Mystery Worshipper: Cantate Domino
Church: Berliner Dom
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date of visit: Saturday, 15 September 2007, 6:00pm
Located on Museum Island in the river Spree in the former communist East Berlin, this is Berlin's Protestant cathedral, the seat of the bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia. The first church on this site dated from 1465 and later served as the court church for the Hohenzollern family. A second church was begun in 1745 under the patronage of Frederick the Great and was extensively remodeled in 1822. That structure was demolished in 1894 by order of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The present building, dubbed the Protestant St Peter's, was completed in 1905 and is a massive Baroque domed structure. The exterior is incredibly bombastic and overscaled, like many of the imperial buildings of Wilhelm II's reign. The cathedral was severely damaged during World War II when an incendiary bomb struck the cupola, and was further vandalised during the Battle for Berlin in 1945. It lay mostly in ruins for 30 years following the end of the war, as the communists were not exactly forthcoming with money for repairs to churches. But it has been gradually restored since 1975, although not quite to the original plan, and was rededicated in 1993. The cathedral absolutely sparkles inside in an overbearing sort of way, and once again seems to be like the private chapel of the Hohenzollern dynasty, whose tombs are in the crypt. The interior furnishings are ornate and, while not exactly graceful, are overall very dignified. There is a museum upstairs recounting the short but violent history of this building, and it is possible to climb up to the dome.
Apart from the physical damage done to this cathedral in the second World War, further harm was done spiritually in the division of Berlin. Part of the congregation, as well as the cathedral boys' choir, became trapped in West Berlin while the building languished in the East. After the 1989 reunification, the congregation began to rebuild itself and now claims a membership of around 900 on its lists. It offers a German and English language communion service on Sunday mornings, as well as vespers every evening. There is a Taizé service held one evening each month.
It as about as prestigious as one can get. The Dom is on Museum Island, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and includes the neo-classical splendour of the Pergamom Museum, the Alte National Gallery and the Bode Museum. Also nearby is the Marienkirche, one of the few remaining medieval buildings in Berlin.
The Revd Dr Matthias Pöhlmann, pastor, who was dressed in the traditional Lutheran black robe and white bands with a green stole. Herr Matthias Schmelmer presided at the organ.
What was the name of the service?Vespers with organ music
How full was the building?
The galleries were empty but the floor of the church was reasonably full. There were about 200 people, which certainly looked respectable in this building.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A gentleman at the door handed me the service booklet but there was no cheery greeting. I found my own pew.
Was your pew comfortable?
Oh yes. The old pews burnt in 1943 and the modern replacements are very nice. We mostly remained seated and therefore needed a comfortable seat.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very quiet inside the Dom, save for an amateur tour guide in the pew behind me giving a potted history of the building. Most people leafed through the order of service. Very few seemed to be praying.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Lobet den Herrn, meine Seele. (Praise the Lord, my soul).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We used a specially printed leaflet giving the text of the psalm and hymn (or Lied) and the names of the organ works which were played during the service.
What musical instruments were played?
The cathedral's pipe organ. It was built in 1905 by the firm of W Sauer Orgelbau, noted for its Romantic-voiced instruments. Amazingly it survived the bombing in 1943, largely because the bomb came straight through the roof and down into the crypt, missing the instrument. However, it was badly vandalised during the fighting of the Battle of Berlin but has been restored according to the original specifications.
Did anything distract you?
There were two things very wrong here. First, there was no Magnificat. Lutheran vespers always includes a setting of this canticle (hence Bach's settings in D and E). Where was it? This puzzled me. The second problem was the absence of concerted or figural music. This is also a feature of Lutheran vespers, but the psalm was recited by the pastor and the congregation and was not set to music. Were they doing it on the cheap or what?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There was actually very little worship at all. The congregation remained seated except for the reciting of the creed, during which the pastor faced the altar. Apart from that there was no movement or ritual of any kind.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – My German is not good enough to have followed the sermon closely, and so I have graded it in the middle of the scale.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Dr Pöhlmann spoke on the idea of the soul.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Lied! Nothing can beat the sheer mysticism, not to mention sonorous beauty, of 17th century German music. The text and melody were both by Georg Neumark and dated from the mid 1600s.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The organ music! It stank! We were offered works by the American Unitarian church musician Arthur Foote (1853-1937) and the Variations on the Last Rose of Summer by another American, Dudley Buck (1839-1909). In the opinion of this Mystery Worshipper, Foote represents the very worst drivelings of Romantic organ music. And the Buck consisted of endless, repetitive variations on an otherwise palatable tune. Every time a variation concluded I hoped that it would be the last, but it never seemed to be. All of the music was suitable for a Romantic organ, I suppose, but was so secular in spirit that it robbed the service of any religious atmosphere. Really, the music would have been better played on the Wurlitzer theatre organ in the nearby Museum of Musical Instruments. And my word, all the pieces were so long!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone just left. But there was a very cheery handshake from Herr Dr Pöhlmann at the door.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. But it was almost the dinner hour, so I suppose expecting a cup of tea would have been a bit unrealistic. Besides, the cathedral caf had closed.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – In spite of my moanings about missing Magnificats and the inappropriate organ music, it was inspiring to see signs of growth in a rebuilt church in a former communist city. But it is bit unfair for me to judge, as I'd have to learn better German first! Or go to the bilingual service.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. As I said, there were signs of new life in the Protestant church here, and that has to make me glad. I had to remember that not so long ago, coming to worship here would have been a politically dangerous act. That alone provides pause for thought.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Lied German Protestant music at its best. As well, how happy I was when the organist stopped playing!