Colin Britt (M.M. choral conducting)

Light and Dark: A (Musical) Search for Perspective

The choral conductors began their journey in Hamburg before the start of the main study tour, where Christoph Schlechter (AD ’11) had arranged joint master classes with the conducting students at his alma mater, the Hochschule für Musik und Theater. Yale faculty Jeff Douma and Maggie Brooks shared teaching duties with Professor Hannelotte “Jeanette” Pardall. The master classes were immensely enjoyable for all of us; not only did we have the opportunity to work with and be critiqued by a new and highly energetic teacher, but we were also able to observe our instructors working with the German students.  It was very inspiring for all of us to view our teachers from a more removed and objective perspective than usual, reinforcing and reaffirming the instruction we have received over the last one, two, or three years. The semi-bilingual method of instruction was also an exciting and unnerving wake-up call, reminding us that, yes, we were in Germany.

Another highlight of the conductors’ pre-trip was our excursion to Lübeck, where we attended a Sunday morning service at the Marienkirche. Aside from being one of the largest brick Gothic churches in the world, it was also the final workplace for Dietrich Buxtehude. The date of our visit was May 9, which also happened to be the anniversary of Buxtehude’s death, and we were fortunate enough to hear a performance of one of his cantatas. To be in that vast (albeit extremely cold) cathedral on that anniversary hearing one of his cantatas in the venue for which it was written was a truly remarkable experience.

After we joined up with the rest of the ISM, a one of the most striking experiences of the trip occurred while we were staying in Weimar. Having spent the morning visiting museums dedicated to some of the brightest artistic, literary, and musical minds in German history, we then boarded a bus and drove to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, only eight kilometers from the center of Weimar. For me, the contrast between the sheer luminosity of such artistic genius and the numbing horror of the Holocaust was overwhelming. In my mind, Markus Rathey articulated it best by pointing out that these two realities are inextricably linked; in establishing a German national identity, someone had to be ostracized, to be “the other people.” If the Wagners and Liszts were the best and brightest, to whom would they be compared? And, while we like to reassure ourselves that history won’t repeat itself, do we not see examples of nationalistic xenophobia in many corners of the world today – including our own? There are no easy answers.

The itinerary also provided happier and, in many ways, less challenging destinations. The list of wonders included a pilgrimage to Vierzehnheiligen, a stop at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig to hear a performance of a Bach cantata, another master class for the conductors with the conductor of the Berlin Radio Choir, Simon Halsey, and many priceless opportunities to hear live music, rehearsals, and lectures. The ever-present musical and intellectual power of the country, along with an almost ostentatiously efficient infrastructure that transported us, never ceased to amaze.

Though I am not generally one to seek cultural or moral lessons, a duty I feel ill equipped to handle, I would have us again ask ourselves: Are we in the USA, in our post-9/11 society, so different from a people reeling from economic and wartime crisis? Do we not rally behind charismatic speakers and take refuge in a feeling of national unity? Do we not sometimes staunchly idolize our own cultural icons, past and present? When examining these questions, the horrific truths of another country’s past suddenly feel much less comfortably distant. From this perspective we are reminded of our own humanity, that we are all capable of both extreme cruelty and extreme beauty.