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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY EIGHTY We Are Our Choices

There was an important moment this morning. We are in a cafe in Munich looking out at an army of wurst occupying the Viktualienmarkt (literally the Victuals Market) and trying to decide what to have with our coffee. As Sartre said, 'We are our choices', expanding on that other great Frenchman, Brillat Savarin, who sensibly confined his philosophy to culinary matters - 'Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are'. We decided not to be freshly-made weisswurst (the white sausage of Munich customarily eaten before noon with a pretzel and a little sweet mustard) and settled instead on an identity derived from plum cheesecake.

This tyranny of choice led on to selecting a top moment from Munich's history. The Race Marshal opted for the first performance of the 1584 setting of the Penitential Psalms of David by Orlande de Lassus. (Five years later, Byrd set seven of the Psalms in English, as some of his Songs of Sundrie Natures, and Allegri was later to set the 50th Psalm as his Miserere).

Orlande de Lassus (c)wikicommons

Born in Belgium in 1530, Lassus rose to be one of the three great composers of the era. He was a very musical child and had a voice of such exceptional purity that he was kidnapped three times. At the age of twelve, presumably still in possession of his voice, he was taken off to Mantua; a decade later he had risen to become maestro di cappella of the Papal Archbasilica of Saint John in Lateran – an extraordinarily prestigious appointment for one so young.

In 1556, he joined the music establishment of Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, in Munich. Here he married, had children and was extremely happy. Given his fame, he had numerous offers from other European courts but, as he said, turning down an offer from the Duke of Saxony: 'I do not want to leave my house, my garden, and the other good things in Munich'.

Palestrina was another of this famous trio. He had much in common with Lassus - succeeding him at St. John Lateran; sharing a conservative, backward-looking style of composition; and also being prolific. By the time of their deaths, both in 1594, Lassus and Palestrina had composed 160 masses and 900 motets between them.

The last of the three, Tomas Victoria, was a pupil of Palestrina. Born in Avila in Castile in 1548, Victoria also rose to prominence in Rome at the German Pontifical College - founded in 1399 to prepare clerics to serve the church in Germany. Like Lassus and Palestrina, Victoria had a sturdy musical education: first as a choirboy in Avila Cathedral and at a school praised for its music by St Teresa of Avila.

St Teresa by Rubens

It's hard not to make comparisons between St Teresa and St Hildegard of Bingen. Both were strong-willed: at the age of seven, Teresa, inspired by the lives of the saints, ran away in search of martyrdom at the hands of the Berbers. She took Holy Orders but remained, according to one papal legate, a 'disobedient, and stubborn femina who, under the title of devotion, invented bad doctrines, moving outside the cloister against the rules of the Council of Trent and her prelates [and] teaching as a master against Saint Paul's orders that women should not teach'.

Like those of Hildegard, Teresa's visions of the Divine have been subjected to modern medical scrutiny. A Seraph appeared to her in a vision:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.

This account that led medics to conclude that she suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. These days, Teresa would be offered anti-convulsants or be implanted with a vagus nerve stimulator to ward off the Divine. St Hildegard would not be lucky: though she had her visions - I mean, of course, migraines - seven centuries ago, a cure still remains elusive.

The Auer Dult in 1838 by Carl Spitzweg

I found it difficult to choose my Munich moment. Being present during the occupation by Swedish troops might help me understand the Thirty Years' War. Or perhaps I could pick up a bargain at the Auer Dult, first held in Munich in the fourteenth century and now the world's largest crockery and jumble sale. On the other hand, October 12th 1810 would be a good day – the very first Oktoberfest, a public party for the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. By then the famous and extremely potent Starkbier - the Flüssiges Brot (liquid bread) that helped the monks through Lent - had been around for a century or so. In fact, the beer has its own festival, the Starkbierfest held during Lent.

I was tempted by some of the historic events on Munich's streets. To see Hitler and Ludendorff marching arm in arm would be something. Perhaps I could find a grassy knoll from which to change the course of history. Or perhaps I could stand next to Bertolt Brecht and see at first hand the revolution of 1918, when Ludwig III fled the city and Lenin, a former resident, hailed the new republic.

One wonders what Brecht got out of his Munich years. He arrived here in 1917 to study medicine - a background that kept him out of the trenches but saw him posted back to Augsburg as an orderly in an army VD clinic a month before the war ended. Back in Munich, he would have witnessed the revolution and the violence of the Freikorps who in 1919 would crush the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic that had been founded there.

Brecht's first play Baal, written in 1918, reflects none of the conflicts of those turbulent years: it draws on the Augsburg years and is a fantasy about a youth violently rejecting the norms of comfortable society. His second play, written eighteen months later, is different. Drums in the Night is underwritten by class struggle very firmly set against a background of the times: a returning soldier finds his fiancee stolen by a war profiteer.

The working title for Drums was Spartakus: in Berlin in 1919, an abortive Spartacist revolt had been put down by the Freikorps who tortured and murdered the leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The play was a huge critical success and made Brecht's name. A critic wrote of a 1922 production in Berlin: 'Bert Brecht [sic] has changed Germany's literary complexion overnight. [He] has given our time a new tone, a new melody, a new vision'.

My choice is not any of these - it concerns something cheery that happened on a day when a cold wind blew. I don't have time now to tell the story - noon is approaching and they will stop serving Weisswurst. These Munich specialities are made from veal and back bacon and cooked for ten minutes in simmering water: because they contain no chemicals to maintain colour, the pink meat turns white.

Lassus Penitential Psalms of David -

King's Singers Is Love a Boy? from Byrd's Songs of Sundry Natures -

Tomás Luis de Victoria O Sacrum Convivium -

Four minute biography of St Teresa of Avila -

A Theosophical Society lecture on St Teresa -

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