Portrait of a Renaissance Man
A Touch of Magic
Feb 16, 1898 to Jan 13, 1966
He stands in front of my eyes as though it were yesterday: flowing white hair roughly combed backwards, salt and pepper goatee, prominent nose, dominating forehead and intensely piercing, sparkling eyes. This was my grandfather. Though short in stature, his presence always seemed larger than life. He loved to wear a coarse reddish-brown linen jacket and he had several ones made for they were his trademark.
As I grow further away in time and space from my old-world heritage, I notice in myself an increasing awareness of the impressions and influences from my earliest experiences as they seem to be gaining now more significance in my personal development. Without doubt my grandfather has had a lasting effect on me.
Every Fall I spent my vacations visiting my grandfather. I always loved to hear his warm, resonant voice as he welcomed me at my arrival. Together with my two uncles and their families, he lived in Burg Sternberg (Sternberg Castle) which the municipality of Lippe had leased to him after WW2 to house his impressive collection of rare instruments, to set up shop for making and restoring instruments and to conduct workshops and concert performances of early instruments. I suppose the authorities must have been more than happy to have someone be willing to take on such a responsibility and to put it to good use to boot.
Protected by the thick, old castle walls from humidity fluctuations this site proved to be ideal for the delicate instruments. By the late 1950's Burg Sternberg had become a quasi pilgrimage site for Early Music Lovers. I remember well hearing my grandfather in many spell-binding performances and demonstrations playing for the frequent and numerous visitors on a wide variety of Renaissance and Baroque instruments.
It was a profound feeling of musical communication that I recall about these occasions. Regardless of what instrument he was playing, he seemed to be able to create an almost magical atmosphere which captivated his listeners. In the spirit of Renaissance music, he was versatile on numerous instruments.
While his command of many instruments (lutes, recorders, viols and others) was impressive, surely, he did not dispatch the kind of flawless, machine-like technique which is expected of modern concert performers. My grandfather completely transcended any such considerations. It did not seem to matter what instrument he was playing; he just expressed music with whatever means happened to be at hand. In fact, he so emerged himself while performing that he appeared to embody the music. A musician through and through, he possessed an wide spectrum of other talents and interests in areas such as Astronomy, Physics, Philosophy and the Folklore of other countries.
"Grosspapa", as his grandchildren called him, loved life. He was extremely fond of earthly delights particularly when it came to French Cuisine. At the conclusion of a large meal, while settling into his arm-chair with his pipe, he loved to say with the ring of mocking disappointment "Schade, satt" (Too bad, full).
He exercised an irresistible, hypnotic effect on others by radiating an aura of magic and mystery. This characteristic made him not only a great story-teller but also enable him to prevail where the obstacles appeared insurmountable. Such was the situation right after the end of WW2 when he needed to move his entire collection of precious instruments out of Markneukirchen [which was in the Russian-occupied East Germany] to the Burg Sternberg (Sternberg Castle) which provided an ideal new location in West Germany. Ultimately he managed to save most of the instruments through the cooperation of people who ordinarily may not have been helpful.
From my very own experience I became familiar with his entrancing trait on a very different level. I remember vividly one specific instance. It was during my fall vacation at my grandfathers dinner table when I was served some kind of innards, a dish which made my stomach turn but which was clearly considered a delicacy by my grandfather. Having been a very picky eater as a young boy, ten horses could not - under ordinary circumstances - have moved me to swallow one single bite. I do not know HOW, but I did eat what was on my plate - without so much as a word having been spoken about it.
My grandfather was a free spirit. Walter Harlan, my great-grandfather, who was a very successful playwright and author in Berlin, saw to it that his children were provided with an elitist upbringing. Some of the most prominent thinkers and artists of the turn of the century came through my great-grandfather's house. However, my grandfather wanted no part of the high society of Berlin and essentially ran away from the home of his parents to become a violin maker. As a result his father did not contribute so much as a dime for his education. He joined the rebellious Wandervögel Youth Movement before settling down to learn his trade.
He established his shop in Markneukirchen, Germany's town of instrument builders sometimes referred to as the 'Cremona of the North', where he built not only violins but began to specialize in building and restoring early instruments. His most significant contribution to the music world must have been his role in reviving interest in the Renaissance and Baroque recorders by being the first to reconstruct, manufacture, market and popularize these instruments in this century, at a time when the concept of EARLY MUSIC was just beginning to take shape. This also turned out to be his most profitable venture. In this undertaking, more than anywhere else in his life, my grandfather fused his unique talents as artisan and artist to boldly pursue his mission in life.
My grandfather must have been quite a shrewd businessman. Even though he seemed to be doing things on the fly and mostly by intuition, everything usually fell into the right place. Today, there is not a school in Germany where the recorder is not a mandatory part of everyone's music education.
Peter Harlan was a free thinker and though accorded with a fair number of human failings, he was a spiritual being in a very independend way. He creatively interwove fact and fiction in a sort of fairy tale existence and consciousness which allowed him to enter different realms of awareness and to draw unexpected connections which others may not have seen before. Yet in a unique combination he was very practical and pragmatic at the same time. In all he did, my grandfather had a 'touch of magic'.
His ability to appreciate, communicate and celebrate through his music the astonishing magic of each moment - that is what has provided me with lasting inspiration. His letters all closed with the same deeply felt: "Alle Guten Geister" (all good spirits)
Christoph Harlan (1998)