Sunday, 15 May 2016

Odense: springtime river walk, with tigers

The bars give the game away: the four tigers I saw were mostly lying down or on their backs enjoying a perfect spring day in their enclosure at Odense Zoo - lucky riverside walkers that these were the beasts we got to see for free.

I love this civilized and easy-going city with the feel of a small town. Went there for the first time last June the day after Carl Nielsen's 150th birthday (the link is to the second page of a report on The Arts Desk) and enjoyed the museum and childhood-home visits perhaps more than the Vienna Philharmonic's very skewed view of the Fourth, 'Inextinguishable' Symphony in the concert hall. This time we were on terra firma with the admirable Odense Symphony Orchestra supporting the three finalists of the Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition (there are also competitions for flute and clarinet, the other solo instruments for whom Nielsen wrote concertos). Something about that in my Arts Desk interview with the refreshingly honest and direct Nikolaj Znaider. A good start on my way to the interview, passing the Andersen statue near the concert hall

was a blackbird singing very loudly directly above.

I've been lucky in my recent trips to Tallinn, Odense and most recently beloved Gottingen in that the days have been mostly free for me to play the tourist. Having spent time in the Hans Christian Andersen and Nielsen Museums, this time I wanted to pursue the river beyond the city boundaries, but I couldn't help revisiting the splendid cathedral, and caught several other churches en route. First stop, nearest to the hotel and the concert hall, St Hans, closed after the morning service.

Friday  was a day of national prayer, so the shops were shut, the Danish flags were flying and young and old alike were sunning themselves in the parks on a perfect spring day. After the hour and a half with Znaider, I made my way past the handsome collection of old houses that makes up Møntergården, the museum of the city's cultural history, with its assemblage of old buildings,

and then past an earlier Andersen childhood home

and the street which slopes down beneath it

hoping to make it as far as another model village further, Den Fynske Landsby, along the river - that would have made a nice complement to the pre-Christmas walk in Swedish Örebro. I didn't get that far, probably spending too much time going back to the very pleasing Cathedral of St Canute.

Canute/Knud IV, that same Dane who legendarily wanted to halt the tide on an English beach, was murdered in Odense, along with his brother, in the savage uprising of 1086; his bones were interred first at St Alban's Priory where he had been slain - the church was rebuilt in the 19th century but I think this building next door may be older -

and then in the first cathedral. That burned down in 1247 and the pleasant building of red-brick Gothic was planned in 1300 but not consecrated until nearly 200 years later; the tower dates from even later, 1586.

The inside is so pleasing in its calm white simplicity, reminding me of those marvellous Saenredam paintings of Dutch church interiors.

It's essentially simple, but much enriched by Claus Berg's magnificent altarpiece of 1515-25, moved here from the demolished Franciscan priory church in 1807.

How did it survive the Reformation? Probably owing to its association with the four royals whose bodies were also transferred here at that time. Hans of Denmark and Christina of Saxony have an especially fine tombstone also including their son, and likewise Berg's work.

Apart from the crypt, with its bones of Canute

and his brother, treasures and archaeological remains of the first church, there's also a grand chapel to the Ahlefeldts, which an otherwise rather sneery Marryat - according to Sacheverell Sitwell - described as 'a really noble dormitorium', guarded by Time with scythe

and some 'great coffins like travelling chests, covered with gold repousse work' - the one with crucified Christ on the lid, lying rather ruinously, adds more atmosphere.

But it was time to leave thoughts of mortality behind

and join life on the lawns below Abbey Hill

with careful star-shapes of daffodils on the lawns

and a route through to the river

which passed lawns of relaxing students on one side

Odense's main theatre, currently showing a highly-praised production of Lars von Trier's Dogville and with an interesting operatic repertoire including Mascagni's L'amico Fritz. founded in 1796 and Denmark's second oldest - a mural celebrates some of its characters (real life stage management beneath):

Leaving behind the folk in pedallos, you pass the gardens of elaborate villas with rather special huts at the bottom

and then come the tigers, mostly lazing in the first warm sun of the year

though this one did stir to lope along to another resting place, so much less distressing than the psychotic pacing one sees from many tigers in such small enclosed spaces.

The river bifurcates Odense Zoo, just as Regent's Canal does London's - this version even has a mini Snowdon aviary on the 'other' side.

Clearly I was running out of time to get to the assemblage of old Funen houses, so I crossed at the point - curses - where the scenery becomes truly rustic and walked back on the other side through the woods where 19th century Danes used to disembark for rural picnics

and alongside the main entrance to the zoo

and more pleasant green riverbank

 to the town, where I regretted not having enough time to go round Brandts, an old textile mill converted into a major art exhibition space

but did manage time enough to go inside the Gråbrødre Klosterkirke, which as I understand it is the replacement for the old Greyfriars where the Berg altarpiece used to be displayed.

It seems to be a sort of beguinage like the lovely one in Amsterdam. Refreshments were laid out for the evening service

and a blissful choir of three were rehearsing in the chapel. Pleasing, if not very old, I'm assuming. Note the hanging ship.

And so back via Andersenville

to the hotel to freshen up for the final of the Carl Nielsen Competition.


David Damant said...

In a life spent travelling all over the world and especially Europe, I found that the reputation of Denmark as being the most equal of societies is true. I have seen in a bank the chairman talking to the odd job man in a perfectly relaxed equal way. I have read that some tensions have arisen with immigrants, which demonstrates that these intercultural tensions have to be carefully handled

The Queen of Denmark's English is remarkable - she learnt it at Cambridge in the fifties/sixties

David said...

Well, as Danish Queen Margaret says to the Scottish Parliament in The James Plays, 'I come from a rational nation with reasonable people . . . You’ve got fuck-all except attitude'. Maybe a bit anachronistic, but rational and reasonable are certainly Danish qualities. A shame they've got a bit dirtied by some of the less reasonable attitudes to the immigration/refugee question as exemplified by the couple who were prosecuted for feeding and watering a tired, hungry Syrian family and by many of the dangerous far-right parties who are increaasing in popularity there. Still, a more village-like city than Copenhagen could hardly be imagined, and of course everyone seemed cheerful in Odense on that most beautiful spring day of rest and prayer.

Susan Scheid said...

I should not have taken so long to come by here to walk Odense through you--balm for the spirit, absolutely. I loved what you said about the Saenredam-like church interiors. I did not recognize his name, but I feel sure I've seen some of his paintings, and loved them for exactly the reasons you note. The white simplicity speaks to me of values in proper proportion. I'm also put in mind of the Suommenlinna church, with its interesting history: "Originally the church served the Russian garrison of Viapori. After Finland became independent, it was considered improper for the Russian-style onion domes to first greet people arriving at the city by sea, and the church was converted into an Evangelical Lutheran church."

David Damant said...

I fear that right wing parties attract support everywhere, as they feed on the perceived cultural challenge of immigrants.

David said...

Interestingly, I knew an Iranian architect who did a study on the Saenredam painting in the National Gallery of Scotland and found that he had increased the height in his perspective on the church in question - artistic licence.

David - it IS a cultural challenge, no doubt. But we should be able to rise to it. I contrast the bile with which the Swedish photographer's photo of neo-Nazis met with a salute by a stylish Swedish woman has been met, with an article on how immigrant Syrians and their offspring have enriched Malmo's flaggig urban life. Fear, of coure, is what the right wing parties feed on all too successfully.

David Damant said...

One must bear in mind that reaction against foreign cultures is a deep and instinctive part of the human make up. No doubt it was a valuable instinct in the forests and is now an unfortunate instinct. And it is easier to rise above it if one is educated and not threatened by the alien culture - but one has to take account of the household which finds half the houses in the street filled with immigrants, especially if they practice a different religion and way of life. One trouble might be that decisions on immigration are made by those far above the usual tensions ( who get better waiters, carers, cleaners etc). The complicating factor is the distrust felt by so many in the established politicians. As I point out in my blog, it is the unsolvable nature of the problems facing most countries which are the reason for the muddles, not the politicians. But it is easy to see why the right wing parties can win votes, as the immigrants can be blamed for so many of the other problems. Austria has just avoided something dangerous, but only just.

Susan Scheid said...

Just to follow on on something DD wrote: agree with the unsolvable nature of the problems as the reason/root cause for the muddles, though, and I think, DD, you are noting this, too, via-vis the right wing parties, it is horrifying, even if intellectually understandable, how easy it is for unscrupulous politicians/demagogues to stoke the flames. In conversation with a friend about what is happening in the US right now, she said she would never have imagined a presidential race with two demagogues involved (one on the right and one on the left). I have to remain hopeful we will beat it back, but every day is and will vbe fraught from here to the end, which is months away. Glad Austira squeaked through.

David said...

Yes, most wars are about territory and not really about religion. Anyhow, there are ways to go about alleviating often unfounded fear and prejudice. But it's true our 'multiculturalism' was for too long about segregation, or laissez-faire. There has to be integration and a strong message about taking up the customs of the country without necessarily having to abandon all of your own.

Not at all surprising how easy it is for the demagogues at the moment, Sue: as Yeats put it, 'the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate integrity'. You're referring to Sanders, I think, as well as Trump: disappointed in him. Not yet, by any means entirely, by our own Corbyn. But I feel for the worst nightmare to hit your own half-good country.

Yes, what a relief about the Green President of Austria. That society has always been so polarised, at least in the 20th Century, like America is now: look at 'Red Vienna'.