A toast to …

Nibelungenlied Manuscript C, Folio 1r, about 1220-1250. Owned by Landesbank Baden-Württemberg and Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Permanent loan to the Badische Landesbibliothek, Karlsruhe (Codex Donaueschingen 63).

Reflecting the increasingly Austria-centric concentration of this journal, I posted items this week about the late Professor Marjorie Perloff and the holiday offerings of radio klassik Stephansdom.

In addition, I raise my glass today to the Nibelungenlied; as part of my continuing education and immersion in all things German and Central European, I’m reading the Penguin Classics translation by A.T. Hatto, a rather interesting fellow himself. A page of the manuscript, from a 13th century codex, is above. I’m just past the midpoint now, as Kriemhild  stopped at Melk and then proceeded to Vienna for her marriage to Hungary’s King Etzel. As it happens my family and I were in both Melk and Vienna just a few months ago; no sign of Kriemhild, but that was some time ago.

Compared to the much older epics of the Mediterranean Sea — the Iliad and the Odyssey for starters — the Nibelungenlied is far sparer and relatively god- and goddess-free, with more of an emphasis on the internal lives of its characters; apart from Siegfried’s cloak of invisibility, there’s very little supernatural about it. I suppose you could say that, like the climate from which it emerged, it’s much colder than Homer’s poems, but I rather like that; although of course there’s considerably more Christian and chivalrous material, there’s also an awareness that paganism was still an element in social, cultural, and religious life (indeed, a Christian Kriemhild marries a pagan Etzel, a point made by the anonymous Nibelungenlied poet). In addition, both Brunhilde and Kriemhild possess much more agency and are far more energetic than Homer’s female characters — the Nibelungenlied is much sexier and erotic, for want of better words, than the earlier epics. Wagner’s Ring operas have a rather scant resemblance to this poem, relying more on the Volsung Saga, but the Nibelungenlied itself is still quite a wonderful read.

Reading the rest of it is how I’ll be spending much of this weekend.

An SOS from radio klassik Stephansdom

Well, that was fast — a mere month after I wrote the post below about radio klassik Stephansdom, they’ve put out a call for help; another one of those “existential crises” everybody’s always talking about.

The current owners of the station are unable to support the future of rkS, so the staff is circulating a request for support. As they say on their web site (hat tip to Google Translate):

The current situation of radio klassik Stephansdom is tense, the future is uncertain.

After 25 successful radio years, the owner cannot provide the station with further financial support — due to the tense economic overall situation.

radio klassik Stephansdom needs you urgently now!
With only 1 Euro per day, you save the survival of your classical music channel and the workplace of people who make radio for you every day — with the highest quality and enthusiasm.

The donation page is here. And why should you and I support it? My original post about rkS is below.

Many years ago, when my father was in his 50s and 60s and I was in my teens and 20s, we used to sit together in the evenings and listen to WFLN, Philadelphia’s classical music radio station. For 24 hours a day, mellifluous, plummy-voiced disc jockeys (an unfortunate coinage, that) introduced the masterpieces and less-than-masterpieces of classical music, occasionally interrupted with a commercial break. Founded in 1949, for the first four decades of its existence it barely broke even, but that didn’t much matter; the station’s owners, families by the name of Smith and Green, weren’t particularly interested in turning a profit, only providing music to the city and its environs. In the late 1980s, however, the station’s ownership changed, and in an effort to turn a profit several programming changes were introduced. Instead of playing full symphonies and chamber music works, one got a movement of one, then a movement of another; many of those mellifluous voices were fired; and in 1997 the station finally turned to a pop music format. Announcing the ownership change on the air, Greater Media CEO Tom Milewski rationalized the decision, saying, “Classical music, is, we feel, best presented in a non-commercial context” — a context which wasn’t Greater Media’s, nor was it of many other station owners.  So ended WFLN’s nearly half-century run, a run which had provided my father and myself a unique education in classical music.

There is of course still such a thing as classical music radio; here in New York, WQXR offers it, but fragmenting full compositions just as WFLN did in its later years. And streaming music services offer extraordinarily full libraries of classical music recordings and even live events (my preference is for iDagio and Deutsche Grammophon’s Stage+ service), with splendid sound reproduction through their FLAC formats. But I still miss classical music radio itself: knowledgable voices offering not only context but also companionship, the awareness that there’s another person at the other end of the connection, listening to the music at the same time as you were: a musical bond between these listeners, distance obliterated in an aesthetic experience.

Well, not any more. Recently I stumbled upon radio klassik Stephansdom, a radio station that airs in Vienna at 107.3 FM but streams as well, not only through their web site but through several other internet radio services. I’m not sure why I haven’t come across it before — this year the station celebrated its 25th anniversary — but I’m listening to it even now. (An extra appeal is that I get to practice listening to German, too — I’ve taken the language up again.)

The more I learned about it, the more impressed I was. radio klassik Stephansdom was founded in 1998 as the brainchild of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who himself flipped the switch in the Archbishop’s Palace in Vienna on September 24 of that year; “Shortly afterwards the Danube Waltz sounded, followed by greetings and blessings from Pope John Paul II,” according to the Google translation of this Archdiocesian web page about the anniversary.

Although rkS is funded and operated by the Archdiocese, in 2025 it looks like the station will be on its own. I must say that I find this a little sad. As might be expected, radio klassik Stephansdom’s music programming runs a little more towards the spiritual than the secular; not a surprise, especially when much great music of the past 500 years, from Machaut to Messiaen (whose 115th birthday was yesterday), was inspired by religious faith. The secular, however, also appears on the station’s playlists; just yesterday, rkS played Bizet’s Carmen with Maria Callas in the title role, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Callas’s birth.

I will be visiting Vienna little later this month and plan a visit to the Stephansdom with my kids, of course — it’s a site that can’t be missed, especially over the Christmas season. But over the past few days I’ve been imagining and envisioning the Stephansdom as I listen to some of the music that inspired its construction and has resonated in its halls, not to mention the religious, Christian faith that its architecture and that music reflects. Christoph Wellner, the editor-in-chief of rkS, claims as his area of responsibility: “To form a foundation for passing on the Christian message with the most beautiful music — on the radio, on the Internet, in the diocese, in Austria and worldwide.” Herr Wellner can consider it passed on to me.

You can listen to the station from anywhere in the world through their web site here. And below is the full Google translation of this page from the Archdiocese of Vienna, published there in September of this year, filling out the picture a little bit.

25 years ago, on September 24, 1998, “radio klassik Stephansdom” (then still “Radio Stephansdom”) went on air for the first time. At twelve o’clock sharp, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn activated the start control at a ceremony in the Archbishop’s Palace in Vienna, shortly afterwards the Danube Waltz sounded, followed by greetings and blessings from Pope John Paul II.

In its current edition, the Viennese church newspaper “Der Sonntag” recalls its beginnings a good quarter of a century ago. Austria was the last country in Europe to allow private radio, and only after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which found the right to freedom of expression to be incompatible with a broadcasting monopoly. Ten radio licenses were advertised, for which there were 150 interested parties. Originally, church broadcasters were excluded from the private radio law. This had to be changed after a complaint.

The then head of the public relations office of the Archdiocese of Vienna, Wolfgang Bergmann, and his employees saw the opportunity for a private church radio. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn immediately agreed to it, as he knew of private church radios from France.

In June 1997, the application for a license for the Vienna area was submitted. “In the entire free world, churches are not denied the opportunities of radio, I don’t know why it should be any different in Austria,” said Cardinal Schönborn in a broadcast at the time. The plan was a non-commercial special interest radio that would not be profit-oriented, but would cover its costs through income. The license application stated about the content: “The program wants to invite the listener to pause for a moment and recharge their batteries in the hustle and bustle of the day. It should be an oasis for the ears and soul for radio listeners, away from the constant hustle and bustle and without noisy disc jockeys.”

The archdiocese requested the frequency 107.3. In the spring of 1998, work began on converting a former student shared apartment on the top floor of the Teutonic Order House in downtown Vienna into office space. July 1st was the first day of work for the eight program designers at the time, three of whom are still in the team today: program director Christoph Wellner, editor Bernadette Spitzer and technician Martin Macheiner, who was there before everyone else during the renovation and therefore has personnel number 001. The first editor-in-chief and the decisive role in shaping the radio’s fortunes were in the hands of Anton Gatnar until 2014, who also took over management a little later. The current station manager is Roman Gerner.

Radio faces new economic challenges in the future. Since the Archdiocese of Vienna is planning significant savings in its own media sector, from 2025 the station will have to operate entirely on its own without any diocesan subsidy.

The “radio klassik Stephansdom” can now be received throughout Austria via DAB+. The station can be received terrestrially in Vienna on 107.3 and in Graz on 94.2. The number of listeners is around 200,000.

Back home

A few weeks ago I returned from my first visit to Vienna in about 15 years, and I returned feeling my connection with Eastern Europe more strongly than ever. (For the sake of argument, and I admit it’s arguable, I’ll posit the Rhine as the division point between Eastern and Western Europe; once one admits a Central Europe, things get even thornier.) Of course I was born in the United States, as were both my parents, but for generations before that, my ancestors were Eastern European — which may explain my comfort there and my discomfort here. I can’t call Eastern Europe home — home is where my family is, and they are here. But my affinity is for that culture more than for this one. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote, and whom I quoted in the short essay below:

Our identities are given but also made. We can’t choose our parents, but we can choose who we become. “Basically I’m Chinese,” Franz Kafka wrote in a postcard to his fiancée. If I say “basically I’m a central European” I’m not literally claiming descent from the central European Yiddish writer [Scholem] Asch, but declaring an elective affinity.

There are a few ways to declare that affinity; for example, I return from Austria more determined than before to enter the world of the German language more fully, and I’m taking lessons to that end. I’ve fired up Radio Klassik Stephansdom regularly since my return. And I’m revisiting the writers that Marjorie Perloff explored in her fine book Edge of Irony.

In a BBC documentary of a few years ago, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore called Vienna “the capital of the empire of the mind,” noting its location as the easternmost point of the West, first built as a military outpost to defend against barbarian attacks from the East. If we admit Germany to our definition of Eastern Europe, we find the highest achievements of the human spirit born in these lands: in architecture and design, the Stephansdom itself to the Wiener Werkstätte; in philosophy from Kant and Schopenhauer to Kraus and Wittgenstein; in literature from the printing press and the Nibelungenlied and Goethe to Musil and Paul Celan; in music from Bach and Beethoven to Schönberg; in science from Kepler and Leibniz to Freud and Einstein. We also find perhaps the height of discerning elegance and civility (not to mention a lively eros!). And even as Eastern European thinking and culture reached its apogee in the early twentieth century, it all came crashing down in a hysterical, militaristic, nationalism-fueled, and antisemitic apocalypse in the years between 1914 and 1945 that still beggars rational explanation, proof if any were needed that civilization is a very thin veneer. It’s getting thinner all the time. Nonetheless, it is this part of the world where my own affinities lie (you couldn’t pay me, for example, to set foot in the Middle East).

This is all to follow up, I suppose, with what I wrote back in June 2023, and which is reposted below.

The verdict is in. According to 23andme, “[my] DNA suggests that 98.1% of [my] ancestry is Eastern European.” The 23andme findings more specifically identify “places where you have DNA in common with more people who report ancestry from that particular region.” The specific regions are identified from “highly likely” to “possible match”; for me, Lithuania and Poland are “highly likely” matches; the Czech Republic (specifically Prague), Ukraine, and Russia “likely” matches; and Hungary and Slovakia “possible.” This more or less coincides with what I already knew for certain about my family’s background: on my father’s side Ukrainian and Slovak, on my mother’s Lithuanian and Polish. There were no real surprises. The remaining 1.9% of my ancestry appears to be comprised of Scandanavian (0.7%), Ashkenazi Jewish (0.2%), and somewhat amusingly Chinese (0.7%, which may explain my delight in spicy Szechwan cooking) fore-fathers and -mothers.

Of course, these identifications are based on present-day national borders — geopolitical fictions, as the history of the region proves over and over again. When my father’s father emigrated from Europe in 1914, he emigrated not from Ukraine, which did not then exist as a state, but from the state of Austria, which was where the town of Ternopil was located before World War I. Similarly, the borders of both Poland and Lithuania shifted almost maniacally through the twentieth century, not to mention the centuries before. The only thing that is most certain is that my family’s origins, from the Baltics to the Black Sea, were located in the Bloodlands: Timothy Snyder’s name for the region most heavily devastated by the twentieth century’s Thirty Years’ War between 1914 and 1945.

Born in 1962, I am a second-generation American: for the dozens of generations before that, my family was Eastern European. As I’ve tried to piece together my more recent familial genealogy, I’ve found too many voids in the record to be more certain than this. But my cultural genealogy — ah, that’s a different matter. In his excellent new book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, Timothy Garton Ash notes: “Our identities are given but also made. We can’t choose our parents, but we can choose who we become. ‘Basically I’m Chinese,’ Franz Kafka wrote in a postcard to his fiancée. If I say ‘basically I’m a central European’ I’m not literally claiming descent from the central European Yiddish writer [Scholem] Asch, but declaring an elective affinity.” The similarities in their names — Asch and Ash — aside, there is that which draws Ash to the region not via intellect or emotion exclusively, but via a sympathetic temperament and disposition (I wrote a little about mine here) that combines these two characteristics with others. When I first visited the region in 1990 on a whirlwind six-week tour through Austria, Germany, Hungary, and what was then Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (those pesky borders again), I had an uncanny feeling of comfort, of belonging. My Jewish friends have described to me a similar feeling when they first travel to Israel, and I imagine it’s much the same. It feels like home.

It certainly did so when in August of 1990 I joined thousands of others for a Rolling Stones concert in Prague. As Czech journalist and musician Ondřej Hejma, who was also there somewhere in the crowd near me, described it:

This was a confirmation that we are entering the world of free market, democracy, and free speech, and that we will see it with our own eyes. And that’s exactly what happened. … The [Rolling Stones] concert at Strahov was a social event, a philosophical event and something like a milestone in history.

In his book, Ash also introduces a generational concept that defines age groups according to their formative political experiences in their early adult lives. He defined this in a recent Substack post: “Today’s Europe has been shaped by four key political generations: the 14ers (with their life-changing youthful experience of the first world war), the 39ers (the second world war), the 68ers (1968, in all its different manifestations) and the 89ers (influenced by then Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and the end of the cold war).” I am myself an 89er, as are two historians whose writing I find sympathetic to my own cares and interests, Anne Applebaum (born 1964) and Timothy Snyder (born 1969). Blessed it was to live in that time, as the saying has it.

And, from the perspective of 2022, perhaps damned as well. The deep hope and life-changing experience that Hejma describes couldn’t last, but one would have hoped that it wouldn’t have deteriorated so rapidly. Even a few years after 1990 I noted a distinct difference in the eastern European zeitgeist when I returned to teach English to high school students in Moravia: the students’ interests turned more to Germany and Austria than to the United States, primarily for economic reasons, and the hostility directed towards the Romani population was palpable even among those Czechs who were otherwise most politically liberal in the Western sense of the word. Americans were not welcomed as warmly has they had been in 1990. Last year, when the Russo-Ukrainian War began, it seemed as if the promise of all those color revolutions had been cruelly dissipated. In Europe there was also Brexit and the immigrant crisis, but here there was Trump and an immigrant crisis too, not to mention an upswing in threats of political violence and to the sanctity of the individual conscience — sexual, religious, racial, cultural. My own two children are likely 22ers, as Ash would define them. I can only wonder what’s next.

There is still a war in Ukraine to be fought and a Presidential election here in the United States next year that threaten to remind us that, as some wag once put it, history may not repeat itself but it does rhyme on occasion. As I recall my experiences in Eastern Europe (as 23andme calls it), and look back with some more atomic attention to my ancestry, I hope not to succumb to nostalgia or sentiment but to shore up those personal ideals that were so profoundly represented in the culture of the 89ers: that of freedom, of validation of the individual conscience, of the right to determine one’s own integrity as countries like Ukraine defend the right of geopolitical self-determination. That it remains clearly an uphill battle is not in dispute. But if I don’t fight that battle, I and my family will clearly lose. Slava Ukraini, and the rest of us, too.

The awful German language

A plaque just outside of the Hotel Ambassador, Vienna, Austria.

I’m making yet another valiant attempt to conquer the German language — a few years of high school German apparently not enough to set me off the language forever — and as a Mark Twain enthusiast of course I came across his memorable essay about his own experience in trying to learn it. Much of what he says rings true (you can read all of it here), but I understand that Twain became fairly fluent in German, especially during his two-year stay in Austria just at the end of the 19th century. This was, of course, fin de siècle Austria, and also walking those streets were the likes of Arthur Schnitzler, Arnold Schönberg, and Sigmund Freud, who is said to have attended at least one of Twain’s several lectures there. Carl Dolmetsch has detailed the extent to which his Austrian visit affected his work, including its influence on “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” and the still-neglected The Mysterious Stranger, as well as the essays “Stirring Times in Austria” and “Concerning the Jews.” I’ll be in Vienna myself later this month and look forward to making a small bow to the above plaque myself, the honor an acolyte pays to his master.

As I say, I can’t quibble with much of his essay, especially what Twain says about the dative case. “In the first place, I would leave out the Dative case,” he begins his suggestions for reformation. “It confuses the plurals; and, besides, nobody ever knows when he is in the Dative case, except he discover it by accident — and then he does not know when or where it was that he got into it, or how long he has been in it, or how he is going to get out of it again. The Dative case is but an ornamental folly — it is better to discard it.” But he is especially right, I think, about the language’s unique beauties. I quote the below, then will return to my homework, perfecting my use of the imperative case:

There are some German words which are singularly and powerfully effective. For instance, those which describe lowly, peaceful, and affectionate home life; those which deal with love, in any and all forms, from mere kindly feeling and honest good will toward the passing stranger, clear up to courtship; those which deal with outdoor Nature, in its softest and loveliest aspects — with meadows and forests, and birds and flowers, the fragrance and sunshine of summer, and the moonlight of peaceful winter nights; in a word, those which deal with any and all forms of rest, repose, and peace; those also which deal with the creatures and marvels of fairyland; and lastly and chiefly, in those words which express pathos, is the language surpassingly rich and affective. There are German songs which can make a stranger to the language cry. That shows that the SOUND of the words is correct — it interprets the meanings with truth and with exactness; and so the ear is informed, and through the ear, the heart.