In Germany, culture defines nation. In Britain, it defines nothing.

In Germany, culture defines nation. In Britain, it defines nothing.


norman lebrecht

May 21, 2015

I have written a reflection on the failed Berlin Philharmonic election for The Spectator, a few thoughts on cultural attitudes as well as orchestral politics.

The intense focus on the Berlin Philharmonic election was triggered by the emergence of a German candidate as music director, the first since Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1922 (Furtwängler’s 1955 successor, Herbert von Karajan, was a fly-in Austrian who overnighted at the Kempinski Hotel).

The German of 2015 — hailed by some as a man of destiny — is Christian Thielemann, Berlin born and bred, German as bratwurst in a bierkeller. German, and then some.


Read the full article here.

thielemann merkel


  • Alexander Hall says:

    Norman, I too despair at the philistinism and anti-intellectualism of British politicians, but how do we get things to change? Any suggestions?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      wish I had some..

    • DLowe says:

      To be fair, there’s no encouragement of it either, especially in the media. Remember the outcry in the tabloids when Osborne and Gove – who are categorically not philistines – left Westminster an hour early to see the ROH Ring? There are some closet art-lovers in parliament.

  • Erich says:

    I suspect a certain S.Rattle will start to be very vocal on the subject before too long….he’s not known for being backward in coming forward on such issues!

  • Wurtfangler says:

    I’m afraid it has a long history in this country. We have always been suspicious of artists and of intellectuals in general. Perhaps it goes back to the Commonwealth(Republic) when so much art (linked to the church and the crown) was destroyed.

    Whatever its root causes, our leaders (whether elected by God or man) have never seen culture as a worthy cause to espouse – that position seems to have been taken by sport. Germany’s cultural establishment is based on the bedrock of the small states/dukedoms that existed before the first unification. But again, why did those princes and bishops see an opera house and a theatre as being something worthy of support, when the elite in this country didn’t?

    I think there is something deep-rooted in this country’s psyche that has resulted in this attitude, and has therefore permeated all levels of education and society. I don’t think it will ever change. The ability of the very best artist (musician, dancer, actor, writer, painter, sculptor…) in this country will never gain anything like the recognition of a philistine lout who kicks a ball around. Sad, but true.

  • william osborne says:

    Why would a country where the state owns and operates 133 orchestras and 83 opera houses not have numerous conductors among the top echelons? Could it be that in Germany, as in many other countries, the conductor’s image of autocracy, authoritarianism, and patriarchy has become to some degree unpalatable? Does Thielemann represent a legacy that is vaguely embarrassing?

    One of the great problems facing opera is that its conventions became an embarrassment The singers’ horsey, warbling, egoist physicality that subsumes all the other elements of theater became something laughable. Are the anachronistic conventions of the symphony orchestra facing a similar and growing lack of acceptance? What happens to countries that tie an almost obsessive sense of cultural nationalism to dying art forms?

    • John Borstlap says:

      This comment should take place of honor in the Chamber of Postmodern Horrors, as the exhibit that eloquently demonstrates 20C philistinism.

      ‘Opera’ is, on the whole, quite different from what the comment tries to imply. The same with orchestras. Conductors are ‘bossy’ because that is their function. In music practice, the conductor’s task is accepted as normal, and only ignorant outsiders obsessed with PC culture – these egalitarian fundamentalists – think there is something ‘wrong’ with orchestras and opera houses, like IS warriers trying to keep ‘the faith’ pure by destroying anything they cannot understand. The comment describes some excesses that have mostly died-out decennia ago……

      • william osborne says:

        The issue is to examine the nature of cultural nationalism which played a central role in the catastrophes of the 20th century, and to examine the cultural values that contributed to the forms of authoritarianism common at the time. These efforts represent a intellectual tradition that includes Adorno, Albert Camus Merleau-Ponty Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, Luigi Pirandello, and Viktor Frankl.

        As Oscar Wilde has said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

        Was National Socialism just the result of transient historical forces, and merely external social circumstances, or was it also a manifestation of long standing Western cultural values? A society whose art venerates ethnocentricity, cultural nationalism, human objectification, and transcendentally justified autocracy, might use them constructively in a symphony orchestra, but it must also consider whether the same cultural values can contribute to forms of totalitarianism.

        • John Borstlap says:

          This is merely a rehearsel of George Steiner’s argument, that the holocaust is the inevitable result of a culture that produced Bach, Beethoven, Kant, Goethe etc. etc. and which is nonsensical. Even a religious and peaceful sect like the Christians developed over time into an institution which needed an inquisition to keep things on the rails. The Enlightment, advocating human rights, inspired the French revolution which resulted in enthusiastic bloodshed, and so on and so forth. There is a phenomenon like people misunderstanding things…. and comparing the post of an orchestral conductor with dictatorship is confusing functional and necessary authority and responsibility with Stalinism, like confusing freedom in society with license to kill.

  • Robert Garbolinski says:

    The United Kingdom is pathetic in the arts – that is why I moved from Cardiff to London to have a rich, music-filled life.
    As for the Berliner Philharmoniker – why don’t they have a complete change and adopt the idea of the Wiener Philharmoniker, no main conductor but a succession of the very best in the world, then they can really be seen at their best and so can the conductors.
    That first comment should put the cat amongst the pigeons!

  • Catriona says:

    It’s good to read of Norman’s passionate unending comments on the Berlin Phil saga. But we can only express our opinions as none of us can vote. We just have to accept the person selected by the Berlin players for better or worse. The worst would be not to have the Berlin Phil at all. However, a conductor must be judged on musicality alone not on their nationality, politics or whether they are married or not. It is completely irrelevant and shouldn’t concern us.

  • John Lancaster says:

    Spot on Norman. Excellent article. One example, on the state of classical music culture in the UK is the slow decline of the BBC Proms classical format, once a true celebration of not only classical music, but a celebration of what made British classical composers so admired and filled Prommers with national pride.
    Some of the greatest of composers(the three “B’s”, Mahler, Strauss, etc) have their roots firmly in Germany. It creates a sense of national pride there, and even politicians are proud of it. But the BPO is more international now, struggling with it’s need to stay firm in it’s German roots, but some BPO musicians wanting to embrace exciting, charismatic 21st century conductors. The BPO is struggling with it’s identity, just like UK classical cultureis also struggling with it’s identity.

  • Don Ciccio says:

    If we are to criticize Thielemann, let’s criticize him for what he does, not for what we want to believe about him so we feel better. It is simply incorrect that he does not conduct anything after the death of Richard Strauss. In Munich he lead premieres of works by Henze, Widmann, Glanert, Gubaidulina, Matthus and Rihm. Glanert’s Insomnia was especially well received. In Dresden each year there is a composer in residence (this season is Gubaidulina) and Thielemann usually includes at least a work of the composer in his programs.

    I am not exactly a fan of the conductor: there is no one better than him in Wagner, Strauss, and Bruckner, but his Beethoven and Brahms are not quite in the same class – although his work in concert is often much better than what he did on studio.

    “A Prussian that God chose” – Joachim Kaiser on Thielemann
    “Brushin’ am Prussian!” – Sid Caesar

    • william osborne says:

      We speak of how culture defines Germany, and then see a quote about Thielemann as “A Prussian that God chose.” We see the close association between Romantic cultural nationalism and orchestras, and forget that the larger ethos of Romantic cultural nationalism espoused by “men chosen by God” brought catastrophe to the world. In many respects, Hitler was the last romantic, and also felt he was on a divine mission, as he once implied when laying the cornerstone of a museum:

      “Art is an exalted mission requiring fanaticism. He who is chosen by providence to reveal the soul of a people around him, to let it sound in tones or speak in stone, suffers under the power of the Almighty as a force ruling him, and will speak his language, even if the people do not understand or do not want to understand. And he would prefer to take every affliction upon himself than even once be untrue to the star that guides him internally.”

      “Kulturrede beim Reichsparteitag 1933 in Nürnberg,” Baustein zum National-theater I/3 (December 1933) p. 67.

      Symphonic music was considered the most German of arts, and people had long been conditioned to believe that its artist-prophets “suffered under the power of the Almighty,” and that they rose above the mundane world in an “exalted mission” to “reveal the soul of a people.” The world eventually saw that a 19th century aesthetic of Radical Will ultimately accompanied a 20th century morality of Radical Evil. Anyway, these thoughts come to mind when we see a prominent arts journalists referring to a man with sympathies for Pegida as “A Prussian that God chose.” Never mind, he does new music…

      • william osborne says:

        BTW, I think the Kaiser quote is actually, “Er ist ein Preuße, wie Gott ihn erschuf” which translates as “A Prussian, as God created him.” In the classical music world, however, this quickly morphs to him being God’s chosen Prussian. Ha!

        • Don Ciccio says:

          This is correct, my translation was a little bit off; my German is not as good as my English. But immediately after Kaiser’s quote I put a mocking one by Sid Caesar.

          • william osborne says:

            I think that’s actually ”Brushin’ a Prussian!” (Perhaps the “am” was a typo.) As the NYT notes, it’s a sketch about “a fastidious Prussian who who dons a bemedaled tunic and braided military cap and barks orders at his aide-de-camp: ‘Brushin’ a Prussian! Perfuma-schpritzen!’’ — then marches off to his job as a doorman.” It’s pretty funny, but the humor is a bit dated. The sketch can be watched here:


      • John Borstlap says:

        If classical music dies, it will be because of people like Mr Osborne.

        Against my natural inclinations, I smoke heavy cigars, eat at least 3 steaks a day, kick dogs wherever I come across them, publicly deride Wagner’s and Bruckner’s music wherever I can, all to prove to myself and others that I am not a fascist, because mr H did the opposite.

        And let’s not forget that it is the emotionally-thickskinned in the Anglo-Saxon world who occasionally need an injection of German nationalist music, so that they can go to bed with the reassuring confirmation that they are still alive and kicking:

  • Halldor says:

    Hmmm. I think what Norman has done here is confused orchestral music (in its ultra-conservative German incarnation) with “culture”.

    By the way, would this philistine David Cameron be the same one who’s on the board of Bampton Classical Opera, whose cabinet ministers took the afternoon off to attend the Ring at Covent Garden, and whose Chancellor announced tax breaks for orchestras – and responded promptly and positively to Rattle’s pea for a decent concert hall in London?

  • Anne says:

    Perhaps it’s just part of a wider educational problem. With a world ranking of 20+ in Reading (not to mention Maths and Science), I suspect there’s not a great deal of interest in books either.

  • L.F. says:

    Culture defining a nation?

    All the German physicians in the concentration camps were trained in the classics. Not a few Nazis were “cultivated” music lovers. And what did this culture define?

    I rather prefer a nation defined by civilisation. Please do not underestimate the qualities of the British. L.F. (a non-British alien)

    • John Borstlap says:

      Criminals who don’t understand the implications of culture, can still parade it, and that is NOT the result of culture’s nature. Using barbarians’ misunderstanding of their own cutlural assets as an indication that this culture is barbaric, is merely finishing-off what the barbarians began. It is an old trope born from postwar guilt but entirely false.

      • Anne says:

        You’re begging the question.

      • Michael Endres says:

        “Using barbarians’ misunderstanding of their own cultural assets as an indication that this culture is barbaric, is merely finishing-off what the barbarians began. ”

        A risky statement ,not quite in line with latest cutting edge research.
        Aren’t symphonies and sonatas an incarnation of unsavoury authoritarian principles, hindering more democratic forms of music making and ultimately suppressing freedom?
        Isn’t it time for a world where we can express ourselves without conductors and main themes ? Where we can hold each other’s hands and dance in a circle to the gently improvised tunes played by individuals –primi inter pares — who have seen the light ?

        • John Borstlap says:

          …. But that is happening already all around us, in our modern, western egalitarian society. And because there is so much freedom here, there are also islands of different cultural activities which need a hierarchical structure to be realized at all. Something of great value requires combined efforts and hence, differentiation – nothing wrong with it. When egalitarianism becomes a suppressing, dominating force, cultural activity sinks to the lowest denomination, where every participant is as ‘good’ as any other. That is also something we can observe all around us. Classical music is one of the cultural activities which has survived the times because it still has something to say to us, and it can only be realized in the way it was conceived: as a hierarchical, quality-driven differentiation. It is the irritation about excellence, which is so ‘undemocratic’, that is behind so much critique of classical music, an irritation resulting from lingering inferiority complexes.

  • DESR says:

    An interesting article, Norman – and finally a bit more actual perspective on ‘what went on’.

    A few points:

    1. The key for the pro-Thielemann faction is surely not ‘getting a German in’ (any German), but safeguarding the ‘German’ repertoire and tradition. This is not unconnected, in their view, to ‘sales’, domestic OR international. It is the lifeblood of the BPO just as it is the Boston Symphony.

    2. Anyone who thinks Nelsons can be dismissed in and relegated from this very repertoire is smoking something: his recent Parsifal in Birmingham was sublime, and a great portent of what he will achieve with this piece in Bayreuth next year. (BTW a return engagement is still fairly rare, though less so than it used to be – and this when Thielemann himself is de facto in charge of such things as MD-in-all-but-name.)

    3. A small point, but why do you insist on this maiden-auntish approach to referring to sexuality: re Thielemann, ‘never married’ (nudge, nudge). He is widely known to be gay, if not ‘openly’ (shoutily) so, but equally not clandestinely either, and most importantly there is no hypocrisy or pretence involved.

    4. Maybe Angela Merkel will have to referee this one? I think it is beyond ACAS’s pay grade…

    • John Borstlap says:

      The reason that T is not married is the overwhelming number of antlers that adorn his villa. In Dresden it is an open secret that he has 5 1/2 mistresses in the wings who claim offspring, and for that reason he approves of rumours that provide an easy escape.