Fine Buildings, High Culture, No Excuses, No Regrets

Martin Kettle, who proudly calls himself a Germanophile, expresses his admiration in the Guardian for the new Elbphilharmonie (Philharmonia on the Elbe River) concert hall in Hamburg:

[I]n Hamburg on Wednesday evening a substantial part of official Germany – and surely everyone in the city itself – turned out in force for the opening of the dazzling Elbphilharmonie concert hall stretching high into the heavens in the former port district. Germany’s president Joachim Gauck made a witty speech, chancellor Angela Merkel, Hamburg-born before her family emigrated to communist East Germany, sat in the front row of the stalls. The mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz (a social democrat opposed to Merkel), glowed with civic pride….

For sure, Germany is far too deferential for the British taste. It is too respectful, polite, orderly, above all too serious. At times, including in the course of my visit for the Elbphilharmonie opening, even I, a Germanophile, wanted to have a bit more naughtiness and surprise in the proceedings. And no British arts organisation would put seven white men on stage to conduct a press conference about a huge project – the way the Elbphilharmonie did this week – with not a woman nor a black face in sight. On social media, there is this week, certainly, a strong undercurrent of hostility to the Hamburg opening, and the amount of public money it has taken is eyewatering. But the fact remains that Germany’s readiness to spend on a project such as the Elbphilharmonie, though often controversial on matters like cost and the environment, is ultimately a unifying force.

The civic pride and pleasure now that the concert hall is finally up and running was palpable. The tickets are all sold out for the next six months. The aim is that every child in Hamburg will get to a concert within the first year of the opening. The hall has already had half a million visitors before the first notes (by Benjamin Britten, as it happens) were heard in the opening concert, broadcast live on German television.

…But the truth is we don’t care, not enough. Maybe Germany cares too much. But I’d rather care too much than too little. And it really is a stunner of a building in a city that it’s a joy to get to know.

Amen, brother. This is what makes living in Germany a delight: livable cities with bold, interesting architecture and thriving cultural scenes. German politicians all more or less agree that high culture is an end in itself. It is not open to debate whether the state should fund it. They know that many people find it elitist and a waste of tax money, but it has to continue.*

High culture cannot survive without subsidies either from the state or from private donors. And its existence benefits everyone, whether they understand that or not. So Hamburg spends millions to build a glorious new concert hall. And at the other end of the scale, municipal arts councils dole out grants and commissions here and there to small bookstores, avant-garde theater groups, nature education programs for children, jazz clubs, charity projects, and artists of all kinds. Of course there's some corruption and waste here, what government program doesn't have that? But overall, most of the money goes where it's supposed to, and keeps interesting things happening.

It all adds up, and has a subtle, but profound overall effect. This is why I love living in Germany.

* And yes, as Kettle suggests, the audience for classical music in Germany is lily-white, and German orchestras, like orchestras in North America, are 80% white, 20% Asian. Europeans and Asians are just more likely than other ethnicities to find classical music appealing, and to invest huge amounts of time and money learning to play it and building an infrastructure for it. And since they created it and still have a leading role in propagating it, they're going to spend their money to ensure that it survives. And they're not going to apologize or listen to lectures. This is their culture, and they're going to celebrate it.

And you know what? Even fairly progressive Germans generally don't complain about the 'lack of diversity' in classical music. Sure, they will celebrate it when (non-Asian) minorities succeed in the classical realm. They'll also be sure to listen to all sorts of music from other cultures, from samba to Noh to gamelan to Carnatic. But they aren't pushing to force 'diversity' upon the overwhelmingly white classical establishment. They enjoy experiencing other high cultures because they enjoy their own. They have respect for the noblest achievements of other cultures because they admire their own noblest achievements. As the Lady in the Radiator said, "you've got your good things, and I've got mine".

And German high culture is, in turn, admired and respected across the world. Something most Brits and Americans, obsessed as they are on the controversial Austrian statesman, are unaware of.

4 thoughts on “Fine Buildings, High Culture, No Excuses, No Regrets

  1. I think that Philharmonic in English is usually used both of the building and of the orchestra and of the idea, both as a noun and adjective.

    I think “Elbe Philharmonic” sounds much better in English than other possible translations.

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  2. If only to get some comments from Andrew and the rest of you, I will post this interesting YouTube piece that just dropped in my box. This gent is a lifelong CDU member, but really walks through his disgust with Merkel (and the CDU) policy–or lack thereof. Maybe a bit too deep at times, but lays out, on a pretty high rhetorical plane, how Germans could–and possibly SHOULD–be looking at Merkels crimes and misdemeanors.

    An aside, it is a joy to watch these petrified European “leaders” react to Trump’s blather. Right or wrong, he at least says what everyone knows–that NATO is an outmoded, bloated-with-bureaucrats organization that includes a radical islam nation as one of its members, that will not (or could not) stop a bunch of Russian babushkas from taking a bathhouse. Unless of course the US is ready to commit a lot of its soldiers to actually do the fighting–and dying. While Germany’s pathetic army of 60,000–fewer than there are illegal Afghans in Germany–cannot even keep a fleet of attack helicopters flying.

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  3. And now, from inside of the institution recreation hall, more lily-white music, albeit from the other end:

    Purely Los Nerdos Weirdos
    And the beauty lies therein.
    The trick is in the single mic.
    Yeah!

    Of course, they got part of their vocal que from this ’70ies German funk rock band 🙂

    For our English listeners, better optics, different lyrics:

    Their garments make my eyes water…

    And I don’t even recall them

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