Christmas music (15)–Best German Medieval Christmas album

Ah, finally. Medieval Christmas music is by far my favorite category, since this is what I listen to most of the time. Being in London helps, because whenever I used to go on a business trip to Frankfurt or Munich I would hit the record shops, and Germans tend to go a little gaga at Christmas anyway. I usually try to get there in December to hit the Christmas markets, but wasn’t able to this year, sadly. Anyway, there are dozens and dozens to choose from. Picking from the ones that I own alone is tricky. But the past several years (if my iPod table of music listened to is any indication), what I have been listening to most is a simply wonderful disc from a group called Ioculatores, called Fro Fro. Just magic. They have several other albums out as well, all from Raumklang records, and all worth acquiring if you’re interested in medieval music. If I had to reduce my collection to just one Christmas album, this would be the one. It captures the magic and mystery of Christmas more elegantly than any other album I can think of, although there are many that come close. Again, there is little on this album that a modern American listener would associate with Christmas—but that’s the point.

I don’t know why Germans do Christmas so well, but they do. For one thing, they have the best Christmas markets in Europe. The start popping up the last week in November, and go through Christmas Eve. Hundreds of little booths, all lined up in the squares. Some are only ok, like the one in Cologne (lots of Nokia phone covers, as Mrs. W pointed out), but some are fantastic, like the ones in Nuremberg and in Munich, which we have been to a couple of times. It’s really nice–whole families wandering around together, which is what families in Europe do, I’ve noticed–this is a continent where teenagers go visit their grandparents on Sundays. Everyone drinks something called Gluwein, which isn’t really wine, but does do a really good job of keeping you nice and warm, and eats stollen and Lebkuchen, which is stuff I grew up with. And you can get some nice little things for Christmas–hand-made metal ornaments, or these weird little prune dolls, which, to our amazement and increasing concern, lasted for years.

The other thing Germans do really, really well is Christmas music. Not just the big-name stuff, from Praetorius and Schütz and Bach onwards. Everywhere has traditional carols and songs. It’s just that Germany has so many more of them than most other countries, possibly except England, and so many of them are just the prettiest songs you can hear, or sing, at Christmas. And many of our carols come from Germany, although we might not know it. It’s often a shock for people to realize that a carol they’ve sung for their whole life actually comes from something written by some monk 600 years previously.

Germany has been, for a number of years, the most interesting country in Europe. Partly its interesting history, and partly how it’s still dealing with that history. This is now entering a new phase, and it will interesting to see how it turns out. It has mainly been driven from the publication of two books several years ago, one by the late WG Sebald (who lived here in England, and tragically died about seven years ago in a car accident), and one by Gunther Grass. Sebald’s book, The Natural History of Destruction, is actually several short essays, and one long piece (from which the book gets its title) on the bombing of Dresden. And I learned some things that I hadn’t learned from Slaughterhouse Five, which is where most of us got whatever knowledge we have of this event–the lovely old medieval city, firebombed in one of the worst allied bombings of the war. What I hadn’t known then, but I do now, is that not only had the Germans withdrawn nearly all of their troops from the city at that point (a fact known to the Allies), but also that Dresden had become a major refugee center for Germans (and others) fleeing the Russian advances from the East–a fact also known to the Allies at the time of the bombing. Grass’s book is called Crabwalk, and is a novel based on a true event–the sinking of a German hospital ship that was used as a refugee carrier towards the end of the war. It was sunk by a Russian submarine in 1945, and over 9000 people died. This was the largest maritime disaster in history, and no one knew about it until recently.

The issues Sebald and Grass raise are interesting, and their major point is really a question that has rarely been asked in Germany during the past almost sixty years–are Germans allowed to grieve for their innocents? They’ve done guilt for this entire period (as opposed to, say, Japan), of course, but this is a new debate entirely. Were there innocent Germans? Well, children certainly, and a whole lot of them died in these two incidents. There are probably a whole lot of complicated issues in answering these questions, and I’m glad I don’t have to. But Sebald and Grass ask a more fundamental question–why has no one at all raised this question in the first place during the past six decades? And isn’t it about time someone did?

We’ve spent a fair amount of time in Germany in recent years, mainly in what we call, for lack of a better term, old east Germany. Actually, Saxony-Anhalt, which is mostly flat agricultural land, although it also include the Hartz Mountains. This is about as off the beaten track as you can get in modern Europe, and it’s a bit weird that we’ve done this—and it traces from the fact that Ioculatores runs an annual early music festival called Montalbâne in a little town called Freyburg an der Unstrut. The first time we went we were driving up from Regensburg, a comfortable small city not too far from Munich. The first stop was Weimar, and it was fantastic. Literally. We pull into town, find a hotel, stash our stuff, and then start wandering around—it’s a nice balmy summer evening, and everything in this part of Europe is farther north, so it stays light later than it does in American cities—something we love. Look, there’s a piano on the corner over there, with someone playing it. Hey, some lute players. Goodness, there’s someone playing an instrument on every corner. Jugglers. Face painting. And everyone in the town is wandering around in a pretty cheerful mood. Ah, the solstice celebration, when music literally fills the air. Well, that certainly was a pleasant surprise. Weimar deserves a post on its own, and we’re going to try to get back—it was a European City of Culture in 1999. This entails receiving a bunch of money from the EU to spruce yourself up and get people to come and enjoy what you have to offer. And Weimar, the intellectual heart of Germany (for better and for worse), offers quite a lot.

Then on to Montalbâne. But we haven’t been able to find a room in Freyburg, so we’re staying in the nearest larger town, Naumberg. Which clearly has never seen an American visitor. So the hotel people keep staring at us in astonishment, asking if everything is ok, solicitous as can be. And of course it’s fine. In fact, it’s better than fine—it’s interesting. For one thing, the World Cup is going on right here in German, but you would never know it. There’s a long story here, but the short take is that old east Germany (as we’ll continue to call it) is manifestly uninterested in what’s going in the World Cup—the world’s largest and most important sporting event, which is being held in Germany that very year, and where Germany is one of the few teams actually favored to win (they didn’t, being eliminated in an exciting semifinal by eventual winner Italy). The only two old east German cities that even bothered to bid on venues were Berlin and Leipzig—others didn’t even bother. It turns out that one of the lingering areas of bitterness in old East Germany is over football—after the reunification, one of the first things that happened was the rich old West German football clubs came in and bought all the excellent but underpaid very good players from old East Germany—and a number of old east German teams collapsed as a result.

Then we noticed that, unlike practically everywhere else we’ve been in Germany (or Europe, for that matter) practically no one over the age of 30 spoke any English. Now, this is an entire continent, we thought, where everyone has learned at least some English—it is the language of business in most countries, and is certainly the language of tourism. But of course we weren’t aware of two things at that point, although we learned them pretty quickly. First, there’s not much tourism where we’re hanging out. (We were, I think, the only native English speakers in the audience at the music festival) And second, everyone’s second language is Russian. Ah. And it’s true—in large blocs of eastern Europe, everyone learned Russian as their second language. It was often required in schools, in fact. So we’d see these elderly people on the street, conversing in Russian. And we’d think about the cognitive dissonance these people have experienced over the years. What lives some of these people have lived.

There was another aspect of old east Germany that was interesting as well. It was brought home by the hotel we were staying at, which had recently been spruced up. And in this case, it meant that all the built-in furniture in the room had been rebuilt. And it was, literally. As opposed to some of the places we had recently stayed at in Germany or Austria, where a refurbishment basically meant bringing in a new batch of Ikea stuff. Here it meant some guy coming in and rebuilding everything in the style stuff had been built in for generations—out of wood, with the attendant craftsmanship of the traditional builder. This meant drawers that actually opened and closed, dovetail joints where appropriate—in fact, superb joinery throughout—and a general level of craftsmanship that you virtually never see in a hotel or inn in the west. This was not only refreshing—it was so surprising I had to think about it. Part of it, I think, is that the reunification has not gone completely successfully—there is still high unemployment in large parts of old East Germany, including this area we were staying in. But it also reflects that fact that this is a culture where doing things this way still comes naturally, perhaps even more so than even old West Germany. And we’d drive around, and while it’s not an affluent area by any means, it still looks pretty sturdy.

And it happened that Naumberg has holding its Hussite-Cherry Festival, which is an annual event, and which dates back to the 16th century. Which was kind of a hoot. First of all, for being the Hussite-Cherry Festival in the first place. It derives from a pleasant but fictitious tale of how the local schoolteacher prevented the besieging Hussite forces from sacking the town, and it’s a really nice festival. It’s the peak of cherry season, for starters. And we were able to wander around a bunch of tents with people dressed in medieval costumes and eat lot of cherries. And it was great—every teenager in town appeared to be in some musical group standing around singing some old medieval German song. Now, I assume they don’t do this all the time. But the fact that they were doing it at all was pretty impressive.

The inside is cool, too.

The inside is cool, too.

We are constantly surprised by this area. The last time we visited, we spent a lot of time in a little medieval town called Quedlinburg, which has one of the most amazing cathedrals we’ve ever seen, especially in terms of the carvings. And a castle. In fact, the area is so medievally pristine that it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site—some of the half-timber housing dates to the 14th century. And also, to our utter surprise, a museum devoted to the works of Lyonel Feininger, the 20th century German artist who grew up in the US, but lived in Germany for much of his life before returning to the US in 1933. It’s here because a major collector of Feininger’s work lived here—Feininger has no direct connection to the place. Who cares? It was a delight to find it. That’s what’s great about living in and traveling around Europe—the constant surprises. Like the new museum in the next town over, Halberstadt, where the cathedral, magnificent in its own right, has one of the best medieval museums we’ve ever come across, with a magnificent collection of the earliest tapestries in Europe.

Just as I am constantly surprised by the music that I find. I am constantly amazed at the range and depth of music written for Christmas over the centuries, and the amount of music from medieval times is prodigious. Before I started listening to Fro Fro incessantly , my favorite medieval German album was the previously mentioned In Natali Domini, from the Niederaltaicher Scholaren, which is sadly no longer available, but does show up from time to time on Amazon. A collection of short songs, sung monophonically, so they sound like short sparky chants, all with a Christmas theme. Let me also mention two albums by the choral group Amarcord, mainly because I know they’re still available, if only from the label itself, Raumklang, in Germany, and these days you never know how long something will be available for. The first, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, is medieval (and renaissance) German stuff, which grew out of a series of Christmas concerts the group gave in Leipzig, an early music haven if there ever was one. It’s just lovely. Amarcord is five male singers, but you wouldn’t know it. The second is more of a Christmas Around the World type of thing called In Adventu Domini, but it has a fair number of medieval German stuff on it that you won’t find anywhere else, so it’s worth a look. But Fro Fro is the one to have.