A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Johann Sebastian Bach's Germany

Part 4 - Hamburg continued

25 April 2014

The Hamburger Kunsthalle


Kunsthalle Hamburg

This morning I had come to the conclusion that maybe, after all, my body did have its limits and that after driving 572 kilometers the day before yesterday, and after yesterday's long day, a morning walking around an art museum didn't sound so bad.  Besides, the Kunsthalle (art gallery) was currently hosting an exhibition of more than 70 oil paintings, and over 100 watercolors, pencil, and sepia drawings, by the most important German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).

The Hamburger Kunsthalle was just a short walk away from my hotel, and so I started off in the brisk morning air, passed the Deutsches Schauspielhaus (theater), crossed the overpass above almost twenty tracks leading to the Hauptbahnhof, and reached the Kunstalle on Glockengiesserwall.  The museum is so huge — it occupies at least four buildings taking up more than a city block — that I wasn't sure where to enter for the Friedrich exhibit.  There are four main sections:  Galerie der Gegenwart (contemporary), Klassische Moderne (20th c.), 19. Jaarhundert (nineteenth century), and Alte Meister (Old Masters).

I finally found my way into the appropriate orifice and was soon immersed in Friedrich's bizarre world.  What was amazing was that this exhibition drew from numerous collections all over the world and many of these pieces were being seen together for the first time in decades, if ever, making it a once-in-a-lifetime event to see it.  Museums that contributed Friedrichs for this show include St. Petersburg's Hermitage, Moscow's Pushkin, Washington D.C.'s National Gallery, Paris' Louvre, Copenhagen's State Museum for Art, and Vienna's Gallery Belvedere, among others.  One of the most gripping and thought-provoking paintings for me — “Die Lebensstufen” (The Stages of Life) – came from the Museum der Bildenden Kunste in Leipzig, which I planned to visit in a few days, without its Friedrich, since it would be in Hamburg.


Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840):  Die Lebensstufen (The life stages), circa 1834, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 94 cm (28.5 x 37 in), Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


In addition to “Die Lebensstufen” (1835) which depicts five individuals at various ages (from toddler to very old) on a promontory overlooking a sea on which five vessels (from a small skiff to large frigates) are seen sailing away at various distances — the smallest boat is closest to shore, while the ship in the distance nears the horizon, enveloped in mist — there are two other paintings that I found particularly evocative in a morbidly romantic way.

The first, “Das Eismeer” (The Sea of Ice, 1823/4), depicts a violent upthrust of ice in an arctic landscape.  The color of the massive chunks of ice ranges from blue to gray to a dirty brown.  One is taken with the intense physical force of the scene initially, yet it is not until studying the painting more closely that one notices the stern of a wooden ship protruding from a flow.  Then almost in a panic, one scans the rest of the picture and finds a mast here, another mast there.  There is complete devastation and the setting is cold and silent.  The effect is powerful, sudden, astonishing.


Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840):  Das Eismeer, auch Die gescheiterte Hoffnung (The sea of ice, mistakenly known as "The wreck of the Hope"); 1823-1824, oil on canvas, 126.9 x 96.7cm (50 x 38.1 in), Hamburger Kunsthalle

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


The other painting that attracted me was more subtle, darker (in all senses), and yet ambiguous — “Meeresufer im Mondschein” (Coast By Moonlight, 1835).  One sees, in the middle of the night by moonlight, two or three ships (anchored?) off-shore, turbulent gray clouds, and in the foreground, on the shore, what?  It's so dark, one can't see, other than to make out the outlines of some stones, but it's spooky, too.  Were there people in there?  I really don't know.


Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840):  Meeresufer im Mondschein (Küste bei Mondschein) (Sea Shore in Moonlight), 1835, 169.2 x 134 cm (66.6 x 52.8in), Hamburger Kunsthalle

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


A recurrent theme in Friedrich's paintings seems to be mist, fog, and clouds (this is northern Germany, after all), and often the sea on bad days, when it feels ominous and unforgiving.  Ice is another theme.  (Caspar's brother drowned as he tried to rescue Caspar — then age 13 — when he had fallen through the ice.)  Death — another favorite Romantic source of contemplation — also figures heavily in many of his paintings, especially after his periods of depression (almost a job requirement for Romantics) and his stroke in 1835.  His mother died when he was seven, his brother (see above) when he was 13, and his sister, from typhus, when he was 17.  Whew.

Other motifs in Friedrich's paintings include churches (often in ruins), dead trees, monks alone (with church ruins, dead trees, snow, on sea-shores) and crosses in severe landscapes — in rocks, forests, etc.  I discovered that of the three paintings that moved me most, two were painted after his stroke, and the third was painted after he was denied a professorship at the Dresden Academy.  I probably don't need to ask myself why I identify with the suffering artist . . .


A retrospective of the works of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was exhibited at the Hamburger Kunsthalle.


Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe

The docent at the Brahms Museum (see Part 3) had urged me to see the musical instrument collection at the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe (Museum for Arts and Crafts), and I didn't want to leave Hamburg before visiting this collection.  Therefore, I walked to the other side of the Hauptbahnhof to the beautiful, burnt umber classical building that houses the museum.  Once inside, I asked about the instrument collection and was given a map and directed to the “Historische Tasteninstruments” (“Historic Touch-instruments,” i.e., keyboards), which occupies sections of both the first and second floors of the museum.  The older clavecins, virginals, clavichords and harpsichords are on the ground floor, and the pianos are upstairs.  There are more than 90 instruments in the collection, started in 1953 by “Hamberger Musikwissenschaftler und Tonmeister Prof. Dr. Andreas Beurmann.”


Giuseppe Mondini (d.1718): Mondini-Cembalo, 1701, Florence, 270 x 83,5 x 21,3 cm


The main floor was filled with beautifully painted, intricately carved, fragile instruments on skinny legs, many dating back to the 1500s.  One fat instrument, however, was actually two:  a harpsichord on top with an organ underneath.  Another keyboard was shaped like a harp.  Beautiful tapestries hung on the walls and there were sculptures (with musical themes) about.  The audio guide was helpful in some cases, giving the history of the instrument, its construction details, and even a recording of a performance on the instrument.  However, sometimes I had to resort to the German language version, as the English guide would be mismatched to the exhibit.

I would be standing by a harpsichord and the guide would start talking about a “grand piano.”  One time I laughed.  I was looking at a spinet and the guide went off on a long discourse on Buddha!  Later, I mentioned this problem to one of the docents who spoke English, and she said that other English-speaking guests had also mentioned the problem.  Overall, however, it was a very impressive collection of keyboards.


Die Fliegende Bauten

That evening I had a concert to attend, so I hailed a taxi.  The driver spoke some English (most people in Hamburg do — unlike former GDR sate of Thüringen where I had spent the previous week) and he steered the conversation to politics.  I asked him what he thought of Angela Merkel, the new chancellor that year.  He said he thought she had no power to run the government effectively.  (Eight years later, she is still in power.)  He then (at my coaxing) talked about immigration and, lastly, taxes (45%!).  By that point we were on Reeperbahn and he dropped me off.

As I negotiated a treacherous path through a gauntlet of general sleaze, I noticed the name of one street in the area — “Grosse Freiheit” — and though that was putting it mildly.  This is the neighborhood in which the Beatles got their start in the early ‘60s, and it was probably just as seedy back then.  I did notice, however, in a quaint neo-Gothic structure on a corner, a Polizeiamt [police station].  Through the window I could see a bank of screens for the video-monitoring of every centimeter of the area — some assurance.  Soon I found a place for something to eat before my  concert:  Hanoi Bistro und Restaurant: Frülingsrollen, Hünerfleisch mit Curry, Reis, und Gebackenebanane.

After dinner I walked the few blocks over to Glacischausee and Die Fliegende Bauten [literally, “flying buildings”], the hall where the concert was to take place.  I had run across Yellow Hands — “Die Deutsche Antwort auf Blue Man Group [The German answer to Blue Man Group],” on the internet,

Die Fliegende Bauten

(photo courtesy of Die Fliegende Bauten)

advertised as “Das Verrückte Musikspektakel [The Deranged Music-Spectacle]” and “Eine Irrwitzige Mixtur aus Kurzfilm und Musikshow [A confused, funny mixture of film shorts and music show].”  I had guessed that by this point in my travels something slightly irreverent and snarky would bring a welcome relief to such serious classical music making and general time-dislocation.  It is the twenty-first century, after all.

Inside the hall, I asked one of the waitresses where I was to sit (my ticket said “Rang-Mitte Rechts”) and she pointed in the general direction of the other side of the room through the smoke and confusion.  I looked at her and gave her a hopeless, lost look and she walked me over to some risers along the perimeter of the room, against the wall, where there were three or four rows of chairs.  I sat down, thankful to finally get off my feet today, and, from my minimally elevated aerie, observed German culture in action for about one-half hour prior to show-time.

The lights dimmed and the name of the group was projected onto a screen high above center stage.  A smaller screen on either side and farther back displayed other visuals throughout the program.  A short film began the show with “Musik Macht Süchtig [Music Makes Crazy and/or Addicted]”.  Two members of the band were playing some old-fashioned ragtime in the film, and they both, in utter boredom, gradually fell asleep at their instruments.  Next they were in a psychiatrist’s office, and (there was no spoken dialogue in any of the film shorts) the doctor points to a drawing on a flip-chart of an outline of a person’s head with notes in the area of the brain and an “X” through the notes.  The prescription:  no more music.  In the next scene the two musicians were sitting in the same room as before, but it was empty now — no instruments.  They were motionless, looking down, dejected.  A word then appeared on the screen: “Zwangmusikalismus [restrained music; as if a medical condition].”

Soon they were walking through a hardware store and one of them accidentally knocked over a number of long tubes, which produced a reverberant sound.  They looked at each other and an animated light bulb appeared over their heads, a bell ringing as it turned on.  At that point the stage came alive with flashing and spinning lights and four large ranks of maybe 20 tubes each pivoted down toward the audience and while doing so exploded with flashes of light and clouds of smoke to the driving beat of a percussion ostinato.


Yellow Hands

(photo courtesy of Yellow Hands) 

Soon a spotlight front and center highlighted a large, horizontal tube at head level, whose strings were beat with the open palms of one player while another slid a large device back and forth to vary the pitch.  The tune?  The “Theme from Mission Impossible” in its asymmetric 5/4 vivacity.  At key points the pitch-determining player would step on a pedal and an enormous flame emerged from the end of the tube.  It was pure German obsession for megalomaniacal proportions and yet silly, and yet fun, and yet, as a German might term it, Klasse, Prima, Spitze, Toll, Geil, Riesig.  Or — my favorite — Elefantös, what happens when “Elephant” is turned into an adjective!

When the flames, explosions, smoke, lights and incredible sound were over, the stage went black and next our hapless musicians were back on screen when one of them accidentally kicks the end of a tube with his shoe:  a percussive “thunk,” and again the light goes on for another maniacal idea.

Stage lights back on (the film shorts allow for rapid stage changes in the dark:  ingenious), tubes were being slapped to the tune of “The Blue Danube.”  Another film had the psychiatrist pointing to the word “Resozialisierung [re-socializing]” on his flip-chart.  Next, one of our twisted musicians on film is ripping the horn out of a car whose driver honked at him.  Immediately a motorcycle roared onto stage, while another musician “starts” his “guitar”:  A muffler with two exhaust pipes attached, smoking.  When the rumbling engine stopped, they launched into a rendition of “New York, New York,” with muffler-guitar and a bank of auto-horns attached to the front of the motorcycle.  Such intense juxtapositions of fearsome, savage sound and spectacle and silly-sounding-but complexly-arrived-at tunes epitomized the night.  It was a tour-de-force, or as the Germans would say, “Ein Gewaltstreich.”  What added to the incongruity (and I’m not sure how to interpret this, other than it was something he picked up on vacation) was the sombrero that Daniel Neuner — the clown of the group — wore while “playing” his motorcycle.

Next, after another film short, we heard “Tequilla.”  Also, another tune by the Ventures, an all-guitar group of the ‘60s.  Played on an automobile-manifold-guitar, which exploded at the end.  After another film short, in which the musicians were vacuuming and the by-now-predictable “light” went on, we heard a performance on a vacuum-as-slide whistle, accompanied by two accordions, joined at the hip and played vertically.  “Pinging” wine goblets at dinner in one film short led to an upright piano being wheeled onto stage with, not strings, but goblets for “Für Elise.”

Upon being advised to become involved in “sport” – the word being pointed to on the flip-chart — our insane musicians visited a soccer practice and heard a coach's whistle in the film.  Soon, on stage, “La Cucaracha” was being played by Toni Bartl (the leader and [mad] inventor of the group) on a semi-circle of eight soccer balls in which whistles had been inserted. In another film related to the “sport” prescription, while playing golf one of the musicians sliced and the ball hit the cowbell of a cow grazing nearby.  On stage, Toni played a tiny, portable keyboard wired to a circle of containers that dropped golf balls on demand, each landing on a differently-pitched cowbell and falling into a net.


Yellow Hands

(photo courtesy of Yellow Hands) 


In one film Daniel Neuner was painting something and a paint tube by chance whistled — the light, again.  Next, he is on stage with at least 12 paint tubes attached all over his body:  on his shoulders, chest, abdomen, on the insides of his elbows and knees, and on his thighs.  Soon we hear the overture to The Marriage of Figaro in two-part harmony, played with chin on shoulder tubes, lifting calves, and pumping forearms — it was a veritable dance of frenzy, but with precision.  In another film they walk into a public restroom and happen to see a cleaning lady plunging a toilet.  On stage, two appear with plungers, Daniel smelling his, not certain that he wants to “play” his or not.  While Toni performs by pushing two plungers together, Daniel has the odious job of playing his plunger by cupping it over his nose and mouth, pushing on the stick to change the pitch.  The audience was roaring.  Soon more musicians came out with plungers.

Beyond the inventiveness, the scope of musicianship was what I found to be amazing.  The five musicians were each competent on a wide array of instruments — guitar, keyboards, brass, strings (including bowed), percussion, accordion, winds.  Such versatility doesn't come easily, and with it, the knowledge of a repertoire drawing on classical, folk, popular, and jazz would seem to indicate that at least one of the musicians attended a conservatory at some point.  One juxtaposition that illustrates this point began, on film, with a visit to a construction site.  Next, a wheel-barrow being rolled out onto stage turns out to be a double bass and a shovel morphs into a cello, and the treble and bass parts of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor – Allegro are bowed on these unlikely instruments.  But then, one laid the wheelbarrow-bass on its side while the other stands on top with his shovel guitar — bows were no longer needed at this point — and they began to belt out “Smoke on the Water,” the Deep Purple anthem from the early '70s.  The two-string shovel nicely accommodated the parallel-fourth riffs.  All of those visits on film to the psychiatrist got me wondering:  maybe Toni Bartl's father heard this song on his Volkswagen's radio when he was dating his mom, and that is what accounts for all of the tubes, fire, and smoke on stage.


Yellow Hands

 (photo courtesy of Yellow Hands) 


Every story needs an ending.  In the last film, our psychiatrist was caught making music.  He soon overcame his shame, and was heartily welcomed into the band, who played a couple of final numbers on stage.  Well, they would have been final in most countries, except this was Germany.  Clap-clap- clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap (rhythmic unison) … OK, one encore, even though the band was obviously exhausted.  Clap-clap … OK, one more piece … and then another one.  In Germany, a performer has to be careful.  If they love you, they'll kill you for encores.

After the show, I had the chance to meet the performers in the lobby, all of who were very genial.  I bought a DVD of some of their earlier work, called “Recyklang” (a pun on Recyklung [recycling] and Klang [sound]), which the entire group signed for me.  I shook Toni's hand and told him (he spoke English quite well) that the group was bound for success.  He was humble and gracious, certainly not the monster rocker that he portrays onstage.  I hope they go far with their music-science-multi-media hybrid.

I left the concert hall elated from the incredible show, but soon realized I was in the St. Pauli district, which may or may not be precarious at night.  I said a quick prayer, at which point the subway station — one block away — came into view.  Once inside the station, which was well-lighted and seemed quite safe, I bought a ticket at a machine, walked to the platform, at which point the train arrived, and I boarded.  Five minutes later (or less), I was at the Hauptbahnhof station, where I got out and exited above-ground one block from my hotel!  It couldn't have been easier, and the entire journey from concert to hotel took ten minutes.


 (photo courtesy of Yellow Hands) 





The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Germany)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

Other Threads in This Blog: