almost as much in their lives as in their works, as exemplars of fulfilment through bildung. I was reminded strongly of the conventions of hagiography, as if Goethe and Schiller were being given the status of secular saints, a process which always carries the danger of smoothing out the wrinkles of their lives as lived, and making them seem, ultimately, something more—or less—than human.
This cross-over from sacred to secular was evident throughout Thuringia in the treatment of Luther, especially as we were encountering a great deal of the hangover from the 2017 quincentenary of his 95 theses. Such anniversaries—and not just in Germany—show just how much we are still in thrall to the ‘Great Man’ theory of history popularised by Carlyle (think of the recent success of Darkest Hour!). There is no more extreme example of this than the Walhalla hall of fame created by Ludwig I of Bavaria, which we had viewed from the Danube on our visit to Regensburg some years ago. It contains 191 busts commemorating ‘politicians, sovereigns, scientists and artists of the German tongue’, only 12 of them women. In the wake of the defeat of Napoleon, the creation of the Walhalla was seen as a crucial demonstration of a shared German heritage, and an important step towards German national unity. On our next excursion we were about to encounter another such demonstration, on a similarly grand scale, but that’s for the next part of this blog.