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||1504: Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany
Mystery Worshipper: Cantate Domino.
The church: Berliner
Dom, Berlin, Germany.
Church in Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia (formed in 1948
by a merger of the Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches).
The building: 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 church: 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.
The neighbourhood: 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 cast: 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.
The date & time: 15 September 2007, 6.00pm.
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
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
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
Lobet den Herrn, meine Seele. (Praise the Lord, my soul).
What books did the congregation use during the
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
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
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
Dr Pöhlmann spoke on the idea of the soul.
Which part of the service was like being in
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
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 café
How would you feel about making this church your regular (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
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!
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