Mystery Worshipper: Cantate Domino
Church: Dresden Frauenkirche
Location: Dresden, Germany
Date of visit: Monday, 10 September 2007, 6:00pm
It is stunning. The church dates back to the 11th century and was repeatedly rebuilt as the congregation grew, culminating at the end of the 15th century in a Gothic structure. That building was eventually replaced by an octagonal edifice topped by four corner towers and crowned by a circular dome with a stone lantern, the work of the Saxon court's master carpenter Georg Bähr. Bähr's church was begun in 1726 and completed in 1743. It survived Prussian shelling in the 19th century but was burnt out in February 1945 during the British and American firebombing of Dresden. Although the bombs bounced off the dome, the woodwork inside caught fire, which caused the stone dome to crack and fall in. Lost in this collapse were all the original artworks and decorations of the church, as well as the Silbermann organ played by J.S. Bach. The communist government of the GDR left the ruins as they were, an evocative ruin for them, made famous by a photo of the shattered building with a statue of Martin Luther blown off his pedestal. In 1993 reconstruction began, and the building was re-consecrated in 2005. Materials which survived the bombing were incorporated into the new church, the most obvious being the blackened sandstone of the exterior. The toppled statue of Luther was set aright. From the outside, the church is a giant sandstone dome, centrally planned, with no nave, chancel or transepts. Inside, the church floor is surrounded by multi-storied galleries and the dome interior is extravagantly painted in pink, gold and blue. Much of the interior decoration had to be reconstructed from black-and-white photos and some guesswork. The ecclesiastical east contains a reconstruction of the old altar, and towering above that the blue and gilt organ case. Clear windows let in the light. The plan is actually very simple, and once you are inside you can pretty much see the whole interior.
There are daily services here, Lutheran and ecumenical. The church's clergy pursue a mission of reconciliation and outreach, with particular acknowledgement of Coventry Cathedral and its Cross of Nails. The chapel in the crypt is a centre of ecumenical outreach with appropriately modern decor. The more traditional Lutheran services with organist and choir are held in the upper church.
Dresden, from medieval times a city of artisans and craftsmen and called the Florence of the North, was ruthlessly firebombed by British and American forces on the night of Shrove Tuesday, 13 February 1945, on the pretext that it was a major rail and communications centre. In fact the city had no military significance, and debate rages even to this day over whether the attack constituted a war crime. Ironically the Allied bombers ignored the city's only conceivable military target, its railroad yards. The author Kurt Vonnegut was in Dresden that night, and years later memorialised the atrocity in his famous anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five. The church sits in the Dredner Altmarkt, the large rectangular marketplace that had been the heart of the town since Dresden's foundation. Many of the historical buildings nearby are still undergoing reconstruction or repair. The Hofkapelle is nearby, an opera house turned Catholic church where 18th century court music underwent significant development. Also in the area can be found such masterpieces of Baroque architecture as the opera house and the Zwinger Palace, a museum noted for its collection of paintings by Rubens, Canaletto and Raphael, among others, as well as weapons, armor, porcelain, clocks and scientific instruments (all of which were safely evacuated some time before the bombing). There is clearly gradual but growing prosperity in the city, to judge from the architectural renewal but also the designer labels to be seen on the locals.
An unnamed young Lutheran pastor in black robes and white bands took the service. There was also an organist, likewise unnamed.
What was the name of the service?Evening prayer with organ music
How full was the building?
The lower church was absolutely packed to capacity. Some of the galleries were also full and I was glad I had come early. The newly rebuilt church must exert a strong fascination for Germans and for tourists.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, they did not. There were ushers at the doors, but their task seemed to be to superintend the very large crowd of worshippers rather than to welcome them.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very much so. Every "platz" or place had been given by an individual benefactor, although I forget the name of mine. The pews were modern, polished light pine and were very nice to sit on.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lively to say the least. Servers or vergers handed out the order of service while people found seats (a difficult task in so full a building). Many were taking photos in spite of the signs prohibiting this (I took a few myself, I must confess).
What were the exact opening words of the service?
This was a service in which the organ music was proclaimed to be as important as the spoken or sung word, so strictly speaking the service opened with Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C Major.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
An order of service with the prayers and Heiliglied (sacred song) printed on it, in both English and German.
What musical instruments were played?
A brand new pipe organ by the Strasbourg firm of Daniel Kern, noted for the restoration and reconstruction of many classic organs in Germany, France and the United States. The new instrument was placed inside a replica of the original case designed by Bähr, but the organ itself does not replicate precisely the original Silbermann specifications. It contains all the stops that were on the stoplist of the Silbermann organ, plus a fourth manual of additional stops in the symphonic 19th century style characteristic of French organs. Whether or not it succeeds is a divisive issue among German and international organists, and the decision not to recreate the original Silbermann organ was hugely controversial and has prompted great debate.
Did anything distract you?
The curtains. The upper galleries are windowed in with curtains behind them. This seemed so domestic but also so unnecessary. Why are there curtains inside a church? What was going on behind them? Who was there? Why were they closed? These and other questions occupied my mind as I gazed up at them.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very restrained, contemplative and quiet. The only trace of anything "high" were the genuflections that accompanied the minister's final blessing. There were a few prayers, a few congregational responses, and a hymn sung with reasonable gusto. Otherwise most of the very short (15 minute) service was given over to the organ music. We were treated to some very impressive Bach.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was none.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
A moment of silence was provided for. Normally I find the moments "where silence may be kept" to be quite forced and often uncomfortable, but not here. A large church, packed to the rafters, achieved a few moments of complete tranquility, all the more poignant given the violent events of this building's history. Another magical moment for me was finding the memorial to Heinrich Schtz, the great Saxon composer and my favourite, who had been buried in the medieval Frauenkirche in 1672. It was lovely to see that in all the destruction and renewal he has not been forgotten.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The service segued immediately into a lecture on the church's history, delivered with great enthusiasm by an elderly gentleman. This would doubtless have been fascinating had I understood more than one word in six. As it was, I felt rather trapped.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Eventually I plucked up the courage to make a highly conspicuous exit in the middle of the lecture (which everyone else seemed to be enjoying hugely). I blundered through the body of the church to reach the exit, sending people flying as I struggled to escape. I probably looked more desperate than lost.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was on offer.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – Except it was very special so I wouldn't spoil it by coming too often. I'd also like to come to a longer service to judge fully, as what we were presented with was in many respects an organ recital in the presence of a gowned minister.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The thunderous, jubilant music of J.S. Bach and the memorial to his great predecessor Schtz.