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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY TWENTY EIGHT The Prince of Diamonds

A lovely day's cycling today across rolling, wooded land to Sondershausen, under the southern flank of the Harz Mountains. Even the picnic was lovely – a modest slice of Käsekuchen (quark-cake in pastry) eaten at the top of the Possentower, the oldest observation tower in Europe, built, curiously, in Tudor style. The Harz Mountains are clearly visible today - as are the brown bears in the zoo below. The Palace in Sondershausen was home in the first half of the eighteenth century to Henry Prince of Schwarzburg Sondershausen - the 'Prince of Diamonds', as he was known to his resentful subjects. They hated him for many reasons: he gave them no support during the Seven Years' War, preferring to empty his coffers on ostentatious displays of wealth. Diamonds were one passion and he loved grand coaches, acquiring thirty-seven of them during his reign. The diamonds are gone but one of the coaches is still extant – a French-made golden coach which is on display at the Palace. It is extraordinary to find such a rare artifact here in a small provincial town. There are only four grand carosses still extant: one in Stockholm, one in Lisbon, one in the Hermitage – and this one. It predates and outguns our own Gold State Coach which was commissioned in 1760. I think though that the Queen's coach has more gold - four tons of it.

Henry's grand carosse

Henry's grand carosse is shown being pulled by six white wooden horses: you can imagine an obvious narcissist like Henry having splendid white stallions to pull him along. A confirmed bachelor, he had no consort to ride with him but it mattered little. Contemporary descriptions of state coaches in action record a mass of people in attendance: the coachmen, of course; men mounted on the horses; men running alongside, through mud and rain and dust; a retinue of servants and a troop of soldiers. All would have been immaculately attired – and all resented by the local population, who must have yearned for Thomas Muntzer and his proto-communist beliefs. Perhaps Henry also had a dozen Dalmatians running alongside. The breed did exist then: the first evidence of them is from Croatia in the early seventeenth century – in an altar painting and a fresco dating back to early 1600s – though documentary records appeared only in the next century. First mention in England was in 1771, with Thomas Bewick then making an engraving of a Dalmatian in 1790 for his A General History of Quadrupeds.

Dodie Smith and Lal

Dalmatians were in their pomp in England in the Regency; the famous Spotted Coach Dog was the ultimate status symbol, and they appear in Georgette Heyer's Regency Buck. (And, of course, in Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmatians: apparently, Smith got the idea when a friend remarked of her pet Dalmatian Lal that she would make a lovely fur coat. As the Regency faded, the dogs were taken up by the fire services in England and America. Fire engines were, of course, pulled by horses – and the Dalmatian firedogs would run with them and stand guard. There don't seem to be any stories of brave rescues by Dalmatians but then they are well-known for their extraordinary loyalty to their owners – and a pronounced aloofness to strangers. Made redundant by the invention of the internal combustion engine, Dalmatians have turned to successful modelling careers and are much in demand for fashion shoots.

The long legs of the Dalmatian are in demand for fashion shoots (c)

The Sondershausen Palace is remarkable. Henry's predecessors had built the Giants' Hall – a curious room 100 feet long and 40 feet wide with twenty-two paintings from Ovid's Metamorphoses on a ceiling that is only 15 feet high. Henry died childless and his successor, Prince Christian Günther, built the Blue Hall a two-storied rococo room decorated in blue and white. And he built one of the most extraordinary rooms in Germany, the so-called 'amber room', which is covered in small polished tiles. So called because the real Amber Room was created in the early eighteenth century and installed in the City Palace in Berlin. In 1716 it was given by Frederick the Great's father to the Tsar, who installed it in the Catherine Palace in St Petersburg. Regarded as the 'eighth wonder of the world', it was irresistible to the Nazis who stripped it from the Catherine Palace and (if memory serves) delivered it to Himmler who set it up as his personal office. The Amber Room's whereabouts now is unknown. I mention all this because Sondershausen is the main venue for the Liszt Biennial Thuringia and these wonderful rooms are used for performances. Sondershausen at the centre of the Festival because Liszt loved the Prince's Court orchestra: “special musicians … noble and true art nurtured and cherished” The quality of the orchestra was founded on its conductor, Eduard Stein, Kapellmeister for a decade until his death in 1864. He was also brave in his programming and introduced 'modern' music – the music of the New German School, of which Franz Liszt was the most prominent representative. Liszt was also a particular champion of Wagner (who married his daughter, Cosima) and Wagner's overtures were played here. Liszt called the music of Wagner and Berlioz the 'music of the future' - a term he took from from Wagner's essay The Artwork of the Future.

Liszt's plaque: I think that's the chap who lives in the house

Liszt was so fond of the orchestra and its conductor that he came to Sondershausen over a dozen times to hear and perform the music of the future. And the town recently commemorated the compliment by fixing a plaque on a house he stayed in - which I just have time to visit before trudging on in the Race Marshal's wake to Frankenhausen, under the lee of the Kyffhauser.

I'm hoping supper tonight will include Thüringer Klöße – potato dumplings stuffed with pan-fried bread. Necessary energy for the hours of swinging a broad sword that lie ahead. Here is Whizzer singing Bohemian Rhapsody - Here is Sandro Russo playing Liszt's 1862 Bechstein Piano - And with the American Presidential candidates beginning to face off, here is the Battle Hymn of the Republic, sort of:

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