Several million television viewers in Europe and America, and who knows how many newspaper-readers everywhere, have watched and heard or been informed about a monumental concert given in Warsaw’s opera house on 1 September to mark the 50th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Despite the personal narrative with which Samuel Pisar – a survivor from Auschwitz – judiciously and movingly linked the musical episodes in Humphrey Burton’s Unitel film (shown the following day on BBC 2), the nature of the occasion was essentially public – which is to say, a prey to those acts of political and social publicity which can render all such occasions, however solemn, profoundly if not atrociously ambiguous.

Even on the small screen the eternal ABC of power and privilege was legible between the serried ranks of dignitaries as they took their seats in the stalls and boxes of the Teatr Wielki. Mr Burton and his cameramen might prefer to remember such phenomena as the close-ups of Bernstein experiencing the Leonora No 3 Overture, or the redoubtable equanimity with which Lukas Foss opened the concert by conducting Mahler’s ‘Revelge’ for Hermann Prey (with televisual reference to the doomed Polish cavalry of 1939) and then confronted the fiendish reveilles of Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw. Yet the most characteristic and memorable images were of quite another kind: on the platform, the oddly priestly ministrations of Penderecki as he accompanied Barbara Hendricks (in fine voice) through the Lachrymosa of his Polish Requiem; and in the auditorium, the inpenetrable gaze of President Jaruzelski, standing shoulder to shoulder with his new prime minister for the national anthem, and later turning half-face towards him while continuing politely to applaud the performers.

To how many among the thousands who were there and the millions who watched did it occur that also in Germany on that solemn anniversary there might somehow and somewhere be a complementary manifestation? And indeed there was. But no cameramen or security guards were in attendance, nor any celebrities, not even the local music critic. It was enough that young and old thronged into, and overflowed from, the great St Magnus Church in Brunswick for a Friedenskonzert conducted by the gifted and resourceful young Kantor, Matthias Stanze.

Like Berlin’s Gedächniskirche and Coventry’s Cathedral, the St Magnus Church is among other things a monument to the ravages of World War Two. Only the massive 13th-century tower, and fragments of the choir and the nave arcades, survived the two air-raids which in 1944 devastated the old Hanseatic town. The fragments, together with the tower and its ancient bells, were incorporated in the fine new church by Bodo Kampmann that was inaugurated on the 20th anniversary of the raids.

Perhaps the most telling feature of the new structure is the vast stained-glass window by Hans Gottfried von Stockhausen which dominates, and virtually forms, the south wall. It depicts, in quasi-abstract terms, the escape of the Israelites from nameless persecution, and the miraculous parting of the waves that allows them to cross a hostile sea in a procession so formed as to suggest, alternatively, the Ark and Jonah’s whale. Inconceivable without reference to those ideals of the German Enlightenment which had so recently been trampled upon, the window seems above all to have been informed by the spirit and example of Lessing, who spent the last years of his life working in nearby Wolfenbüttel, and there wrote, among other things, Die Juden and Nathan der Weise, in tribute to his great friend Moses Mendelssohn.

It so happens – or in a sense it follows – that Matthias Stanze has long been a champion of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, whose work as a whole, and whose sacred music in particular, has not figured prominently in German musical life since 1945. On a purely practical level, Stanze’s performance of Mendelssohn’s unfinished Christus in the St Magnus Church last Christmas was one of the steps towards his ‘Peace Concert’. But the decisive event was his discovery of an orchestral work so perfectly suited to the anniversary of Hitler’s first assault on Poland that he abandoned his original idea of using only the choir, and applied himself to the task of raising sufficient funds to engage the Braunschweig Staatsorchster and other forces necessary for an exceptionally demanding programme. Its centre-piece was to be the Third Symphony, for soprano and orchestra, by Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki – an exact contemporary of Penderecki, much revered by the younger generation in his native Poland, but until very recently, quite unknown in the West.

As every Polish schoolboy knows and every German one has been told – and as we’ve now been reminded by Günter Grass’s eyewitness account of the local schoolboys eagerly collecting shrapnel – the cruiser Schleswig-Holstein began shelling the Polish positions on the Westerplatte at 4.45 a.m. on 1 September 1939. Around dawn on the same morning 50 years later a polar airstream brought low clouds and a sharp change of temperature to North Germany, and by the time Brunswick’s anti-war assemblies and speeches and processions were due to start, the rain had been falling for several hours. Some events were cancelled, but in the cathedral at five o’clock a small and rather elderly congregation assembled for a memorial service, and an hour later the drenched remnants of a peace march arrived in the Burgplatz, to be greeted uncomprehendingly by a counter-march of rained-off football fans with nothing to celebrate but the remains of their six-packs. Once the fans had stumbled across the square and disappeared down a side-street, singing lustily as they went, the disconsolate figures beneath the banners and umbrellas awaited with patient resignation the advent of a speaker from higher regions – indeed, from the SPD. Mounting the platform at long last, the speaker contrived to say most of the expected things about the expected topics, not forgetting the border-zone 30 kilometres away, and the fact that Brunswick, in common with many other cities and towns in the Bundesrepublik, now boasts a twin-city in the GDR.

Resembling in all too many details a sparsely attended yet well-meaning festival of yesterday’s New Music, the events of that afternoon boded ill for the evening’s concert at the St Magnus Church. But as dusk began to fall, the skies cleared and the last of the banner-bearing marchers vanished from the streets. Quite suddenly, it seemed as if a whole town was converging on the St Magnus Church.

Perhaps the attraction was not so much the concert itself as the very idea of it. If so, the idea proved to be inseparable from the content and drama of a programme that held the entire audience in its thrall for nearly two hours, without pauses or interval. No words were spoken other than those of the narrator in Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, and no homilies delivered other than a programme insert bearing excerpts from Brecht’s ‘An die Nachgeborenen’.

The concert began with a Kyrie by the 16-year-old Mendelssohn (first performed only three years ago – in the USA). Though hardly one of the masterpieces of Mendelssohn’s prodigious youth, it soon transcends its academic functions and develops, by way of Italianate conventions, a genuinely felt tension whose effect on this occasion was heightened by the context: the cadence that finally resolves the dissonant petitions of the Kyrie had no sooner been allowed to make its point than it was, so to speak, detonated by Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw. Similarly, and symmetrically, the rediscovery of faith and hope, and the demonstration of it through an act of otherwise hopeless defiance, are celebrated at the end of that brief and mighty work by the choral setting of the old prayer ‘Hear, O Israel’. In the St Magnus Church that final affirmation was immediately followed by the start, de profundis, of the vast canon for strings which opens the cathedral-like structure of Gorecki’s 50-minute symphony and culminates in a setting for solo soprano of a 15th-century Polish prayer, impressively sung on this occasion by the Japanese soprano Chieko Shirasaka.

The text for Gorecki’s second movement is another prayer, but a modern one which the composer discovered among the graffiti scratched by prisoners of the Gestapo on the walls of what had once been their cell in Zakopane. It bore the date 28 September 1944, and the signature of an 18-year-old girl of whom no trace has been found. After completing the symphony the composer returned to the room to re-examine the graffito, and found that it too had been obliterated.

As soon as the soprano began to sing the girls’s prayer, half the lights in the St Magnus Church were extinguished. They remained so throughout the third and last movement, which is a mother’s lament for the loss of her soldier son. When the symphony at last reached its luminous A major conclusion, there was a paradoxical moment of total darkness and silence before the St Magnus Choir was singled out by spotlights, and the concert ended with Kurt Hessenberg’s elaborate unaccompanied motet, O Herr, mache mich zum Werkzeug deines Friedens, composed in 1947. It scarcely mattered that the effect of ending such a concert with an a cappella work of this sort seemed stronger and more original than the work itself, for the choice was wholly justified in the circumstances, and the effect was immeasurably enhanced by what followed. For the motet’s resoundingly triadic final cadence proved to be a signal both for floodlighting the stained-glass procession of the Israelites, and for the great bells that had once sounded the end of the Thirty Years War to peal above the heads of the still silent congregation.

It was only when the main lights were switched on again that the sense and the inwardness of the occasion at last permitted the applause which the performers and the conductor had so amply deserved. There was no need to ask one’s neighbours what they felt, for it was written on the faces of one and all, and constantly alluded to at the informal reception for the choir and its friends after the concert. Fresh in the memory of everyone was the letter with which Richard von Weizsäcker had responded to an official and fraternal message from President Jaruzelski. Published on the eve of the 50th anniversary and already denounced in the Bundestag by the CDU and its dubious allies, the Bundespräsident’s letter affirmed in the most dignified and unsentimental terms those bonds of humanity and understanding which should unite all peoples at all times, but which would hold a special and profound significance for the German and the Polish peoples on that particular anniversary. Under the banner of European peace and security, and in the name, especially, of those of his compatriots ‘young and old’ who had learnt the lessons of a thousand years of German-Polish Nachbarschaft, the Bundespräsident recognised the special needs of the Germans living in Poland, but abjured, now and in the future, all claims on Polish territory.

Not least because the same positions were implied or defined by its own sorrowful recollections and hopeful affirmations, the Brunswick concert answered the Warsaw one as tellingly as von Weizsäcker answered Jaruzelski. Unintended and undisclosed though it was, the dialogue between the two concerts was on its own level as necessary as that between the two Heads of State, and fulfilled a precisely comparable need.

Irrespective of the criteria by which the media, for their own reasons, attribute international significance to one cultural event rather than another, it is clear that the Brunswick concert, by its very nature, acquired a significance denied to the international rock concert with which the same anniversary was simultaneously being commemorated in Dortmund (under the auspices of the German TUC). While the Dortmund concert would have been an ideal partner to the Warsaw one in the eyes of the media, its political objectives would already have been implicit in and limited by its cultural assumptions, whereas the metapolitics of the two formal concerts derived from the substance and juxtaposition of the works performed, and ultimately were liberated from the occasion itself. For the watching multitudes and the listening minorities, the concerts in Brunswick and in Warsaw were, among other things, a salutary reminder that the forces and interests which tend to isolate the world of so-called ‘serious’ music from the serious realities of today are not always and everywhere invincible.

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