In Berlin, Dancing to the Music of Death

My mother loved Berlin, the city of her youth. My father hated everything German. And me? I stayed away—until this summer.
Danse Macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493.
Danse Macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493.
Aug. 12 2014
About the author

Mark Glanville, a bass baritone, has performed with England’s Opera North, Scottish Opera, Lisbon Opera, New Israeli Opera, and on the recital stage, and is the author of The Goldberg Variations, a memoir.

Of all cities, what was I doing in Berlin early this summer—Berlin, the city my mother had providentially left for London in 1932 and where, thirteen years later, the Haman to end all Hamans was routed along with his cronies?

That the Germans should have been behind an attempt to eradicate the Jewish people throughout Europe always seemed to me unsurprising. I had read much about their almost uniquely successful resistance in antiquity to the encroachment of Rome and its classical civilization, about the subsequent invasion and devastation of the western Roman empire by Germanic tribes, and about, in medieval times, the violent attacks on Jewish communities in the Rhineland as a kind of hors d’oeuvre to the First Crusade. To me the German people had always been the devil’s Middle-European representative, their presence a shadow casting a gloom over the more enlightened peoples around them.

Of course, I had always known that there was another, good Germany, one that actually revered and did much to sustain the literature and history of the great classical civilization it had once so successfully fought, conquered, and then absorbed. I knew this because of my mother. Born in Amsterdam, and English on her mother’s side, she had spent her early childhood in Berlin where her father, a Polish-born journalist, was pursuing his career at the Berliner Tageblatt. To this day, sometimes to the accompaniment of tears, she laments being forced to leave, and I don’t think I have ever heard her say a word against the people whose music and literature gave her such delight.

It was my father, not she, who was behind my hatred of everything German. At the dinner table he would regularly repeat his litany of rage against the various peoples who had been complicit in the extermination of our fellow Jews in Eastern European lands that his own ancestors had left in the 19th century, thereby ensuring that, unlike my mother, he had lost no family in the 20th. Naturally, the Holocaust played a central role in his litany. No doubt this was one factor in my inability to work up the enthusiasm to master the tongue in which Heine, Joseph Roth, Paul Celan, and so many other Jewish literary figures I came to admire had written.

By the time I appeared on the scene, in any event, my mother claimed to have forgotten most of her German. But one thing she did remember was Heidenröslein, Schubert’s exquisite musical setting of Goethe’s great love poem to “Little Rose of the Field.” Under her influence, the first classical vocal album I bought was a collection of Schubert’s settings of Goethe, including Heidenröslein, sung by the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The sublimely beautiful musical versions of the German master’s romantic poetry were a palliative against my frustrated adolescent yearnings, and I started to acquire more Schubert lieder, including Die Winterreise (“Winter Journey”), widely held to be the finest song cycle ever composed.

It was this music that inspired me to become a singer. As a student at Oxford, I would include it in recitals where my only concern was to communicate the repertoire I had carefully chosen to suit my youthful sensibility. Strangely, I moved audiences more readily then than in later years, when, after five years of obsessive concentration on vocal technique, I emerged from a college of music as a highly trained bass-baritone. It was only when I subsequently began to introduce Yiddish and Hebrew songs into my classical programs that I at last found myself able to reach listeners as I had done before learning how to sing. In the ancestral echoes of this music I rediscovered the joy that had led me to become a singer in the first place.

And so, Berlin: if there was any city in Germany I should have visited, it was this one. Over the years I’d performed in Wiesbaden, auditioned in Ludwigshafen, and enjoyed watching my son’s soccer team play in Hamburg in the final of the Europa Cup. But I’d decided I would wait for Berlin to invite me. My Yiddish Winterreise, a Holocaust-themed Yiddish song narrative inspired by Schubert, had been promoted by the German Embassy in London. With my accompanist and colleague Alexander Knapp, I had performed it extensively across England and America. Surely it was only a matter of time before an invitation would be forthcoming to repeat it in Germany, and especially Berlin—by all accounts so cultured and liberal, so ready to confront its past. But none arrived.

Eventually, Yiddish Winterreise did become the catalyst for my first visit to Berlin, but in a roundabout way. A well-received performance of the work at the Kennedy Center in Washington, sponsored by Pro Musica Hebraica led to a return invitation for a “Three Basses” program involving two other low-voiced Jewish singers: the Israeli-born Gidon Saks and the Austrian Mathias Hausmann. Saks was playing the villain Claggart in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin, and Hausmannn could be heard in Leipzig as Papa Germont in La Traviata. From London, Berlin was only a 90-minute flight, so we agreed to meet there to discuss how to advance the project.


Reading pre-war novels set in Berlin, one senses that, wall or no wall, there was always an East-West divide. I’d chosen to stay in Charlottenburg in the western part of the city, the area where my mother had lived. Now ninety-two and suffering from dementia, she could not remember the exact location. Elegant Charlottenburg, with its tall, spacious 19th-century houses, often split into the sort of apartments I imagine she had lived in as a child (and from which, one can equally well imagine, storm troopers ejected families just like hers), has an air of affluence not unlike that of London’s Kensington. The greatest danger to a foreigner’s health are the cyclists who tear proprietorially down the well-established bike paths. Art-deco houses line the avenue leading to Charlottenburg Castle, where a street market sells tasteful objets d’art. Dogs abound, and so do their leavings, but the castle grounds are tricked out like a miniature Versailles where tourists ill-advisedly taunt the swans patrolling the lake with their broods in search of tidbits. Was my mother taken there as a child? She says no.

From Charlottenburg, a metro train bypassing the Tiergarten drops me in Potsdamer Platz, long bisected by the Wall and now, in its soulless post-cold-war incarnation, little hinting at the thriving center it had once been. The Brandenburg Gate, a bacchanal of Teutonic classicism like the Reichstag and countless other urban monuments, provides a photo-op for package tours, while the fabled boulevard Unter den Linden, its (replanted) trees eaten by air pollution, has become an assault course of road repairs and armies of loud-mouthed pedestrians altogether different from the mild-mannered inhabitants of Charlottenburg.

I had been advised to seek out the late-medieval Dance of Death frescoes adorning the walls of the Marienkirche; disappointingly, they were largely obscured by restoration in progress. But anyone in search of the figure of death needed only to proceed to the area north of Unter den Linden, an area that was once the center of Berlin’s oldest Jewish community and only yesterday, it seems, locked tight in Death’s sinister embrace. Not too far away, in what was East Berlin, the magnificent golden dome (restored) of the Neue Synagoge dominates the street on which it stands, but once one has negotiated the security guards and passed within, the grand façade seems like a bad German joke. The building was brutally truncated by one of the many arson attacks that destroyed buildings all over Germany on Kristallnacht in November 1938. “There is no prayer hall,” one is informed. “But you can see the museum.” There, a black and white photograph of the sanctuary, bearing pathetic witness to its former grandeur, hangs next to a window looking onto the garden that has replaced it. At Daniel Liebeskind’s odd, zig-zagging Jewish Museum, mainly empty and unmoving, there is footage of those November 1938 fires, the flames fueled by Torah scrolls and prayer books whose readers would shortly be sharing their fate.

Close by the Neue Synagoge is the site of a large Jewish cemetery where almost no stone now remains. In The Death of the Adversary, a harrowing fictional study of the rise of Hitler, Hans Kielson devotes a chapter to the systematic destruction of a Jewish cemetery by disaffected German youths, the novelist’s precise prose perfectly reflecting the clinical work of the brutal tomb-wreckers. I thought of little else as I walked around yet another Berlin landmark in which a community is conspicuous only by its absence. Whatever its rationale, Berlin’s vast Holocaust Memorial, an outdoor agglomeration of innumerable rectangular blocks juxtaposed without regard to aesthetic effect, epitomizes the message that what happened should certainly be remembered, but more out of a sense of piety than penitence—or shame.

After all this, it was a sort of relief to encounter the 14th- and 15th-century images of the Crucifixion in the glorious Gemäldergalerie museum. Their Der Stürmer-style representations of the Christ-killers as vicious, monster-nosed demons, painted in angry brushstrokes abrim with loathing, reinforced a feeling that here was a people who had always detested Jews with an intensity fiercer than most, and yet were capable of the most astonishing artistic innovation.

And then there is the Bodesmuseum’s anonymous 16th-century nude sculpture, Die Schreiende Frau (“The Screaming Woman”). Carved in reddish stone, she has lost the lower part of her right arm, while the left arm is raised and bent over her left eye. Her head is thrown back, her right eye closed, mouth wide open. So vivid and realistic is the execution, one is reminded of figures caught in their death agony at Pompeii after the eruption of Vesuvius. I cannot think of a more powerful depiction of unbearable human grief, no more appropriate symbol for the Shoah. She is everywoman, yet no one today seems to know her. Instead, everywhere the Holocaust is commemorated in cold, anodyne, abstract symbols: a vacuum at the heart of a place where something once flourished whose scream has been suppressed.

“You love life, we love death” has become a mantra of Islamic fundamentalism. The Marienkirche’s Dance of Death finds a 20th-century counterpart in the charcoal etchings of Käthe Kollwitz, in many of which the figure of Death is depicted hugging its victims. In both the fresco and Kollwitz’s drawings, what one sees is an embracing of one’s fate and, perhaps more importantly, the fate of those closest to one. And yet Kollwitz, who would lose her son in the early days of World War I, was no better prepared than anyone else for that war’s terrible consequences in the decades to come. (She died in 1945.) 

The poet-survivor Paul Celan came closer to the heart of things. “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland”—death is a master from Germany–he wrote in Todesfuge (“Death Fugue,” 1948). That masterwork was his most literal take on the Holocaust, a subject he usually dealt with much more obliquely. It has now become a staple in German schools. How does the line resonate with its young readers?


Down in Neukölln, in the southeast of the city, an area now dominated by Turks, the Pizzicati di Berlin, a part-Italian, part-German ensemble, are paying tribute to life through the medium of southern Italian tarantella, long established as a cure for the ills of human existence. The gig begins out on the street. Groups of young Turkish girls stop and giggle. A young Turkish male makes a bold attempt at dancing the pizzica-pizzica with Giovanna from the deep south of Puglia, she with the studs in her eyebrows. Now Berlin-based, Giovanna adds a wild, Teutonic twist to the elegant courtship dance as her partner’s friend films and laughs.

As more people arrive, the dance space on this warm evening becomes sweaty and uncomfortable. Still, unlike in London, or even in Puglia, every single member of the audience and every performer dances the joyous dance. Here, at least, oblivious of death, they are celebrating life. Another German joke?


Mark Glanville, a classical singer and writer, has performed with England’s Opera North, Scottish Opera, Lisbon Opera, and New Israeli Opera among others, and is the author of The Goldberg Variations, a memoir. His Yiddish recital pieces include reworkings of Schubert’s two song cycles of unrequited love: A Yiddish Winterreise: A Holocaust Survivor’s Inner Journey Told through Yiddish Song (2010) and Di Sheyne Milnerin (2012).

More about: Berlin, Germany, Holocaust, Singer, Yiddish Winterreise