The Art of Becoming (Authentic Myths and the Myth of Authenticity, Part 3)
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.