Monday, 30 June 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 5 Into Germany (2)

Max and Freddy, whose English was quite good, took us across the frontier and dropped us in the middle of Aachen. George and I must have made a favourable impression on them, because they invited us to join them and some of their student friends that evening in a central Aachen bar. We said we would do our best to be there.

We found a park and idled away an hour or two in the late afternoon sun taking stock and watching children playing, at that time an innocent and unsuspect activity. At one point a small boy came up to us and chattered volubly about something or other. No orphan lines from Schubert or 'Battler' Britton seemed to suit the occasion, so I was reduced to abject interjections of Ach, so? at intervals. I had no idea what he was talking about. Presently he scampered off, maybe wondering what kind of lunatics, one (myself) with a little Union Jack not even sewn but glued on to his mid-blue beret, were taking their ease beneath an oak tree in the Westpark.

(It was probably at this moment that two linguistic seeds, first warmed into life over the previous few days in Flemish-speaking Belgium, started to sprout: the first a deep-rooted weed, a reluctance to travel to places where they spoke languages I knew nothing of; the second, a hardy lingua floribunda that has turned out to need constant dead-heading, an ambition to learn at least a smattering of as many languages as possible.)

We took stock. British attitudes towards Germans in general - Adèle was a delectable and particular exception: I could make her the heroine of a novel in the role of (h'm!) a sacrificial virgin - at that time swirled about uncertainly, a nasty mix of distrust, phobia, unforgiving memory, 'Battler' Britton jingoism and Gestapo bogeymen. Everyone was aware of the Shoah and other Nazi genocidal initiatives, but I don't think the full extent of these ghastly outrages was then appreciated. Russian-occupied East Germany, very roughly the former Prussia, was an Iron Curtain frontier showcase of Stalinist communism managed by Kremlin puppet-masters, where the Stasi was really the Gestapo under another guise. West Germany was still occupied by Allied forces, and it wasn't difficult to imagine that the natives would have at least an ambivalent attitude towards them. The United Kingdom was unique among non-neutral western European nations in having no experience (except in the Channel Islands) of day-to-day subjection to foreign troops, and it might well be that the British, for all their delusions of colonial administrative prowess, weren't hugely popular.

It seemed to us, too, that everyone we knew had some experience, at a greater or lesser remove, of losing someone, friend, neighbour, colleague or relation, in uniform or not, as a result of the war. George had lost an uncle in the Royal Artillery. In my case the godfather I never knew had gone down with HMS Gambia in 1943, and was no more than a name on the Royal Navy memorial on Plymouth Hoe and a clutch of lively memories in my mother's mind. It was more than likely that Max and Freddy, of our generation and born during the war, could tell of closer personal losses than these.

Aachen had suffered badly. Ravages of war were still evident, blasted ruinous spaces overgrown with rosebay willowherb among the footings of jury-rig wooden buttresses shoring up leaning walls, hastily built blocks of flats and a dearth of middle-aged men. Local memories must still have been potent: Aachen was the first German town to be freed of Nazism by the advancing Americans in October 1944. The population had been ordered to evacuate the town and to sabotage its amenities, leaving behind an urban waste for the approaching US troops. 4000 Aacheners disobeyed, and the Bürgermeister they elected after liberation was subsequently murdered by a Gestapo hit squad. The town was re-taken that winter in the course of the Ardennes offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, to be finally liberated in early 1945. Neither George nor I had the slightest experience of the ebb and flow of warring armies, of conquest and re-conquest, resistance and reprisal of fifteen years beforehand. How would we be received by Aacheners of our own generation?

As it happened, very well indeed.

Monday, 16 June 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 5 Into Germany (1)

At last! The German frontier appeared some way ahead (but why the image above is overprinted BLICUSE I don't know)...

At school, whose gates had finally clanged shut behind George and me only a couple of weeks before, German language and literature were disowned and despised as fit only to be locked away in a dark cupboard to contemplate their shameful existence until some far-distant day when they might be taken out, dusted off and tentatively laid before generations less deeply dyed with First and Second World War cultures. Ha! All the more reason for a dilettante maverick like myself to lay hold of them and espouse their cause wholeheartedly.

I made a point of ensuring that the most visible of the vast armfuls of books we used to carry about in the crooks of our arms had nothing whatever to do with what I was supposed to be studying: Latin, Greek and Ancient History. My armful was usually ostentatiously topped with The Penguin Book of German Romantic Verse, a miraculous dispensary - with translations - of mini-outpourings from Goethe, Matthisson (the poet of Adelaïde), Schiller, Mayrhofer, Eichendorff, Heine and all the rest of those Teutonic lyricists so effortlessly able to encapsulate my innermost feelings in three or four utterly compelling verses.

Eduard Mörike, too: a climax, a sort of simultaneous cerebral orgasm in my relationship with Adèle had come some weeks before when, invited but unprompted, she had written on my bedroom wall, not far from George's Chaucer quotation:

Wie heimlicherweise, ein Engelein leise
Mit rosigen Füssen die Erde betritt;
So nahte der Morgen.

I could translate this 'so let there be, always some cash for me' for all that its literal meaning was important: what mattered was that this proved that Adèle was a real, living, breathing, beautiful, smiling, affectionate witness and exemplar of that German heritage that was so important to me. No longer was it a chimaera, a private and hermetic world of which I was the only citizen. Nor, after being shriven by Adèle, would it serve as a goad to prod, tweak and irritate lumpen teachers; it was too hallowed for that. All this puts a new gloss on the meaning of 'meaning', of course, but literally the lines, taken from a poem about the New Year by Mörike, a pastor from Stuttgart, translate as:

How stealthily a delicate little angel
Steps over the earth with rosy feet;
So the morning approaches.

Apparently this is very well-known in German mittelstand homes. There's no mystique about it at all. It's as though, if the roles had been reversed, I'd written Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel in Adèle's autograph book, and she'd gone into only-just-post-adolescent raptures about the incredible mystic beauty of it.

So nearly all the German I had came from The Penguin Book of German Romantic Verse, sometimes bundled up - a surprising amount - and shoved into the memory through the songs of Schubert and Schumann. There was another, minimal source of language: in those days, fifteen years after the death of Hitler and the fall of the Third Reich, newsagents still abounded with cheap comic booklets featuring a certain Sergeant Rock or one Squadron Leader 'Battler' Britton, in which hapless Nazi dolts shouted Achtung, Spitfeuer! or Jawohl, Herr Leutnant! not to mention Hände hoch, Schweinhund! and I can't pretend, when I was twelve or thirteen, not to have harboured a certain greed for this coarse fare.

So with a syntax and vocabulary drawn from the easier poems of Goethe and Heine, salted with war-comic imprecations, we approached the German frontier and the town of Aachen. (George, incidentally, had no German at all.) I could say Ihr lieben holden Musen, wann ruh' ich ihr am Busen, auch endlich wieder aus? [You beloved, beautiful Muses, when will I finally rest on your bosom?] and zum Befehl, Herr Kapitän! [Aye aye, Captain!] with the utmost assurance, indeed swagger, but there was very little in between.

Two German students of about our age took us across the frontier. We were very jealous of their car.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 4 The Faith Healer (3)

In central Liège I sent a postcard to Adèle, full of a tenderness and affection which I hoped masked the underlying disappointment of the failed tryst at Ostend. I hoped we might yet meet in Cologne: would she write to me poste restante at the Head Post Office? I put the card in an envelope, lest her parents should have too easy a sight of it, and sent it off to her home in the Rhineland. George, practical as ever, annoyed me calculating that it probably wouldn't arrive at Adèle's house until the following Monday (today was Friday), and if she wrote back at once her reply wouldn't arrive at the Cologne Hauptpostamt until Tuesday at the earliest. We were a day away from Cologne: he really didn't want to hang about in Cologne over the weekend and well into the next week for what might well turn out to be nothing, given Adèle's past form.

I didn't want to know this, and fell into a silent sulk on the tram out of Liège.

The Beethoven song, Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, played itself endlessly in my head, its rhythm chiming occasionally with the tram wheels rattling over expansion joints in the rails. As a piece of music it was soundly constructed in a ternary form that was already well established as a basic compositional framework by Beethoven's time: roughly ABA, with A representing an arresting, declamatory first section and B a softer, more reflective middle section, before repeating some of the first section A and bringing it to a triumphant close. Beethoven had made the change of key, needed to point the contrast between A and B, in a characteristically revolutionary way: a direct plunge into the flat submediant, a tonal device for which I can only think of very rare examples in all the work of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven's older contemporaries. It's a magical transition. You can judge the raw effect on the keyboard, by playing several chords of C major increasingly loud, pausing for a moment and then playing softly a few chords of A flat major. It's like the sun coming out on a storm-lashed landscape, like calm harbour waters reached after navigating rough seas. Some would liken it to arriving, after scaling the heights, at the plateau of orgasm: others, more superficially, to something like lemon mousse after vindaloo. I preferred - the realisation of any of these similes seeming unlikely in the immediate future - to liken it to someone you love passionately but believe to be far away appearing unexpectedly at your side and slipping an arm round your waist; the flat submediant effect Adèle might have created if she'd been waiting for me in Cologne station.

(It's not an effect to squander: do it too often, and it spoils. Skilled harmonic practitioners can use it very subtly, though, by what they call - all practitioners tend to further cloak their mysteries in impenetrable jargon - the cycle of flat submediants, moving from C major to A flat, as above, and thence to E major and back 'home' to C major.)

The verse was very curious. Although vast in its initial sweep, it didn't lead very far, it came to no conclusion, it seemed truncated:

Die Himmel rühmen des Ewigen Ehre
Ihr Schall pflanzt seinen Namen fort.
Ihn rühmt der Erdkreis, ihn preisen die Meere,
Vernimm', O Mensch, ihr göttlich Wort!

Wer trägt des Himmels unzählbare Sterne?
Wer führt die Sonn' aus ihrem Zelt?
Sie kommt und leuchtet und lacht uns von ferne
Und läuft den Weg, als wie ein Held.

The heavens announce the glory of the Eternal,
Their sound perpetuates his name.
The earth proclaims him, the oceans praise him,
O man, accept their godlike word!

Who bears the innumerable stars of the heavens?
Who draws forth the sun from his canopy?
He [i.e. the sun] comes and shines and greets us with laughter from afar
And, like a hero, runs his course.

(My translation). Later enquiry showed that in the original there are indeed four other verses, building to an arresting climax in which 'the Eternal' claims, as our creator, our love and invites us to share in his joy. The poem, an extract from Geistlichen Oden und Lieder (Spiritual Odes and Songs, 1757) is by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, who died in Leipzig in 1769, the year before Beethoven was born. Beethoven set six of these poems for soprano and piano in 1803, the year of the very fine Horneman miniature portrait described a few pages back.

Why did Beethoven stop at the second verse? Maybe it's something to do with the evocation of a hero, a giant of existence beyond morality, representing a spirit of boundless creative energy unconfined by the dimensions of the universe, whose chief characteristic is joy. Beethoven found this concept compelling enough to express it much more fully 20 years later, as the culmination of a long-held project, in the final movement of his 9th symphony through some lines from Friedrich Schiller's An die Freude (Ode to Joy, 1785). Here, after the most massive flat submediant plunge in the history of music to the words vor Gott (before God), there's an awed silence for a moment; then, little by little, magically, bassoons and bass drum, clarinets, horns and flutes and most un-Beethovenian cymbals and triangle (known as 'Turkish music' and very popular in the Vienna of his day) and finally oboes and trumpets fall in to produce a sparkling military march, to which Beethoven sets Schiller's words, slightly adapted to fit his jaunty, irrepressible tune:

Froh wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmel's prächt'gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig wie ein Held zum Siegen.

As joyfully as his [i.e. God's] suns fly
Though the splendid design of the universe,
Run your course, brothers,
With the exultation of a victorious hero.

(My translation.) I hadn't expected these insights into Beethoven's spiritual development to flow from the goings-on in M. Kula's church, nor to realise what an embryonic precursor of much greater things Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur was. Neither George nor I could be said to have enjoyed the Liège experience very much, but at least his ankle was now rested and back to normal. As for me, I derived a certain modest, but hardly celestial, joy from occasionally patting the wad of Belgian banknotes in my back pocket.

A succession of short lifts that afternoon took us to the German frontier.