Würzburg: Loreena McKennit


Yes, Anna, I am eternally grateful to you for finding the tickets and forcing me to buy one. Yes, I am very, very sorry you couldn’t come too…..

…A favorite singer in the Goodling household is Loreena McKennitt–sort of Irish, sort of world-music, very much inspired by travel and literature, from Homer to Dante to Shakespeare. She also hardly ever does concert tours, which is why my sister pretty much freaked out when she saw that she would be singing all over Germany, July 2012. And Würzburg was a stop on the tour! Talk about amazing timing.


And therefore I found myself last Sunday in a beautiful outdoor theater at the Festung Marienberg, Loreena McKennitt ticket in hand. First, though, I walked all around the castle gardens…

…and had a picnic. Yes, that is a Brie sandwich, local wine, and the best chocolate in Germany.

More gardens. This was over on the other side of the mountain, outside the castle walls. There were dozens of summer cottages like the one you see in the photo, each with a tiny vegetable garden, flower beds, and fruit trees.



…and then back to the concert grounds, backed by the Festung walls.

I had a standing room ticket, and had luckily arrived early enough to get a spot just a few meters from the stage.

And because I promised, here are the videos. They aren’t very good, not least because the No-Camera Security Guy was standing three feet away from me. Seriously Anna, I could have been killed right there…..



Needless to say, it was wonderful. Nothing can beat the excitement of live music. There was much dancing, clapping, and smooching. Lots of smooching.

Loreena played the piano, harp, keyboard, and accordion. She is very down-to-earth and looks rather older than in her clips on youtube, not at all super-star-ish. Her beautiful singing voice is the same. One interesting point–we didn’t hear any new music. I believe her last CD came out in 2006…I wonder if she is still writing. I certainly hope so.

Kirchen und Shäkespeare

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

I once heard a professor say that these few lines were the ultimate statement on the Renaissance. It was a time when human beings–their creativity, ideas, power–were beginning to come to the forefront as inherently worthy of study and awe. But behind it all was still this pressing knowledge of mankind’s fragility, his limitations, his very smallness in the face of God, nature, death. It was possible to be both infinite in faculty and a quintessence of dust.

I think the churches here are fascinating reflections of the passage. As I said, they seem to be as much celebrations of human creativity and power as places of worship. But even amidst the walls of stained glass and stone, amidst the breathtakingly beautiful organs, frescoes, alters, columns, and statues, there is still this pervading feeling of quintessence-of-dust.

Schönbornkapelle, Dom St. Kilian, Würzburg

Asamkirche, München

Frauenkirche, München

Marienkapelle, Würzburg

Würzburg: Kreuzweg

Just another lovely spot in Würzburg. Last week we climbed up the mountain on the other side of the valley to the Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) that leads to the beautiful baroque Käppele. The church is so high up that it is visible almost everywhere in the city.



Views of the city from the top.

The Festung Marienberg, on the other side of the valley.




…and then we went even higher, to apple crisp in the tiny cafe at the very top of the mountain. Yum!

Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit

Bayreuth, July 21, 2012

It was almost exactly four years ago that I heard Richard Wagner’s music for the first time. I had bought a CD on a whim at a July 4th book sale–Das Rheingold. I suppose it is fitting that the opera began with Wagner’s creation story:

In Wagner’s music I find something too problematic to love, too compelling to hate. The composer’s art and thought have been a constant in my various explorations–a driving force forward to those he influenced, from Freud to Thomas Mann and Mahler, and backward, to his own sources–Goethe, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy.

Who would have guessed that some four years after that July 4th weekend I would be standing on a damp train platform in Germany, headed to Bayreuth.

Bayreuth is Wagner’s city, the home of the opera house he designed especially for performances of his works alone. The theater is an acoustic and architectural marvel–and today, the waiting list for tickets to the festival in August is over ten years long.

But first, the train ride there. Anna, you will be especially happy to note my reading material below. 🙂 Don’t worry, there are plenty of other articles about one Ms. A. Netrebko…

The first view of the Festival House, from the train station. The larger city was not overly exciting, very industrial and down-to-earth–nothing like Rothenburg’s brand of cultivated, touristy beauty. But it was immediately clear that this place, some 150 years after the composer’s death, was still Wagner’s city. “Bayreuth, die Stadt des großen Meisters, grüßt seine Gäste,” read the enormous sign at the station. Bayreuth, the city of the great Master, greets her guests.

In the train station, between the tabloids and chewing gum, one could purchase Wagner’s complete libretti, copies of his essays, of Nietzsche’s Der Fall Wagner.

Along the road up the Festival Hill. The road signs are all references to Wagner’s operas, characters, or family members.

The feel of the whole city was rather odd, part cult, part kitsch, part unnerving and ever-present history. It seemed as if all the shops had to have some compulsory reference to Wagner, as if marketing potential could be increased by sticking a familiar marble bust next to the wares in the display window, or by calling the breakfast omelet special Siegfried and the wine Isolde.



Breakfast specials!

Every book store in the city had a large selection of Wagner CDs and books–and not just the usual “Opera for Dummies” types, but academic folios on Wagner and Nietzsche or Thomas Mann, published conference proceedings, three-volume biographies, Cosima’s complete diaries….

In the local Hugendubel (the German version of Borders or Barnes and Noble) I drank my chai across from a two-story poster of the composer’s face…

And the history…on the slope before the main entrance to the festival house, before one could climb the last set of steps to enter the building, there was an exhibition on antisemitism in Bayreuth. Of course we all know it and have struggled with it already, the noxious quotes from Cosima, the pictures of Hitler and Goebbels, the biographies of singers shunned from Bayreuth and later murdered. But seeing the pictures and the writing there made it all the more real.

But again, this is Wagner. It would be too easy to take one’s seat in the house and just listen to the music.

The Festspielhaus itself, finally. After the countless ornamented and excessively beautiful buildings we have seen these past few weeks, it looked very plain, almost Spartan. Inside, the walls were simply painted. The only furnishings I could see were a few benches. In the actual seating area, which I didn’t get to look at, all the seats are good–no royal box, no elaborate set-up to make the guests more interesting than the music. Bravo Wagner.

Here’s the place to be….

The Festival House is surrounded by lovely gardens, very green this time of year.

From the Festival Hill I went down into the Old City, and eventually to Villa Wahnfried, the home of Wagner from 1872 until his death in 1883. Unfortunately, the house (and thus the museum) was closed for renovations. But I was there!

The front facade, with a statue of the crazy King Ludwig, Wagner’s obsessive (but, luckily for the composer, totally loaded) supporter and patron. Again, the place was surprisingly unpretentious, for the home of one of the greatest figures in 19th century Europe. The house was not overly large, with that same boxy construction as the Festival House. I went and sat on the front steps for a long time.

Wahnfried literally means free from illusion or delusion. Wagner’s motto is written on the front of the house: “Hier wo mein Wähnen Frieden fand – Wahnfried – sei dieses Haus von mir benannt.” (“Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”) I can’t help but wonder what he meant by that.

Below, the fresco or painting above the front door. It shows Wagner in the middle as Wotan, king of the gods, with actress and lover Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (I think…) on the left as Drama, and wife Cosima on the right as Music. The little child is Wagner’s son Siegfried.

Wagner and Cosima’s grave, entirely unadorned. When I got there it started to pour rain, which was fitting.

Of course such a place is remarkable not only for the presence of the artist himself, but for all that has happened afterwards, for all those who have visited to hear the same music, to see the same house and grave. Even while Wagner was alive, of course, Europe’s intellectual and artistic elite took their way to the city, as friends, enemies, pilgrims, lovers. Franz Liszt was one such visitor, supporter, and later Wagner’s father-in-law. His house is across the street from Wahnfried.

The place is now a museum, and, probably to compensate for Wahnfried being closed, has the piano that Wagner composed much of Parsifal on. Imagine!

And that was all. I ate dinner in a tiny cafe next to the train station and then flew back to Würzburg, at 200 kilometers per hour in a nearly-empty train, into the sunset. It was a good day. I’ll be back soon, with a ticket.


Tomorrow, Bayreuth!
After some three hours on two buses and one train, headed East, Bayern weekend ticket in hand, with books and a packed lunch of good Würzburg wine, bread, and cheese….a real Abenteuer, to the one place on earth I have most wanted to visit. Wish me luck!




Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Rothenburg is a Hermann Hesse city. I don’t mean the Hesse of Steppenwolf or Demian, all angstily modernistic–but the Hesse of Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game), perhaps, and especially of Narziss und Goldmund. The city dates from the 12th century, the height of the Middle Ages. There is something quintessentially Romantic, nostalgic, sweetly backward-looking about the place, all cobblestone streets and church bells and honey suckle trailing over windowsills.

Now, of course, Rothenburg is entirely given over to the tourist industry–“Postcard Germany,” as Dr. G. says. But one could still imagine coming around the corner to find an old cloister school, with a Chestnut tree in the courtyard….





K.H. and D. ended up in the stocks, to our Herr Professor’s exceeding amusement.

The city is still surrounded by the old wall. I walked nearly all the way around on it, with the red roofs of the town on one side and green hills on the other.



Our group, from the Burggarten looking back to the city.


But back to Hesse and Narziss und Goldmund. Those who have read the book know that Goldmund eventually becomes a master wood carver, and will well remember Hesse’s wonderful descriptions of his works. I think that Hesse must have been well acquainted with Tilman Riemenschneider, a wood carver from the 15th century who settled in Würzburg. We have seen many of his works over the last few weeks, but nothing to compare to the Holy Blood altar in Rothenburg’s St. Jakob Kirche. It is one of the most beautiful things I have seen, very possibly the most beautiful.

The altar stands alone up in the top story of the church, in the alcove behind the organ. The central carving is of the Last Supper, with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and prayer on the Mount of Olives on the side panels. No photographs can really capture it, but I am grateful to Tim for the shots below, which are far better than any from my small camera.

The reliquary cross at the center, which supposedly holds a drop of Christ’s blood.




If you ever happen to find yourself in the vicinity of Rothenburg, I exhort you to go and see it.

Addendum: Further investigation tells me that Hesse did indeed know Riemenschneider, and based Goldmund’s first carving master off of him. Faszinierend!


Germany is full of beautiful churches.

I am not sure if “beautiful” is the correct adjective. The actuality is both more sublime and more disturbing. Centuries ago, in towns of just a few thousand people–what prompted those in command to dedicate so many lives and fortunes to these buildings? They seem to me to be the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerke (Total Works of Art), equal parts piety and hubris, reverence and power, shaped in turn by religion, music, politics, Zeitgeist. As much celebrations of human creativity as places of worship.

Here is the Marienkapelle in the center of Würzberg, surrounded, oddly enough, by the local farmers’ market. The inside, as in all the churches we have visited, is ever cool and still, a forest or a whole universe of stone, light, and glass.

Many of the churches have an odd mixture of old and new artwork, as many original structures were destroyed in World War II. For instance, the windows here below date from the restoration after the war. They are stunning, but look somehow out of place with the old architecture.

Neumünster, also in Würzburg.

Below, one of the many gorgeous organs. In München, we found a cathedral where someone was playing Bach high above our heads, far behind us. When I went to the mass in the Frauen Kirche, the choir and organ sent vibrations through the stone floor and wooden pews. Such music is somehow more than tone, more than sound–something one can feel in the air, almost touch.

Frauenkirche, München.

Michaelskirche, München, where we heard the Bach.

Asamkirche, München. This one was truly insane, as Rococo as they come–all fine metal work, dense murals, gilt, and twisted stone columns of some sort of red polished marble. The effect was ultimately one of claustrophobia, of the walls closing in above one’s head. The building dates from 1746, when the Baroque movement was in its last and most extreme stages.

This last church, especially, raises interesting questions. I know people (ahem…Dr.G…) who dislike various late-Romantic artists and composers because they are too bombastic. But isn’t this, dating from the early 1700s, just as “bombastic”  as, say, Wagner? Or even Thomas Mann, whose novels aren’t exactly examples of restraint and minimalism?  Isn’t this earlier artistic spirit just as over-the-top, though of course very different aesthetically?
And if we are discussing music, check out the marvelously insane Cecilia Bartoli below, singing a piece from roughly the same Baroque/Rococo period. It sounds like the Asamkirche.

Bombast? Beauty? The sublime? Or all together?

Kiliani Volksfest

The Irish monk St. Kiliani is the patron saint of Würzburg, where he worked as missionary in the 7th century. One can find statues and buildings dedicated to him throughout the city. A two-week long Volkfest is held in his honor every July, basically a country fair with music, rides, local food, and of course much beer. We walked across the bridge one evening last week to visit.

Lots of amazing food….the gebrannte Mandeln (roasted candied almonds) were especially delicious.

Many of the young people wore the traditional Bavarian clothing–Dirndl for the ladies, Lederhosen for the gentlemen. It is a picturesque and lovely tradition, although it clashed somewhat with the American pop music playing on all the rides.

…Below, the view looking back to the city later that evening, from the Beer garden on the other side of the river, where one can sit and drink wine from the slopes of the hills behind.


München: Zum Schluss

Finally, before I leave Munich for Würzburg, Rothenburg, and Berlin, here are a few more miscellaneous photos and notes.

One could fill many pages with pictures of stunning old buildings. Here’s just one more…

It is also interesting to note that most of these buildings were partly or entirely destroyed during bombing in World War II. What we see today are often modern reconstructions of buildings originally many centuries old.

Below, part of the English Garden. Anna, apparently some scene in Pride and Prejudice was filmed here.

Fine dining in the Hofbräuhaus, one of the most famous restaurants in Munich.

And one for Luke. Germans are crazy about Fußball….though the mood has been somewhat dampened of late, after Germany lost the semi-finals for the world Meisterschaft.

Tschüss München!