Saturday, June 9, 2012

Let still one more glance shoot forth

J.S. Bach
I had no idea, until last night, that the Bay Area had a musical group called the American Bach Choir.   Or that they were directed by Jeffrey Thomas.    Or that they were this good.  

I know them now.  I got to hear them last night, and that has caused me to listen to Bach all day and wonder how it is that I have not been listening to Bach at least an hour a day for the past fifty years.   (The Brandenburg Concertos were one way of getting myself up and ready for work for many years, but I never expanded much beyond them.)  I wish I could share that experience at the Congregational Church last night.  

Closest thing I can do, next to reproducing the entire concert, is to point you to YouTube performances of the four pieces on the program.  At least that will give you a sense of what it’s like to spend an evening with J. Sebastian designed by people who really know their stuff.

The first selection was:

 Fürchte dich nicht (Be not afraid)

Three versions among many available on YouTube are:  
  • and my favorite, possibly because I resonate so strongly with the “Radio in the American Sector (of Berlin)” from days gone by – the RIAS Kammerchor.

For those of you who, like me, have to have the words, because although you gave up religion you never gave up a love of the loftiness of Christian-speak and you still swoon over the idea that the Big Man in the Sky uses phrases like,  “I sustain you with the right hand of my righteousness...,” here are the English and German texts

The next selection was:
Der Gerechte kommt um (The righteous shall perish).   

I won’t list all the YouTube possibilities.  This one I found says it all:

Der Gerechte kommt um,
Und niemand ist, der es zu Herzen nehme;
Und heilige Leute werden aufgerafft,
Und niemand achtet drauf.
Denn die Gerechten werden weggerafft vor dem Unglück;
Und die richtig vor sich gewandelt haben,
Kommen zum Frieden und ruhen in ihren Kammern.


The righteous perish, 
And no one takes it to heart;
The devout are taken away,
And no one understands
That the righteous are taken away
To be spared from evil. 
Those who walk uprightly
Enter into peace;
They find rest as they lie in death.
Number Three was:

 Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Sing unto the Lord a new song)

And finally came one hot dang of a finale: 
Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (Trauerode)
  • And the words (“The eye doth weep, the tongue cries out”)  to the cantata in German and in English.
I had trouble with this one, actually.  “Let, oh Princess, let another ray…” ?    I needed a German-English dictionary to remind me “Trauer” is not sadness, but  “grief, sorrow, mourning, misery, condolement or teariness.”   Never would have come up with those last two.  But sure enough, this piece is described by one source of information on Bach this way:  
Of all Bach's great Cantatas, the composition and performance of this Trauerode was probably the most significant to the composer, the performers and the citizens of Leipzig.
Aha!  To cognoscenti (a group I have just disqualified myself from in spades), this is not merely any old funeral oration.  It’s an actual “Trauerode.”

Who knew?

Christiane Eberhardine
Curiosity now fully piqued,  I had to know who is this princess and why is she so worthy of teariness?

Once upon a time I might have had to wait till I could get to a library.  These days, as long as there is electricity, there is Google, and I learned that her name was Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, and that she’s not only a princess, as Bach calls her, but a queen.  Wife of the Elector Augustus II of Saxony.  And Poland.  And Lithuania.  More on that in a minute.

In no time, I’m a fan.  Must have been quite a lady.  Stubborn.  Lonely.  Lutheran.   Let me tell you something about her.  

Having been saddled, poor girl, with the names of both of her grandfathers, Christian and Eberhard, she was then married off to a chunk of a man whose was said to be able to break horseshoes with his bare hands and toss foxes with one finger.   Augustus II (1670-1733) wasn’t supposed to be king.  His older brother John George IV was, but John George went and contracted smallpox from his mistress, Magdalene Sybille of Neidschutz, “while disporting himself during the carnival season in Venice,” and died.  Since JG had no kids, August was next in line for the throne, so he took the name of Freddy, stopped being Augustus II and became Friedrich August I.  Why, I haven’t discovered yet, since he continued to use only August (accent on the second syllable) in Poland.  In any case, that’s apparently what made Princess Eberhardine queen.

Kings were elected in those days, at least in Freddy August’s part of the world, and the job was his if he could get there first from Dresden, the capital of Saxony, to Krakow, the capital of Poland (about five hours on the E40 according to Google Maps) and sweet talk the Polish nobility into giving him the job before Prince Louis of Conti, who had to come all the way from France, could persuade them otherwise.  Freddy made it and the Elector of Saxony was elected King of Poland.

There was one little hitch.  As head of the Saxon state he was head Lutheran of the day, and the job required he convert to Catholicism.   Remember, in those days it was cuius regio, eius religio – whoever ran the realm got to name the religion all of his subjects would follow, and this time his subjects, including his noble wife, said nothing doing.  We’re staying Protestant.  The result was Saxony became one of the few places (the only one I know about, actually) where folk of both religions lived side by side.  Except for Christiane Eberhardine, who exiled herself to a castle in the boonies of Pretzsch on the Elbe in protest.

The Zwinger Palace at Dresden
Meissen Porcelain
When he wasn’t shooting at his northern neighbors in Sweden, Freddy August liked to travel.  One look at Versailles and Germany would never be the same again.  Dresden, the Saxon capital, he decided, needed some Baroquing.  And the tarting up didn’t end there.   His buddy, the other Freddy, the one in Berlin, decided to put the squeeze on the alchemist John Freddy Böttger to make him make gold.  Böttger had boasted he could, and when he couldn’t get it up, Berlin Freddy threw him in jail.  Somehow Böttger managed to get away and ran to Dresden.  Prussia’s loss was Saxony’s gain; it was Böttger who figured out if you turned the temperature up in the kilns you could make Meissen Porcelain.

Not a bad place in history in the long run.  Muck up at politics, make it up in the art world.  

The castle at Pretzsch
But, getting back to poor Christiane Eberhardine, we may never know what it was about the “Saxon Hercules” of a husband she was saddled with that turned her off, his need to go and be Polish, his lust for war with the Swedes, the 267 babies he made with other ladies, or the fact that he got so fat there near the end, or simply the fact that she never thought much of him to begin with, but Christiane decided she would drop out and go live at Pretzsch on the Elbe, today the town of Bad Schmiedeberg, and remain Lutheran.  She bore the titles queen consort of Poland and grand duchess consort of Lithuania, but she never set foot in those countries.

Now I’d love to tell you how, once in exile, she became Bach's patron, and got beyond being lonely and Lutheran, but that, sad to say, was not the case.    J.S.  simply got the job of writing the piece as a commissioned work for political reasons.  Dresden may have been ecumenical, but over here in Leipzig, the Saxons were in deep mourning over the loss of their Glaubenspflegerin, defender of the (Protestant) faith, Sachsens Betsäule, (Saxony's pillar of prayer), and so they hired Bach to do her funeral up bigtime to neener-neener her husband and his foreign and domestic Catholic friends. 
Next time I run into a Bach expert, I'll see if I can find out whether Bach played any part in the politics.  My guess is he just saw a marvelous opportunity and rose to the occasion.  Click here for a delightful write-up of that occasion, the music, the innovative orchestration, and other details.

Christiane Eberhardine, unhappy wife of Freddy August, was put to rest in the graveyard of the town church at Pretzsch, population around 1600 souls, give or take a soul, where she chose to live in Lutheran loneliness.   Her Catholic husband, who outlived her by six years, and her son were not present.

The train station at Pretzsch, dressed up as Astapovo
And if you saw the 2009 movie about Tolstoy’s death called The Last Station, with Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy, maybe you’ll remember the train station in that movie.  It’s supposed to be Astapovo, about four hours south of Moscow, Tolstoy’s “last station,” where he fell ill and died in 1910.  In fact, what you’re looking at is the train station at Pretzsch, in Saxony, just about exactly equidistant, an hour and three quarters, from both Berlin and Dresden.  Look closely at the picture and you’ll see the Russian for Astapovo and for “exit,”  written on the front, big and bold. 

That’s Hollywood reality.

And if anybody ever asks you if you know of any connection between the Berkeley Congregational Church and Anna Karenina, you’ll be able to answer, of course, in the affirmative.


Emil Ems said...

Dear Alan,
I find this an interesting and very educating essay, dealing with issues closer to my home than yours. i am glad that you are knowledgable about the connection between August and Sweden, but permit me to fill in some gaps for you:

August, as king of Poland, declared, in alliance with Russia and Denmark, war against Sweden in 1699. This started the Great Nordic War that lasted until 1721. The early expectation was that Sweden, with a king of barely 17 years, would be easily defeated. Far from it! Charles XII, that was his name, first annihilated the Danish fleet and then the Russian Army at the famous battle of Narva, then continued into Poland and dethroned August. The latter campaign was to be Charles downfall since it gave time to Peter the Great to replenish his troups.

In 1706 Charles decided to conquer Russia and started off in the direction of Moscow. However, like lesser warriors after him, he was eventually defeated, in the furious battle of Poltava. From there he fled to Turkey and convinced the Sultan to keep the war flame burning.

In the mean-time, both England and Prussia joined the alliance against Charles, who rushed back home from Turkey in a furious ride of only 14 days; alas, the allied forces proved to be too overpowering for even this greatest of European warriors of modern times.

When peace was brokered, at long last, Charles was already dead, felled by a bullet whilst beleaguering a fortress in Norway.

The winners of this gigantic war were Russia, England and Prussia, who were to assume the lead in European affairs, and the big looser was Sweden, who used to be the sovereign ruler over the Baltic Sea and a dominant player on the continent, and who lost all its international influence, with the loss of its Baltic and German provinces, except Finland.

Isn't that tale an appropriate counterpoint to your far more delightful and peaceful tale of the Queen?

Yours sincerely

Alan McCornick said...

Thanks for filling me in, Emil, on the details of the Great Northern War from a Swedish vantage point. It’s a historical event which lives in a black hole in my brain. Unless one makes a point of focusing on the late 17th/early 18th Century, most Americans – at least this was my experience - limit their focus on European history to a quick survey of the age of Charlemagne and an only slightly deeper focus on 20th Century events, tripping lightly over the Bubonic Plague, Luther and the Reformation, and maybe Napoleon, skipping the details. Possibly because there were other things to capture American attention going on at the time.

You noted, I’m sure, that I marked this entry with the label “Self-Indulgences.” I was not at all in teacher mode, which I get into without half trying much of the time, after forty years in that profession. And I could go deaf from the clucking of tongues of friends that I should know so little both about Bach and about the fact that Berkeley has a biennial Festival. I simply wanted to prolong the great pleasure I had the night before at the 2012 Berkeley Festival Concert featuring the American Bach Choir. In reliving the experience at home the next day I took advantage of the computer to dig a little bit for answers that came up while I was listening. Specifically, I noted that among the religious music was a “secular cantata” which appeared to be a funeral oration to a certain unspecified “Fürstin.” That led, then, to the tangent which permitted me to descend rapidly from the sublime to the ridiculous.

And ridiculous it was. The image of this poor lady who got saddled first with two men’s names and then with a husband who must have been a complete horse’s ass got to me. Imagine the pain and frustration of this poor girl. Her husband gives her only one child, and he grows up to take after his father. She has no say in his upbringing and he is raised in Italy and converts to Catholicism in earnest (unlike his father whose conversion was from all reports merely political). The littls shit never bothers to show up at his mother’s funeral. Meanwhile, her husband produces between 267 and 385 more children with other women, depending on whom you ask, gets diabetes, and weighs 110 kg. when he dies. You can just see her sitting all alone and being pious and disapproving, while her husband galavants about building Baroque palaces and exhausting the lives and resources of his subjects in attacking his neighbors. I ended up taking some pleasure in knowing at least that she was idolized in Leipzig and given a proper memorial service. I noted, with more digging and with a bit of sadness, that this Cantata, Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl, is now commonly performed all the time, but usually Christiane Eberhardine is barely mentioned, if at all. One cannot go on memorializing her forever, but still…

It’s hard to care a whole lot about a world so long gone, but it is interesting to note how different are the political structures of August’s age. Although known as Mr. Big Man of Saxony, it’s easy to forget his mother was Anna Sophia of Denmark, daughter of Frederick III, son of Christian IV of Denmark. Augustus II, by the grace of God, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Prussia, Masovia, Samogitia, Livonia, Kiev, Volhynia, Podolia, Smolensk, Severia and Chernihiv, and Hereditary Duke and Prince-Elector of Saxony, etc. Don’t you love the “etc.”?

I trust you have not lost too much sleep over the years over the loss of Empire due to the youth and inexperience of young Charlie the 12th. History of this sort is now little more than entertainment, I should think, but I for one am not inclined to shed too many tears for Sweden, given the quality of life found there today and its virtually universal recognition as a bastion of modern civilization.

Thanks again for writing,

All good wishes,