Germany 2009


Monday 3 August
Evensong + Concert at St Laurentius, Ahrweiler

Tuesday 4 August
Pilgrims’ Mass at the Marienkapelle, Pützfeld

Wednesday 5 August
Evensong + Concert at Pfarrkirche Maria Verkündigung, Altenahr 
(Parish Church of the Annunciation)

Friday 7 August
Evensong (in honour of St Paul) at Himmerod Abbey

Sunday 9 August
Protestant (Lutheran) Morning Service with Baptism; 
Catholic Mass; and Anglican Evensong
at Altenberg “Cathedral”

Germany tour report

Eight cars left the Rochester/Maidstone area early on the morning of Sunday 2 August, heading for the 10:00am ferry from Dover to Dunkerque, carrying 20 singers, an organist, five supporters, a choir director and (in the boot of the director’s coupé) a 3-manual JJ Binns organ from a church in Suffolk (vintage 1901, and ideal for accompanying English cathedral music). 

We were heading for the Ahr Valley, a picturesque area near the Eifel, about five hours’ drive from the Channel ports and an hour to the southwest of Cologne and Bonn: a wine-growing area (primarily red wine) virtually unknown in the UK (we only know of one importer of its wines, and he works in a cathedral somewhere in north Kent). 

Most of the cars (and their passengers) arrived safely in Altenahr around 6:00pm and all were very impressed with the location and quality of the newly-renovated Youth Hostel. The 8th car arrived much later in the evening, having made an extended lunch stop in Ghent and a petrol stop in Aachen. 

D&RHM having departed to their hosts (the Chief Exec at Altenahr Town Hall and his wife), the rest of the party (under the care of the 2/ics) hit the town in search of much-needed food. 

And there was much Schnitzel und Bier.

Monday started with a rehearsal in the Youth Hostel dining room – always an important moment in any choir tour because, although one has the luxury of working with (almost) the same group of people for a week (rather than a slightly different line-up for every service), there are, inevitably, deputies and extras replacing regular members who cannot join the tour, and these need to be integrated and to learn our ways. So time spent working on blend and balance is as important at this point as learning the notes. It was particularly good to have with us Bernhard Wiesemann (Director of the Youth Choir in Würselen, with whom we have worked on both our Bach St John Passion trips), Bernd Steixner, the originator of the Rochester-Würselen connection in 1995, and of course Heinz Schwartz, who did such a tremendous amount of “behind-the-scenes” work and liaison both before and during the tour.

After a couple of hours’ work we drove the 8 miles up the valley to Ahrweiler, where we were to sing “English Cathedral Evensong”, followed by a short concert, in the fine yellow-painted St Laurentius Church on the market square. This Evensong + Concert format is one we have used for previous foreign tours, and found it works well for two reasons: (1) it makes the point that we are a liturgical choir, not a secular one - our prime raison d’être is leading worship; and (2) it overcomes the objection some people may have to paying to enter a church: the Evensong is, of course, free; they can then choose whether or not to stay for the concert, for which they might have to pay. But before doing anything else, of course, there was lunch.

There was much Schnitzel und Bier.

After lunch we set up the Hauptwerk organ in the large “quire“ space behind the altar where we planned to sing. There is a very fine 3-manual Fischer & Krämer organ, only about 20 years old, in the west gallery (including a proper English Swell with strings and celestes, 16/8/4ft reeds and mixtures), but unfortunately the distance between west and east ends would have made choir accompaniment very difficult without audio/video links. [DHM knows this organ well, having frequently been allowed practice time on it during school trips over the last 17 years.]

It was a very hard first day's work, but worth it in the end. The church was full – maybe 200 people - with a very appreciative congregation/audience who applauded even *before* we sang and Jay played, as well as after; they gave us a standing ovation, and over 500 Euros in the plate – which was a completely unexpected bonus. The organ ran without a hitch. And there were still eating places open and serving when we had finished dismantling and loading everything. 

Yet again, there was more eating of Schnitzel and drinking of Pils and Kölsch.

The next day dawned bright and warm and turned into a glorious summer’s day. We were to sing for the regular Tuesday afternoon pilgrims' Mass in a tiny chapel on a wooded hillside outside Pützfeld – a small village a few miles west of Altenahr. On the music list was Byrd à 5 and Tantum Ergo by Sir Sydney Nicholson. The choir had to stay standing in the sanctuary area behind the altar for the whole service as, had we gone west of the altar rail, there would have been hardly any room left for the congregation, and we couldn’t all get into the organ loft gallery because of a weight restriction. The morning rehearsal was followed by a picnic on the meadows below, and the Mass was followed by Kaffee und Kuchen in the old Village bakehouse, now newly renovated as a village hall. The local press were there at the Mass, and gave us some very positive coverage and nice photographs. The rest of Tuesday evening was free. Some people’s attempt to ride the chair-lift to the top of the hill on the edge of town was foiled because it was closed earlier than expected (though they made it the next day). But a group of the youngsters headed for the Sommerrodelbahn – a nail-biting toboggan run on stainless steel rather than ice. Great fun was had by all, with much swapping and sharing of bobs. [There’s a video of some of this on the choir’s Facebook group page.]

After which there was, of course, much Schnitzel und Bier.

Wednesday was more pressured: a schedule similar to Monday's, starting with a morning rehearsal at the youth hostel, though the programme was slightly different. The venue was the Pfarrkirche Maria-Verkündigung in Altenahr (Parish Church of the Annunciation), but the setting-up of the organ and the afternoon rehearsal were delayed by a funeral service which we hadn’t known about before (that’s the trouble with funerals – they always happen at short notice!). During the afternoon break, some people had gone back to Ahrweiler to see the Roman villa that was excavated there about 20 years ago - it is said to be the most significant Roman remains north of the Alps, on a par with Herculanium in terms of importance. The congregation/audience that night was considerably smaller than Monday’s, but enthusiastic nevertheless. The sopranos pulled out the super-octave coupler at the end of Harwood in A flat to thrilling effect, and Covent Garden came to Altenahr courtesy of a pupil of Mr Lister. There were some good solos from several others as well, though one verse of a Willam Croft anthem was more highly embellished than might have been expected (the director claimed partial responsibility for this because of the limited rehearsal time). Most of us ended up again at what became our regular haunt: Café Caspari opposite the Rathaus.

And there was, yet again, much Bier and Schnitzel.

Thursday was a searingly, blisteringly hot day – a day off from any singing (except informal close-harmony, with too many people trying to read off one single copy of everything). Although a small number went hiking and doing other things, most of us went on a day out arranged by Heinz, which included a train ride to Rüdesheim, changing at Remagen and Koblenz en route. We had 4 hours in Rüdesheim, time for lunch, several beers and a bit of touristy retail therapy in the famous Drosselgasse, and a very interesting visit to a museum of mechanical musical instruments. The featured instruments included, inter alia, street and fairground organs, a combined piano/violin machine, a wind-up gramophone and a Bechstein player-piano; the guide was keen to prove that this could also be used as a normal piano, so Jessie kindly obliged with a beautiful performance, from memory, of a piece by Einaudi. The return trip was on a Rhein paddle-steamer (now diesel-powered) from Rüdesheim back to Koblenz, where we had to walk a couple of kilometres back to the Hauptbahnof for the train back to Altenahr. On passing the famous Loreley rock, we all sang the famous Loreley song "Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten" (as we also had done, a couple of hours previously, as a “Danke schön” for the guide at the museum).

Friday turned out to be a much more stressful day than we had expected when we left the Altenahr Youth Hostel for the (supposedly leisurely 1½-hour) drive to Himmerod (a 12th-century Cistercian abbey, destroyed by the French government of the Rheinland areas in their secularisation and dissolution of the monasteries in 1802, but rebuilt in the 1950s). We thought that singing Evensong in an impressive abbey church with beautiful monastic choir stalls and a fine large organ in the SE corner behind the choir would be relatively straightforward – despite it being a widely-advertised high-profile event as the opening of a 2-week long series of exhibitions, lectures, etc about St Paul. We didn’t reckon on so many cars taking scenic detours and arriving late (for whatever reasons), which reduced our available rehearsal time by 30 minutes. (Two ladies, who couldn’t join the tour until now, avoided this problem by driving directly to Himmerod on the previous day.) Much of the remaining pre-Evensong time was taken up with getting to grips with the vast acoustic and trying to synchronise choir and organ without an audio link and with only a small image of the director in a quarter of the organist’s monitor screen (neither of which problems had a readily-available solution, and Howells St Paul’s not being the easiest service to do with these problems). Fortunately we had taken the precaution of rehearsing in the Youth Hostel after breakfast before leaving Altenahr, otherwise the evening could have potentially gone very pear-shaped. A frantic scramble for robes, a room in which to change into them, and toilets, in the 15 minutes before Evensong created far more stress than one would have wished. But we made it through to the end and were given a very warm vote of thanks by the Father Abbot, and an invitation (a very sincere-sounding one) to return in the future. He said he hadn’t been quite sure what to expect from Anglican Choral Evensong, but seemed to have been pleasantly surprised and impressed. After Evensong the community very kindly entertained us to Abendbrot, which was early enough for most of the choir to enjoy a couple of hours at the hostelry within the abbey gates. We stayed in the Abbey guest-rooms which were (mostly) somewhat Spartan, but comfortable. Somebody, however, was given the “Bishop’s Suite” (anyone want to own up??). The following morning after breakfast Abbot Bruno presented us with a copy of his book (auf Deutsch, natürlich) on the love of Christ and the Rule of St Benedict, and gave some of us a generous guided tour of the cloisters and several other parts of the Abbey which would normally have been out of bounds to non-monastic visitors. They also gave us three loaves of their own dark multi-grain bread (but no small fishes).

After leaving Himmerod on Saturday morning we all had a 2½-3-hour drive to the “Bergisches Land” – a hilly, wooded area just east of Cologne across the Rhein, where we were to spend the last two nights at “Haus Sonnenberg”, a Catholic youth retreat centre. Several carloads stopped off in Bonn en route (no longer the capital since re-unification of Germany in 1990). This was another day free of singing – though we had wished it were otherwise. With three services to sing in Altenberg Cathedral on the final Sunday (OK, so what’s new in that?!) we would have liked the chance of some practice time in the building to get used to the organ (another massive and fairly modern Klais - like Himmerod, only much bigger!) and the acoustic, so as to avoid a repeat of Friday’s problems, but this was not to be. Saturday’s diary was fully booked with visting organ recitalists practicing and various other happenings. The added complication here was that this building is shared between two congregations – Protestant and Catholic – and the hours of the day are strictly allocated between the two (i.e. if you’re invited by the Catholic parish, you can’t rehearse in Protestant time, and vice versa). The sharing of the building (another 12th-century Cistercian monastery, like Himmerod, also dissolved in 1803 under the secularisation, then almost totally destroyed by fire in 1815) was the condition imposed by the then King of Prussia who gave most of the money for the rebuilding of the church in the mid-19th century. “Cathedral”, incidentally, is a bit of a misnomer, since it doesn’t contain the seat of any Bishop, though it’s still a mightily impressive building.

Approaching Haus Sonnenberg in the village of Odenthal-Voiswinkel (a couple of miles from Altenberg), one was greeted by a fairly depressing sight. Driving off the main road, up a hill into what appeared to be a very nice residential area, one was confronted by a tired-looking 1960s concrete structure growing green mould in a cul-de-sac. Someone remarked that “Sun Hill House” (to give it its English name) sounded a bit like a remand home for recalcitrant teenagers! Fortunately it turned out to be much nicer and more comfortable inside, with several sitting/meeting/teaching rooms and a wide choice of single, double, triple and quad-bedded rooms (to avoid any accusations of unfairness, the one and only en-suite bedroom was designated as an extra loo and shower for everybody’s use), and a range of equipment was put at our disposal including TV, CD player, free wi-fi internet, books, board games, a BBQ grill, and countless crates of beer in the garage (help yourself, put it in the fridge, sign and pay for whatever you use). The warden could not have been more helpful, and she went way above and beyond the call of duty in many ways. Cars arrived in dribs and drabs during the afternoon and people settled in. Some carloads went to spend the evening in Cologne The rest of us descended on one pub-restaurant in the middle of Odenthal to eat in the evening (still warm enough to eat out on the terrace under the awnings), though this did put some strains on the waitress who had obviously not studied her own menu and drinks list as much as she should have done – denying having any German red wine when there was a Baden Spätburgunder clearly shown on the list (when we were eventually given it), and insisting that the only red wine available was Lambrusco (we think she had mis-read or misunderstood Montepulciano d’Abruzzo). But the food was pretty good, and worth waiting for, and – apart from the lack of knowledge – the service was (mostly) friendly enough. Having haggled quite forcefully over one table’s bill (they were served drinks in larger measures than they had ordered, and been charged accordingly), we eventually made a rather hasty exit after a glass was broken by one of the younger members of the party.

There had, of course, been much Schnitzel und Bier.

Sunday came all too early. Breakfast had been ordered for 6:45am, since Jay and Heinz had a 7:30 appointment to get on the organ and set registrations and pistons before the 8:00am choir rehearsal for the 9:00am service. (More interdenominational politics: this had been agreed the previous afternoon with the Protestant Assistant Organist – yes, both congregations have their own musicians! When the Catholic Organist phoned DHM later to discuss the evening Mass arrangements and was told of the morning appointment, he was adamant this could not happen – the 7:00am Mass didn’t finish until 8:00am. Our choir practice could start at 8:00am as arranged, but not a moment sooner!). Even on a Sunday afternoon, access to rehearsal time in the Cathedral was difficult; we had been generously offered 45 minutes before the 5:15pm Mass. But they then told us that the (Catholic) parish office had booked a baptism for 4:30pm, so we could either rehearse an hour earlier than planned (3:30 to 4:15pm) or not at all. Despite this apparent friction, however, both the musicians were actually very friendly and helpful. The 9:00am service turned out not to be the expected Communion service, but a Morning Service with Baptism, and the congregation was sparse – we were told that lots of the regulars stayed away from baptisms (“too many screaming children”), plus it was holiday time. We sang anthems by Whitlock, Purcell and Lauridsen, and wondered what ructions there might be when the service ran over until about 10:03am – Catholic time begins at 10:00am sharp! We were wondering whether we could leave our robes in the vestry until later. Oh, no! This was the Protestant vestry – we had to take everything down to the Catholic vestry! We were unused to being out of church so early on a Sunday morning, and most of the cafés weren’t open yet (so we went and sat outside one, and waited until it did). At the Altenberger Hof next door (a very swish and expensive hotel on the Cathedral Square) a live jazz band was entertaining customers – and very good they were, too. The weather forecast being encouraging, we were planning a BBQ for the evening, and dispatched two ladies to shop for it. Unfortunately, this being Germany and Sunday, everything was closed, so no BBQ after all. Rather than stay around here for lunch, most of us went, at Heinz’ suggestion, to Schloß Burg an der Wupper – a mediaeval fortified town on a hill just a few miles away (close enough to allow us time to eat and do some sight-seeing without panicking about not being back in time). We all made it back in good time for a 3:30pm rehearsal, though that still didn’t leave a great deal of time for everything we needed to do. The verger started getting a bit agitated, and at 4:14 he started setting up the chancel (where we were still trying to rehearse) for the imminent baptism. We called a reluctant halt and went outside, where (a few minutes later, after the heavy bells had finished ringing down) we rehearsed Byrd’s 5-part Mass under the trees on the lawn with the birds singing along with us. Surreal! Well, the Mass went well (the Byrd particularly so, perhaps due to a slightly more relaxed tempo), the nave was almost full, the priest gave us a warm welcome at the beginning and generous thanks at the end (followed by congregational applause). We had expected Evensong to begin at 6:15pm, but the Mass didn’t finish until after 6:30, so it was no more than a 5-minute turnaround in the vestry before going out again. Evensong went better than it deserved to, considering how exhausted most of us were by this time. We somehow managed to keep Howells’ St Paul’s Service pretty much together until the end. The week’s music-making concluded with a stirring rendition of Hugh Blair’s rip-rollicking Easter anthem “Ye choirs of new Jerusalem” (it wasn’t Easter, but it was Sunday, so what the h***?), and as a “Finale” Jay gave us – for the first and only time this week – Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster, finishing with both 32ft reeds and, on the final pedal note, the 64ft “Donner” stop (the name, appropriately, means “Thunder”)! Our host/organiser from Altenahr had come over to Altenberg for the Mass, and had been greatly moved by our singing (as he had been on his own turf earlier in the week), and Jörg Bartz and Dirk Beyer, two of our regular “groupies” from Würselen, had also made the journey to hear and support us. Rather than all go out yet again to eat, we agreed we would go back to the hostel, unwind, and send out for pizza, which we did. And put a fresh crate of Kölsch in the fridge. And while waiting for the pizza to arrive, “Father Susie” celebrated Communion upstairs for those of us who were feeling deprived after two Sundays without. It was a simple but very effective and moving service. Susie had brought no service book with her, but read the Common Worship text off a laptop connected to the wi-fi. The bread was from Himmerod and the wine (mass-produced French) from the Protestant Pastor at Altenberg. We agreed that, being abroad, and arguably out of jurisdiction, we would ignore the recent archiepiscopal edict and receive Communion in both kinds - despite the threat of Schweinegrippe - and hug and shake hands at the Peace.

There was no more Schnitzel this night, but mountains of pizza and gallons of beer.

We had agreed to talk to the Warden about the time of Monday’s breakfast, since most people wanted to catch the 2:00pm ferry from Dunkerque (which meant leaving the hostel by 8:00am). After many unsuccessful telephonic attempts, we finally made contact about 10:30pm on Sunday, and asked whether a 7:00am breakfast might be possible. After a sharp intake of breath, she willingly (I think!) agreed. It was only the next day, when clearing our room, that I noticed on the Gästeinformation that the normal breakfast time at this hostel was 8:30am. “Above and beyond the call of duty” turned out to be a bit of an understatement!

Most people were up and around in good time on Monday morning. One car left early and caught the 12:00 ferry. The rest left as and when they were ready, and all - even those who didn’t get away until nearly 9:00am - made the 2:00pm ferry (just).

It had been a long week, but (hopefully) with a good balance of hard work and free time; an interesting mix of small, medium and large venues; a portable English “mini-cathedral” organ and two huge examples of Klais’ work; accompanied and a capella music of various periods from the 16th to the 20th centuries, well-known and less familiar; very experienced singers and younger ones learning the ropes, with an age gap of about half a century between youngest and oldest; those who prefer Jägerschnitzel and those who swear by the more piquant Zigeunerschnitzel; Pils-drinkers and Kölsch-drinkers.

My sincere thanks to all who were kind enough – and brave enough – to take part in the tour in whatever capacity: singers, organist, supporters, page-turners, organ builder-uppers and breaker-downers, those who agreed to act as 2i/c in various areas and took responsibility for all sorts of things to lighten my load, all of you who helped quietly behind the scenes, and anyone else I should have thanked, and may have inadvertently omitted. Well done, all!

Now the Schnitzel and Bier will just have to wait until next time…