When an aunt visited me in Berlin ten years ago, her summary of her first German Mass was short and to the point: “There is certainly a lot of chanting.
While Irish Catholics traditionally mumble their way through Mass, German Catholics and Protestants are true songbirds. Sunday service is unthinkable without thick books of long hymns, many of which date back 500 years, all sung with vigorous abandon.
And this tradition of church music has proven to be a lifeline for many Germans as a trying year draws to a close, especially in Berlin.
It prides itself on being a beacon of the cultural capital, but a second lockdown has closed all concert halls, from the Berghain to the Berlin Philharmonic. As Christmas approaches, the only source of live music is Advent church services.
And this is only possible because Christian denominations in Germany spend money every year to employ thousands of church musicians.
The Lutheran Church in the Berlin-Brandenburg Region (EKBO) alone has 315 church musicians, all musicians and performers with rigorous and specialized training.
Among them, Pam Hulme, of British origin, has been conductor and organist in a Lutheran church in East Berlin since last year.
The 41-year-old learned early on that organ music in German churches is much more than the ornamental underlining that she remembers from home, but that it is an integral part of the liturgy, of equal value. all the rest of the service.
“After the sermon, you often have a piece of instrumental music where people sit and listen, reflecting on the words they just heard,” she said.
Recent concerts have all been sold out under Covid-19 regulations, and she wonders if the pandemic has helped people notice churches in a new way.
“My hope is that they can hear the music from the streets and be drawn, not in an evangelizing way, but from a more general spiritual perspective,” she says. “To take advantage of churches as privileged places in terms of atmosphere and astonishing acoustics, like buildings which are above all a place of community.
Music has always been a part of Christian religions, but Luther’s Reformation sparked a multi-faceted revolution. Along with his German-language Bible, Martin Luther saw the evangelizing possibilities of music, which he saw as “a creation of God”. He composed and adapted 36 hymns and compiled them with other pieces in a book of religious songs for the whole congregation – not just the choirs.
This opened a door for composers like Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Sebastian Bach, who embraced Biblical and Lutheran themes in their cantatas and oratorios. Over the past 500 years, church music has become a cornerstone of German identity, unwavering even in a global pandemic.
Sebastian Brendel (39) has been playing the organ since the age of 15 and since 2002 as a full-time professional church musician. This is the year he realizes the privilege – and the importance – of his work.
“There is nothing louder than people singing together, which is what led me to church music,” he said. “For me it is a duty and a privilege to play and, in receiving a salary for it, I feel the responsibility that the quality is good.”
While church closures elsewhere in Europe have seen volunteer choirs collapse, full-time church musicians in Germany have had the time and financial space to rework their offerings – and their repertoire – for the new. reality.
In this way, a virtuous circle has been maintained, where church music offers people live music at low cost or even free of charge as listeners or participants.
For the Christmas season, Brendel has put together a reduced choir of eight, his own organ, and can use what is left of his annual budget of € 10,000 to pay professional independent musicians – from trumpeters to string musicians – who have desperately needed need work after a horrible year.
Equally important to him is the social and pastoral element offered by his choirs.
“For a lot of people the choir is existentially important,” he said, “and we are trying to get through this difficult time as best we can.”
Under Brendel’s watch, Bach, Beethoven and Bruckner will reverberate around his church in Berlin’s Schöneberg district this Advent season. And around Germany, the lights may be off elsewhere this Christmas; in German churches the music continues.