To tie the voluminous sound to the good acoustics of the church alone would be to insult the singers. Without any assistance from technical sound equipment, they filled the interior of this large house of God right up to the rafters with their voices. They showed once again that the human voice belongs among the most beautiful of musical instruments. Minister Thomas Perlick formulated it as follows: “Our souls and Heaven are often very close together. For this reason I believe in immortality. In such important moments of music – like this evening – our souls are touched and is this way, so is Heaven.” With these words, a unique evening came to an end. This was part of the translated write-up in the local press of our final concert of the tour and sums up why we do it and what a special six days it proved to be.
Over half term I took thirty-six girls and boys plus men and support staff to Erfurt in Germany to sing services and concerts towards the end of the Martin Luther anniversary year. Singing and being part of those celebrations and learning a little about the historical period we were involved in celebrating, was a great privilege.
With an early morning flight necessitating the coach leaving the church at 5.30am everyone was instructed to have an early night but even so it proved to be a long day. The short flight of around 1½ hours was then followed by a bus journey of about three taking us from Frankfurt to the capital of the Thuringia district, Erfurt. This had been in East Germany before the Berlin wall came down and the area had been relatively untouched during WW2 as it wasn’t a centre for industry. Instead a lot of the medieval buildings still exist including the merchant’s bridge full of shops just as London Bridge would have been centuries ago.
Although I doubt London Bridge had a famous ice cream shop which still has huge queues outside it! Our youth hostel where we were based was, as you would expect, clean and modern with efficient friendly staff making our stay very pleasant. Everyone had to make their own packed lunch which had the benefit of making sure the choristers were going to eat it as that’s what they had chosen! During our time there the weather was mainly dry if a little chilly but this was much better than Germany had been experiencing. The weather throughout the spring and summer had been disappointing by all accounts. On the Saturday after being shown around the baroque fortress above the town with its listening tunnels, we had some free time to explore the very quiet streets of the city being ever mindful of trams. We met up later in the afternoon to rehearse and sing a service of light in the Augustinerkloster, a working Protestant monastery and retreat centre where Martin Luther had been a monk. The service was conducted in German and English, (sometimes at the same time!) and we had our first taste of the gorgeous resonant buildings that we were to enjoy during our stay.
Indeed, the following morning when we sang high mass at Erfurt Cathedral the acoustic was even more swirling. As all of our pieces had to be unaccompanied due to the organ being at one end of the building and us behind the nave altar. I had written a Kyrie especially for the occasion. Music by Gjello and Victoria as well as Byrd also featured. When the Bishop thanked us for our contribution to the service the congregation gave us a spontaneous round of applause and the young organist was also very keen to praise our standard of singing.
A short time followed for a packed lunch and we were off on our coach to Gotha about half an hour’s drive. Here at the royal palace, we were given a guided tour around the 250 year old building, having to wear big floppy slippers over our shoes to protect the floor. It was a bit like a scene from the 1970’s TV programme ‘It’s a knockout’! However, some of their treasures were stunning and the castle still has its original theatre which is used for three months of the year. Complete with its underfloor scenery changing mechanism (which looks like something out of a tall ship) it requires seven people simultaneously to operate it. Our concert in the royal chapel was well received by an appreciative audience which was a general feature of the whole tour. Jeremy and Jake our counter-tenors sang from the balcony either side of the organ high above the altar. Rhidian was doing a super job aided by Sarah of dealing with some unusual instruments, with very little time to practice. Many of the organs there traditionally have a straight pedal board (which the organist’s feet plays) as opposed to the radiating system we have by and large adopted in this country.
Monday dawned dry. As this was our day off the choristers took the tram to the zoo, allowing time for the gentlemen to explore elsewhere. Many went to Weimar or Leipzig on J. S. Bach pilgrimages enjoying some special places of great historical renown and importance. Travelling in our well-rehearsed designated groups we didn’t leave anyone behind at the zoo before meeting up in the evening to eat at a Pizzeria in central Erfurt. This proved popular for the choristers if somewhat of a logistical challenge for the staff, with endless Margherita pizzas.
Tuesday was another singing day. A short coach journey to a typical market town of Arnstadt saw us visiting and performing in one of Germany’s most important churches. It was here that J. S. Bach held his first position aged eighteen playing at the church and teaching at the local school, which he didn’t really take to. There is a large bronze statue in the market square of a rather recalcitrant youth capturing quite accurately I fear, a highly talented yet rather unconventional adolescent. However, we were treated for a short time to hear the instrument he played high up in the second balcony. Crowding round the Director of Music, he demonstrated the instrument. About 30% of the instrument is original and he took out one of the pipes to show us holding it in gloves to protect it from oxidization. It also was a stop that creates sounds of bells and a nightingale. You can see this in our video on the choir’s Facebook page.
Following our well received concert including Handel’s ‘And the glory of the Lord’ we decamped for hot food. The gentlemen of the choir had been booked in to a restaurant that used to be the meeting place for the whole extensive Bach clan at least once a year and the memorabilia on the walls reflected this. Yet another part of history. The German food is very rustic and hearty often featuring lots of meat and dumplings. The latter are made out of potatoes and have a somewhat elastic quality looking like a bath bomb you would buy from Lush. Luckily they didn’t taste like a luxury bathroom item!
After lunch we travelled an hour or so south to another smaller market town famous for its pottery, Romhild. Meeting up with Marina, the English and music teacher, we had a tour of the local secondary school which we thoroughly enjoyed. It was amazing how clean it was with a mix of the old and new and part of it had been turned into a museum complete with old desks and inkwells. It was also interesting to see some of the text books from the communist era.
A short walk to the church revealed yet another large building for a small town. Typically, the organ was high up in a balcony at the back with various signals being relayed between me and Sarah to Rhidian at the keys. The locals turned out in force and it was great to share the concert with some of the pupils from the school who we hope might do a return visit next year. Far from being a lack lustre affair the last concert of our tour was one of our best as described by the opening paragraph and made a fitting end to our singing activities.
Our travelling home day was punctuated by a stop in Eisenach at the Bach Hause museum. This was the very house were J. S. Bach was born and has been faithfully recreated and extended having survived damage in the 1940’s. The curator gave us a thirty-minute mini concert on period keyboard instruments with pieces short and engaging enough to keep the interest of even the youngest choristers. Arthur even had to pump the bellows of a chamber organ for a while. A further guided tour round the house and then time in listening pod chairs and more interactive listening stations ensued. Eating packed lunches outside, then followed the longer drive back to the airport which saw us finally arrive safe and sound back in Marlow at 11.15pm. Everyone felt (as had been for our Budapest trip) that a very special bond had been created not only between ourselves but those who we visited and sang for too. Music is a universal language and can touch those across all borders.
There are many people to thank and too many to list here but the chaperones did an amazing job as did Rhidian and Sarah. Special mention should go however to Jo Wetenhall and Leonie too for their translation work and last but by no means least, Marco Lemme.
Marco did much of the arranging on my behalf behind the scenes and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to do this trip without his help. So thank you to him and all of you who supported our efforts by donations and sponsorship. I hope I’ve managed to impart some of what we experienced and what it meant to us and those who came to listen. Where next? Hmmm … Estonia and Latvia possibly in 2019?
On Saturday Nov 11th seven out of our eight successful choristers sang with Christchurch Cathedral choir at their Bishops Chorister awards service in Oxford. Sammy was singing a solo in Berstein’s Chichester Psalms. Well done to Hannah, Jade, Issy, Louis, Daniel, Max, Arthur and Sammy.
This is a big achievement for them which has taken dedication and hard work with some of the above receiving commended and highly commended on their mark sheets!
Director of Music at All Saints Marlow
For this and many more stories about what is going on within our church, download your latest copy of The Bridge – the magazine of All Saints Marlow.