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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY NINE Brandenburg Dom

Potsdamer Platz seen from inside the Sony Centre

Riding from the Wannsee Villa through Postdam and on to Brandenburg, you pass through a waterworld of lakes, rivers, water meadows. The water table in the greater Berlin area has always been a problem – periods of drought lower it, of course, but I recall that when they were building the skyscrapers in Potsdamer Platz, the foundations had to be laid by scuba divers. (As an aside - Potsdamer Platz was the largest building site in Europe at the time. And perhaps the most important: almost the very first breach in the Wall happened there in 1989 - and Berliners really saw the site as a symbol marking the reconnection of east and west.)

These images of those who died are on boards erected near the place they tried to cross the Wall

So - pedalling on, I arrived in Brandenburg at a wonderfully opportune moment: the organist at the Cathedral was practising on the instrument I had come to hear – the Wagner organ, perhaps the most significant baroque organ in Germany.

The organ dates back to the 1720s – replacing an organ destroyed by a thunderbolt. The maker, Joachim Wagner, was the finest organ craftsman in Germany and his instrument has “a distinguished personal style with great tonal chromaticity … Its acoustic opulence and the beauty of the instrument’s spatial sound are without a doubt among the most significant in the history of organ construction”. There are five surviving Wagner organs in Germany and this is the best.

Its cultural importance was manifest in the First World War when its pipes escaped being melted down for weapons. The rationale, expressed in 1917, the year of the Nivelle Offensive, the Battle of Arras, of Vimy Ridge, the Second Battle of the Aisne, of Messines, Third Ypres (560,000 casualties), of the Battle of La Malmaison and of Cambrai: “There are only few organs in Germany on which Bach’s musical creations can be conveyed to the listener the way the Master must have intended. We therefore owe it to later generations to preserve the work in its original form wherever possible.” And they did. You can hear the organ after about a minute of this film of the Cathedral - I have a particular love of organ music and, if I had not been destined to be a cyclist, I would have liked to have been a cathedral organist - perhaps at Passau Cathedral with its organ of 17,774 pipes and 233 registers.

One life highlight, with a German connection and on the organ hunting theme, was a visit with the Race Marshal to hear the bamboo organ in St. Joseph Parish Church in Las Piñas City in the Philippines. We were lucky to hear it because it had only just been returned from Germany where organ builders had restored it after decades of neglect.

The organ was created in the early nineteenth century by a Catholic priest – and of its 1031 pipes, 902 really are bamboo. Only the trumpet stops are metal – for sound quality. And by a wonderful coincidence of name, the organ's air pump was made by Wagner Electrics. Here's a film of the organ – the music starts at 1 minute 15 seconds: Of course, no post on this topic would be complete without reference to Clara Butt's experience one day when she was seated at the organ: Not part of the Brandenburg story at all – particularly as the references are to Munich (though it does mention a lake) - but James Norton has just sent me the opening stanza of The Waste Land. However much you may have disliked it, try a revisit: April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers. Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch. And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s, My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled, And I was frightened. He said, Marie, Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. In the mountains, there you feel free. I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter. Here is T.S Elliot reading the whole poem: Or perhaps you would prefer Alec Guinness – the link is:

And you may be wondering why there is no mention of the Brandenburg Concertos - which, as it happens, were composed just as Joachim Wagner was building the organ of the Brandenburger Dom: please come back tomorrow.

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