Benjamin Straley (M.M. organ)

“In the Beauty of Holiness”: Earthly Terror and Heavenly Music

After the hectic final home-stretch of the spring semester, every last hour spent studying for finals and writing term papers, the ISM study trip to Germany was a much-needed change of pace and scenery (although, looking back, I am not sure the pace was a slow one).  Over the course of two weeks, we managed to traverse from Hamburg down to Munich, stopping in Weimar, Leipzig and other points of interest as we made our way to our final destination of Berlin.  We saw spectacular art, architecture, and natural beauty, while at times we were confronted with the uncomfortable realities of a not-so-distant past.  It was this that I wrestled with the most as the trip went on.  But first, I would like to highlight the first part of my trip: an excursion to Hamburg with the organists, prior to the main study tour itinerary.

The organists, led by Martin Jean, spent three days in Hamburg and the surrounding area playing historical instruments of the North German school.  Our first destination after checking into the hotel was St. Jacobi, where we had the privilege of playing the renowned pipe organ built by Arp Schnitger in 1693 (with some pipework dating back even further).  The organ is one of the largest examples of Northern European organ building in the Baroque period, consisting of sixty stops and roughly 4,000 pipes.  I simply could not believe the incredible beauty of the sound produced.  Though the grandeur of the full organ was impressive and awe-inspiring, with its 32-foot reed in the pedal division, the most arresting and charming sounds came from drawing one or two stops.  Following this, we were guided through a collection of valuable and rare musical instruments in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe by the collection’s owner, Dr. Andreas Beurmann.  The collection consists of harpsichords, spinets, virginals and clavichords from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries as well as hammerklaviere, square pianos and other forms of piano from the eighteenth century up to the present day.  Though nearly falling over from sheer exhaustion and jet-lag, we were filled with childlike delight as we went around playing the collection’s instruments, almost all of which are in perfect working order.

Our stay in the Hamburg region gave us the opportunity to play several historic instruments, including the Huß-Schnitger organ (1675) at St. Cosmae and the Erasmus Bielfeldt organ (1731), both in Stade; a Stellwagen at St. Jacobi in Lübeck with pipework dating to 1467; and a Romantic-era Furtwängler (1859) at St. Petri in Buxtehude.  At St. Petri, the six organ students present gave a 30-minute recital to a crowd of about 35 people who received us with warm and hearty applause at the conclusion of the concert. I could go on and on about the beauty of each of these instruments, but one moment that stands out in my mind was at the Jacobikirche in Lübeck.  When we first heard the sound of the sixteen- and eight-foot principals of the organ’s main division, Martin Jean remarked that they had the quality and timbre of sackbuts (the predecessor of the modern trombone).  At that moment I wondered how people had gotten it so wrong in the 1950s and 60s: at that time, beautiful pipe organs from the turn of the century were ripped out and replaced with ones which were supposedly modeled on principles of North German organ building, but often characterized by weaker foundation tone and bright, often-times shrill mixtures.  The tone quality of the aforementioned principal stops was incredibly full and vocal, and the warmth of their sound was enough to make me forget about the chill of the unheated church building.

As an organist, I feel so lucky to have been able to play such instruments.  No secondhand knowledge can ever take the place of firsthand experience with such instruments, and the insight that experience gives us as performers of music from this era.  The organs we have at Yale in Dwight Chapel and Marquand Chapel give us a good idea of the instruments they are modeled on, but they do not replace experiencing the real thing.         

After several days in Munich, where we met the rest of our group, we headed towards Weimar, stopping at Vierzehnheiligen along the way to attend mass for Ascension Day.  The Rococo basilica was built between 1743 and 1772 to honor the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints venerated together in Roman Catholicism. This tradition began in the Rhineland in the fourteenth century, when their intercession was frequently invoked as protection against the Black Death.  From its beginnings in 1448, Vierzehnheiligen was a pilgrimage site, and remains so to the present day.  The organist who accompanied the service was a skilled improviser, and the music added a thrilling dimension to the drama of the liturgy, with many musical allusions to the image of God going up “with a triumphant shout” (Psalm 47:5).  To be able to attend Mass in such a beautiful space, charged with the emotional fingerprints of countless generations of pilgrims, created a memory I will cherish for years to come.

It was the experience of encountering this exceeding beauty, whether it was the craftsmanship of exquisite pipe organs, the lavish church architecture, or the incredible museums and former palaces of the Bavarian nobility, that made the experience of extreme ugliness at one of our stops so difficult to understand.

On our last day in Weimar, we went to the site of the former concentration camp of Buchenwald, now a memorial to the victims who perished there.  As we went through the remnants of cells, barracks, execution chambers, and the crematorium, the horror of the Holocaust became overwhelmingly real in a way that I hadn’t been prepared for.  One of the things I noticed as we went through the gates of the camp was the incredible view of the valley below, with its endless fields of yellow rapeseed flower.  It seemed surreal – almost a cruel mockery – that as prisoners entered the gates, they would have seen a similar glimpse of beauty, all the while trapped in a hellish existence from which there was no escape.

In the days leading up to the trip, my time had been consumed by writing term papers, the final one of which had been on Julian of Norwich and her Revelations on Divine Love.  I had discussed and analyzed her theology of a loving God and all its implications – a God whom we should not wonder at for allowing sin since he does not wonder at us for sinning – a God who turns every person’s sin into a greater glory.  What did I know about God?  How could I imagine a loving God standing in this very place?  How did Paul Schneider, the martyred Lutheran pastor, continue to preach the Good News from his confinement cell after months of torture?  All of a sudden, my paper seemed like twenty pages of nothing.

There can be no why to all the questions we may have about such things – no answer would ever suffice.  The impact of walking through Buchenwald has made a lasting impression and troubled me deeply for days afterward, as I kept wrestling with this paradoxical idea that the beauty of Weimar and the surrounding countryside could have co-existed with the ugliness of the concentration camp.  Yet paradox is at the heart of the Christian faith, and a few weeks after the trip, thinking back on the beauty of Vierzehnheiligen, the Abbey at Fürstenfeld, and other sites we visited, I realized the enormous role that an artist, especially a church musician, plays in this world, creating moments of beauty through music in the liturgy.  “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” the psalmist implores us (Ps. 96:9). In doing our part in Eucharistic worship, where a space between heaven and earth is created, we enable people to worship God in the holiness of beauty.  And it is through the encounter of such beauty that we are healed and able to face the ugliness that the world sometimes creates.  Surely this must have been one of the aims of the architects and artisans who built and decorated the Baroque and Rococo churches we visited – to create a space which blurred the lines between heaven and earth, and suspended earthly realities, giving a foretaste of the heavenly glory which awaits. My experience at Vierzehnheiligen gave me that, and if I can do the same thing for even one person in every service of worship, then I’ve done my job.

As people interested in where our particular craft or skill intersects the sacred, we at the ISM all play this role – creating the spaces where people can experience that intersection of the divine with the earthly, and in so doing, nourishing and strengthening their hearts and minds to better face the challenges the world inevitably presents.