Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/5 posted by hidden europe on

Think how voices help define a city. Speeches and songs have shaped the Weimar soundscape. And they have been more varied in tone than you might expect. To be sure, the foremost exponents of Weimar classicism all pitched into the Weimar conversation: Herder, Wieland, Goethe and Schiller. But there are also some less likely threads in the soundscape of the German town.

article summary —

We rarely have two consecutive issues of Letter from Europe from the same place - but we find the German town of Weimar so fascinating that it surely deserves a second outing. You'll find (even) more on Weimar in hidden europe 42, which will be published in mid-March.

Dear fellow travellers

Think how voices help define a city. Speeches and songs have shaped the Weimar soundscape. And they have been more varied in tone than you might expect. To be sure, the foremost exponents of Weimar classicism all pitched into the Weimar conversation: Herder, Wieland, Goethe and Schiller.

JS Bach make a mighty contribution to the sounds of the Thuringian city - even though he had a difficult relationship with the Weimar authorities and was eventually thrown into prison in Weimar. But Bach brightened the local soundscape with some fine hymns and cantatas which he wrote during nine years in Weimar. Indeed, next month marks the tercentenary of the first performance (on 25 March 1714 in Weimar) of Bach's lovely Palm Sunday cantata Himmelskönig, sei willkommen.

But there are some less likely threads in the soundscape of Weimar. Some of Germany's radical leaders of the early part of the last century made tracks for Weimar. The small city punches far above its weight when it comes to politics. Within the space of just twelve months three of Germany's pioneering socialists all gave speeches at the Volkshaus in Weimar. Clara Zetkin was there in February 1911, Karl Liebknecht in September of the same year, then in January 1912 Rosa Luxemburg gave a celebrated address to the workers of Weimar.

Luxemburg's connections with Weimar are recalled in a memorial to her in the Weimar suburb of Schöndorf. She probably did not arrive in Weimar in January 1912 with a very positive view of the place. Five years earlier, she had been sentenced to prison in Weimar for inciting an uprising in nearby Jena. Her defence in the Weimar court was a magnificent exposition of her revolutionary aspirations and included a memorable little tutorial on Engels' denigration of German bourgeois values. Nelson Mandela surely picked up a hint or two from Rosa Luxemburg on the importance of using one's moment in the dock to good effect.

So it's worth going to Weimar just for the echoes of red Rosa. But you'll have to listen hard, for the soundscape of Weimar was besmirched in the 1930s by some less honourable speeches. Hitler addressed the Nazi faithful in Weimar in an ill-tempered tirade denigrating Winston Churchill. That was on Sunday 6 November 1938. Three days later (on the fateful night now recalled as Kristallnacht), synagogues and other Jewish properties across Germany were set ablaze by the Nazis.

There are some happier sounds from Weimar. When Germans are moved to sing a Christmas carol, there is one particular tune that is held in special affection. That is "O du fröhliche" - sung to words written by a Weimar man in 1816. Germans who might not recall a single line of Schiller or Goethe certainly know Johannes Falk's carol. It is the happiest single contribution to the Weimar soundscape - one that has reverberated around Germany.

There is yet more. Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who wrote the words of what later became the German national anthem, lived in Weimar for many years. The "Song of the Germans" has stood the test of time, even though Hoffmann's first two verses have now entered the 'banned lyrics' list. "Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles" rather fell out of fashion after the Nazi years. But the later verses are still very much part of the national narrative. In truth, the anthem was not written in Weimar at all, but on the North Sea island of Helgoland.

Soundscapes change of course and there is one little ditty which was a staple in Weimar from 1950 to 1989. Louis Fürnberg, who lived in Weimar during the final years of his life, wrote the anthem of East Germany's Socialist Unity Party. It's an easy-to-remember little number, quite nice in its own way, which reflects Fürnberg's view of the world. It's called "Die Partei hat immer Recht" - which means "the party is always right." Sadly, the party didn't always get things right, and the tune has faded from the Weimar soundscape.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.