Friday 26 June 2020

Smoked beer, ETA Hoffmann and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra: Tony explores the picturesque Upper Franconian town of Bamberg

Schlenkerla tavern, Bamberg (Photo Schlenkerla tavern)
Schlenkerla tavern, Bamberg (Photo Schlenkerla tavern)
In between performances at the Bayreuth Festival, Tony Cooper recalls time out exploring the picturesque Upper Franconian town of Bamberg, from historic breweries and smoked beer to ETA Hoffmann, and looks forward to the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra's new season.

I’ve heard a lot of good things said about Bamberg - located in Upper Franconia and situated on the Regnitz which flows gently into the river Main - not least by the fame of its breweries. So while I was staying in the vicinity attending the Bayreuth Festival, I thought a day in Bamberg would embrace a nice rail excursion on one of my days off from Wagner. My presumption proved correct. I had a wonderful time. The journey from Bayreuth to Bamberg only takes about an hour and the Old Town (Altstadt) - the area to head for - is within easy walking distance of the railway-station.

I think it goes without saying that Germany’s renowned for good beer whichever city you find yourself be it Munich, Berlin, Nuremberg et al. But in Bamberg they have a ‘brew’ that’s very special to the town - smoked beer (rauchbier). It’s their pride and joy! On booking my ticket, the counter clerk at Bayreuth station immediately told me: ‘Try the smoked beer. It’s delicious! It’s famous!’ How right he was. ‘Wagner,’ he shouted, ‘liked it, too.’ True or false? Tick the box.

Within an hour of arriving at Bamberg meandering through the Old Town with its abundance of eye-catching half-timbered houses I found myself in Dominikanerstraße. It took me no time at all to log on to the fact that I was in the right vicinity and, really, at the epicentre to the smoked-beer industry.

I soon discovered, too, that Brauerei Heller-Trum and the Schlenkerla tavern which I drifted into just by chance was the place to be. Lying right at the heart of Dominikanerstraße, sitting in the shadow of the 13th-century Bamberger Dom dedicated to St Peter und St Georg, I also discovered that it was Bamberg’s original smoked-beer house and first mentioned as the ‘House of the Blue Lion’ as far back as 1405. That’s history!

Old town hall (Altes Rathaus) in Bamberg (Photo Tilman2007/Wikipedia)
Old town hall (Altes Rathaus) in Bamberg (Photo Tilman2007 / Wikipedia)
But history surrounds you here, there and everywhere. Bamberg's suffocated by it! [see the Bamberg tourism website] I also found out that the brewery has been in the hands of the Trum family for donkey’s years with members of the sixth generation now happily tapping beer directly from oak-wood barrels to the customer. My first pint went down a treat. So did the next. And . . . The clerk at Bayreuth railway-station was spot on! I raised a glass to him and personally thanked him the next day for offering me such good advice.

In actual fact, Bamberg is loaded with breweries. There are seven others to choose from. Take your pick: Brauerei Fässla; Brauerei Greifenklau; Brauerei Kaiserdom; Keesmann Bräu; Klosterbräu; Mahrs Bräu and Brauerei Spezial and one brew pub, the Ambräusianum. For a city of about 70,000 inhabitants, it’s an unusually high number of breweries. Lucky for them!

All of the taverns around Dominikanerstraße were jam-packed and rocking with ‘locals’ tucking into mainly roasted pork knuckle served with dumplings and gravy washed down by rauchbier. What else?  ‘Beer & Pig’ go together here like ‘Cav & Pag’. So when in Rome! Hang on a minute, I’m miles from there!

St Michaelsberg Abbey, Bamberg (Photo Asio otus / Wikipedia)
St Michaelsberg Abbey, Bamberg (Photo Asio otus / Wikipedia)
However, you need to build up your strength on a bit of pig or such-like to explore this town. Although a good walking one, it’s hilly and trekking round it takes its toll as the town extends over seven hills and each is crowned by a beautiful church. I guess, then, that it’s no coincidence that Bamberg’s nicknamed ‘Franconian Rome’ because of its seven hills mirroring the Seven Hills of Rome. I was closer to the Eternal City than I first thought!

One church that I greatly enjoyed exploring was St Michaelsberg Abbey, a former Benedictine monastery, founded in 1015, and, perhaps, the site of the first brewery in Bamberg. Remember, the monks were the first to get into the brewing business. But further exploration, I came across the house of the renowned romantic author, composer, poet and painter, Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann who’s better known by his pen name, ETA Hoffmann (Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann).

Born in Königsberg, East Prussia, on 24th January 1776, Hoffman’s life was cut short mainly due to a lifestyle that was a bit too wild and wacky for his own good. Alcohol and syphilis eventually caught up with him and he died in Berlin-Brandenburg, on 25th June 1822, aged 46. But in that short time-span he packed a lot in - artistically and, indeed, socially speaking.

He arrived in Bamberg in 1808 to take over the management of the local theatre but his stay in the town only lasted five years. Although it was not the happiest period in his life, it laid the foundation for a memorable career. During Hoffmann’s handful of years in Bamberg, the town strongly influenced him while he made his mark on the town which can still be felt to the present day. His former house, by the way, is now a museum and well worth a visit.

ETA Hoffmann, drawing by Ludwig Buchhorn (© Foto: Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz Fotograf/in: Volker-H. Schneider)
ETA Hoffmann, drawing by Ludwig Buchhorn
(© Foto: Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Fotograf/in: Volker-H. Schneider)
Hoffmann’s stories were very influential during the 19th century and he’s one of the major authors of the Romantic Movement. And in the history of opera he’s the subject and hero of Jacques Offenbach’s famous (but fictional) opera The Tales of Hoffmann [see Robert's exploration of the background to Offenbach's opera] and the author of the novelette, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, on which the well-loved ballet, The Nutcracker, is based. The ballet, Coppelia, is also based on two other stories that he wrote while Schumann’s Kreisleriana, a very dramatic composition in eight movements written in 1838 for solo piano, is based on Hoffmann’s musical character, Johannes Kreisler, who actually appeared in three of his novels.

Hoffmann's portrait of Kapellmeister Kreisler
Hoffmann's portrait of Kapellmeister Kreisler
The moody, anti-social composer Kreisler (Hoffmann’s alter ego) turned out to be a musical genius whose creativity became stymied by an excessive sensibility. Apart from inspiring Kreisleriana he was also the inspiration for the first movement of György Kurtág’s Hommage à R.Sch.

It seems that Hoffmann could turn his hand to anything and, I reckon, could reach out to a pint of rauchbier! For instance, when his job as a theatre manager didn’t work out he soon found work as a music critic for the Leipzig-based newspaper, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. His articles on Beethoven were especially well received and highly regarded by the composer himself.

However, his breakthrough in publishing came in 1809 with the publication of Ritter Gluck, a story about a man who meets, or believes he has met, the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck more than 20 years after his death. The theme alludes to the work of Jean Paul who ‘invented’ the term ‘doppelgänger’ first used in his 1796 novel, Siebenkäs. He was a powerful influence over Hoffmann becoming one of his earliest admirers.

It was with this publication that Hoffmann began to use the pseudonym ‘ETA’ Hoffmann, telling people that the ‘A’ stood for ‘Amadeus’ in homage to the composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. However, he continued to use ‘Wilhelm’ in official documents throughout his life and the initials ‘ETW’ appears on his gravestone at the Kirche of Jerusalem und Neue Kirche in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

Being a great admirer of Hoffmann the discovery of his connection with Bamberg proved illuminating to say the least and left me a pleasant memory of my visit. But Bamberg’s full of surprises not least by the quality of its symphony orchestra. Rated as one of the best in Europe, the 2020/21 season finds the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (BSO) sprightly and in birthday mood as it celebrates its 75th anniversary. The orchestra has a heavy programme planned for its special year which will also be marked by releasing the third CD in its Brahms/Dvořák cycle.

Assembled by musicians from Prague and German-speaking Bohemia, the BSO in its 75 years of existence has given more than 7300 concerts at 535 locations in 63 countries. A truly cultural ambassador for Bamberg and, of course, Germany as a whole, the BSO will be touring far and wide this season to South America and Japan while closer to home it will venture over the border to Austria for a concert in Vienna. In reference to BSO’s 75th anniversary, the Moldovan-Austrian-Swiss violinist, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, has been appointed artist-in-residence.

The orchestra will undertake a ‘homeland’ tour, too, visiting such important musical hubs as Baden-Baden, Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich. Travelling with a lively repertoire of works by Dvořák, Beethoven and Stravinsky, it will be spiced up a bit by a new work for violin and orchestra commissioned by the BSO from the Milan-born composer, Luca Francesconi who studied under Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Bamberger Symphoniker) Photo: ©Andreas Herzau
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Bamberger Symphoniker) Photo: ©Andreas Herzau
Honorary conductors of the BSO and two giants of the podium, Herbert Blomstedt and Christoph Eschenbach, will preside over a couple of significant concerts in celebration of the 75th season. Blomstedt will conduct Bruckner while Eschenbach: Mozart, Poulenc and Saint-Saëns. And Piotr Anderszweski will conduct works by Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mendelssohn and Schumann (in Bamberg and on tour) while the BSO will travel to Brno in the Czech Republic (hopefully, later this year) to take part in the city’s annual Janáček Festival working under the baton of Jakub Hrůša, a native of Brno and chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra since 2017.

However, in March of next year, Maestro Hrůša will conduct the BSO in the original programme it first presented in Bamberg in 1946. For that inaugural concert there was only one composer on the bill - and that was Beethoven. The birthday celebrations continue with Austrian-born conductor and music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, overseeing a programme which includes Chausson’s Poème, op 25 and Bartók’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, no 1, featuring that dynamic and award-winning German violinist, Isabelle Faust.

Gladly, in recent years, the BSO has enjoyed a couple of successful partnerships with English-born conductors: Jonathan Nott (currently chief conductor of l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande) was chief conductor from 2000 to 2016. During his time with the orchestra he forged a deep and honest relationship with the players while leading the orchestra to new heights and furthering its artistic development. And the London-born conductor of Italian ancestry. Robin Ticciati (currently music director of Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and also music director of the Glyndebourne Festival) was principal guest conductor from 2010 to 2013. He proved a driving force in the orchestra’s artistic development, too, and conducted more than 50 concerts with it.

However, the end of the season looks as if the members of this well-loved German orchestra will have a field day as they’ll be performing a night-long festival of chamber music held at specific-site locations throughout the delightful town of Bamberg. By the end of it, I should imagine, they’ll be pretty thirsty. Surely, that can only mean one thing, a pint or two of the best. Prost!

Jakub Hrůša & Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Bamberger Symphoniker) Photo: ©Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša & Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Bamberger Symphoniker) Photo: ©Andreas Herzau
But before you get to the end there has to be a beginning. ‘It’s a good place to start,’ enthused Mary Poppins. Therefore, the season takes off in style in the comfortable and well-designed 1400-seat Bamberg Concert Hall in a concert offering a diverse and inviting programme comprising Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Bartók’s Dance Suite, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Ravel’s Bolero while adding a touch of spice to the programme will be a selection of well-loved highlights from popular ballet scores penned by de Falla, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky.

Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra will undertake a tour of Great Britain that would, I’m sure, be greeted with great enthusiasm. But, in the meantime, Happy Birthday one and all!

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