This is the story of the collision of two “one-hit wonders” — one from the flashy world of pop-rock and the other from the hallowed ranks of classical music — and an arts writer deliriously caught in the middle.
The one-hit wonders in play here are Nena, a single-named German pop star known exclusively to Americans for her 1983 international megahit, 99 Red Balloons (or, in German, 99 Luftballons), and Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), a German composer of the early Baroque Era who is known in the United States only for his Canon in D, a piece that has been played at pretty much every American wedding ceremony since about 1975.
Nena is such a poster child for “one-hit wonderism” that I even own a book titled 99 Red Balloons and 100 Other All-Time Great One-Hit Wonders.
Pachelbel is not in that book, but if he were still alive, they probably would have had him write the preface.
These two musicians, separated by so many centuries, have only two things in common: They both are German and neither one even remotely deserves the one-hit wonder badges they wear like scarlet letters in America.
But if you think it would be impossible for this strange pair to trip over one another, you obviously don’t know me.
And that leads us to Erfurt, Germany — a quaint and charming bit of the Old World where you might find a Starbucks or McDonald’s operating out of a building that went up during the Renaissance. The whole place is like something out of a storybook. Erfurt, the capital of Turingia, is, geographically, in the center of the country.
I recently made the trip to Erfurt just to see Nena in concert. For years, I had seen her churn out great singles and albums that went virtually unheard in the United States. I had also watched the DVDs that showed her well-attended concerts to be incredible love fests between the star and her audience, where the music and the energy seemed boundless.
So, since she does not tour in the States, I had to go to her. And I hoped the journey could provide some answer as to why Nena is not as loved in America as she is in her native Deutschland.
“I think it is because they never toured there, even when Luftballons was a hit. [And after that], the label never pushed any of her songs,” said John Andrews, an American guitarist who has performed and recorded with Nena since 2006, in an interview following the Erfurt show — a concert that met all the high expectations of this distant traveler.
But Andrews, who also fronts his own band, Loudboy, believes that Nena may yet be heard on U.S. shores.
“Nena came to visit [America, earlier this year]. We were looking at studios and stuff, and everywhere we went, people knew her and were excited to meet her,” said Andrews about the singer’s visit, which included stops at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., and Nashville. “There is a genuine interest in her and what she has been doing. And they want to hear her music. So I think it’s going to happen in the next year or so.
“She’s the Madonna of Germany.”
Erfurt was chosen for my rendezvous with the Nena phenomenon because it was one of the few enclosed venues she played on her most recent tour. The night before she played Erfurt’s Messehalle, a modern sort of convention center in this otherwise ancient city, she had performed at the Red Bull Arena, a soccer stadium in nearby Leipzig.
Little did I know that that choice of venues for the queen of pop one-hit wonders would put me — a longtime arts and entertainment writer — on a collision course with classical music’s most outstanding one-hit wonder, Pachelbel.
Connections to Luther and Bach
As a tourist destination, Erfurt may seem like a one-hit wonder itself, with its hit being theologian Martin Luther, who was a student, monk and priest here before launching the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Tour guides in Erfurt often dress like Luther to show visitors around the numerous magnificent churches that dominate the city’s skyline.
But if Erfurt has a second hit (and this wonderful little city actually has several more than that), it would be Pachelbel. The organist and composer spent a dozen years of his life here, during which time he established himself as one of the most significant musicians of his era. And he built that reputation on a huge body of church music, especially organ works — not one little canon.
“Please inform your country that [the canon] is only one piece,” said Matthias Dreissig, an Erfurt music professor and organist at Predigerkirche (or Preacher’s Church) — the Gothic cathedral where Pachelbel played organ and composed works for the services — before breezing through a magnificent Pachelbel organ piece. The massive instrument rattled the bones, and Dreissig’s fluid playing induced goose bumps.
With the help of guide and interpreter Reiner Bosecke, who performs as a Baroque trumpeter when not wearing his Martin Luther outfit, Dreissig explained that Pachelbel is known in Germany especially for his organ works, not just the canon we know so well. And that he is strongly linked to Erfurt.
“You can follow the footsteps of Pachelbel here, because we know the house where he [lived],” added Bosecke, noting that the organist-composer was married twice. His first wife died of plague.
The two musicians also stress that Pachelbel was significant because he broke the lock the well-known Bach family had on church music director jobs.
“Before Pachelbel, everything was engaged by a Bach,” Bosecke said.
But, while Pachelbel was a rival to the enormous Bach family — the most famous of which is the great Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach — he was also tight with them.
Bosecke noted that Pachelbel had Bachs as neighbors when he lived in Erfurt. And a little bit of research after my return yielded even more fascinating biographical tidbits.
Pachelbel does seem to have been surrounded by Bachs. Johannes Bach (a relative of J.S. Bach), who is referred to as the patriarch of the “Erfurt line” of Bachs, was organist at Predigerkirche from 1636 to 1673. Pachelbel had the job there from 1678 to 1690. And, more importantly, one of Pachelbel’s students was Johann Christoph Bach, who raised his little brother, J.S., after they lost both parents before the younger Bach turned 11.
Pachelbel’s son, Charles Theodore Pachelbel, was one of the first major European musicians to make his home in America, most notably in Charleston, S.C.
Finally, consider this closing comment in Pachelbel’s surprisingly extensive entry in the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:
“All the accumulated evidence indicates beyond doubt that he was one of the greatest and most productive composers of his time and that he left a musical legacy whose value increases with the ages.”
So, we think of Pachelbel as having written just one trivial piece of chamber music, when the reality is that he wrote a ton of other works (including an uncounted number lost in various town fires over the centuries, Dreissig and Bosecke pointed out), trained the musician who would raise and train the greatest composer of the Baroque Era and, through his son, gave us a jump-start in getting our classical music heritage up and running.
This, just as we think of Nena as having performed one hit song, instead of having released more than 20 albums and approximately 50 singles while playing stadium concerts across Europe in a fabulous career that now spans more than four decades.
So let my trip to this little German storybook town be a lesson to us all. If you know an artist who wears that one-hit wonder tag, dig a little deeper and you might find something interesting.
In fact, the experience might even lead you to do something crazy (and unbelievably fun), like embark on a trek halfway around the world just to see one concert.
If nothing else, the trip taught me that two one-hit wonders are even better than one.
For more information about visiting Erfurt, Germany, visit www.erfurt.de/ef/en.