of Rattle and the sum being greater than the parts

I am, I’m happy to say, what is referred to here as a long term tourist, maybe a character type that England has long specialised in producing, from officers of Empire having high tea in the dusty heat of Rajasthan to early retirees without a word of Spanish getting sloshed on the Costas wondering where the value of their condominium time share went as the now empty pool curdles, rises and the tiles crack….and as such, although without the incipient gin dependancy, there are so many things about which I know next to nothing, like German economics, German history and the German character, but…yes, you’re right it isn’t going to stop me.
However, caught on the horns of this dilemma of ignorance and urge, I’ve found a man who can help. The generally acclaimed greatest conductor of the world’s finest orchestra, and possibly the most cultured man in the world, Sir Simon Rattle, Principal Conductor and Director of the Berlin Philharmonic, who is naturally enough a fellow scouser.
The disabled and wheelchairs spots at the Phil (as we say back home) are way up in the gods and they provide a wonderful view down on to the jagged, dislocated diamond of a cauldron that is the Berlin Philharmonic Hall; its shape acoustically determined like the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. Dominic and I are high above, but also forward of, the podium so we can see Rattle face on as it were. The music is challenging, Dutilleux and Lutoslawski, expressionistic clashes of orchestral tone and colour, before everyone relaxes into the strings driven whump of a Robert Schumann symphony. It is the orchestra’s trademark sound.
In such a visually driven culture as ours listening to an orchestra is strangely not spectacular enough somehow, and the mind drifts, me to how to avoid eating chocolate this coming Easter, and Dom to the Incredible Hulk. But then, as we found out later, we both twigged that a way ‘into’ the music was just to watch Rattle and everything there was to hear and feel was there in his movements, gestures and facial expressions. Like a brooding, avuncular hen, he’s intensely observing and listening but also pulling the players ever deeper into the piece, his gestures a beat ahead of the orchestra’s reply, but always relaxed too. Dominic tells me the most difficult thing in learning to box is staying relaxed, always relaxed, even as someone very skilled at punching is about to whallop you. Rattle, who appropriately enough, was a percussionist as a player, bobs and weaves, steps back in mock surprise, hand to his mouth, reaches out open handed pleading, waves his palm towards himself to bring the sound up and on as the sound and gesture move upwards and expand outwards and his curly grey locks quake, and then, knees bent, he’s leaning in to the violins and swinging in to the cellos and time and again bringing the sound down, down to within touching distance of silence and then whallop, he punches the air summoning a blast of brass to conclude the piece and give him a moment to mop his brow. There’s a taken-aback moment of silence before the appreciation slowly builds to tumultuous applause.
Rattle is a Sefton Park scouser, the park itself being over 200 acres of the old royal hunting grounds and a beautiful green space of lakes and streams and a long neglected, but now thankfully restored, glass palm house. The park is edged in parts still by a horse riding track and the avenues around the park were made especially wide to accomodate the carriages of the Victorian business men who would ride here, with their wives and children, to be seen on Sundays. They built the distinguished high ceilinged red sandstone houses that line the park. I lived in one once. It was beautiful and a bugger to heat. They were Liverpool gentlemen, self confident English traders who looked to Europe, to Shanghai and New York as much as to London. Unsurprisingly Rattle’s father was a Commander in the Royal Navy and Rattle himself attended Liverpool College, the private school, established in the 1840’s to educate the sons of such businessmen.
When Rattle leaves the orchestra in 2018 he will have been in Germany for twenty years. And maybe there is something beyond the obvious internationalism and celebrated openmindedness of Berlin that appeals to Rattle as it does to me. And something which makes it appropriate that Berlin’s finest cultural achievement is indeed the Philharmonic orchestra, the epitome of cooperative endeavour, and that is, corporatism, an affection that in England dare not speak its clunky name. Corporatism, the idea that all parts of society, government, national and local, employers, national and international, workers and unions, all need to work together to create a successful society and economy, is central to life in Germany. Perhaps forever blighted in England by memories of ‘beer and sandwiches’ (the phrase itself sniffs of class condescension) for nineteen seventies’ union bosses in Downing street, and the government wasting money on ‘losers’ like British Leyland, its neo-liberal rejection leaves lots of people and parts of Britain, charitably put, to their own devices. But here in Land Brandenburg the old heart of Prussia, which eventually evolved into modern Germany, corporatism has deep and abiding roots in the notion of duty. Although the negative term, ‘verboten’, forbidden, is a German word many English people may know, more often heard here is the positive word, ‘verpflichtet’, meaning bound to do, and rooted in the word, ‘Pflicht’, meaning duty. Creating a modern state from half a dozen far flung and often sparsely populated dukedoms, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Prussia welcomed amongst many others Presbyterian Scots, twenty thousand Austrian Protestants from Augsburg and French Protestants, the Huguenots, all fleeing the Catholic counter Reformation. In 1700 every third Berliner was French, so tolerance too has deep roots, but all were expected to do their duty to contribute through hard work, taxes and military service to the building of the new state. But if they did they were respected for it and their contribution to the whole was as valued as that of any other native born Prussian.
The notion of duty was, of course, abused to devastating effect by the National Socialists to demand obedience to savagery and pointless sacrifice. In Britain its more often referred to as ‘responsibility’ and used as a stick to beat the ‘feckless’ poor and unemployed with; as in people on Social Security spend all day lying in bed with the curtains drawn, etc, etc…But the traders and business men, wives and carriages, all abandoned Sefton Park, and many other parts of the North, long ago and work, any work, even self employed, no benefits, pay your own national insurance drive yourself into the ground selling something useless work is impossible to get; as Dominic can testify.
And though there is work still in Berlin, there is class condescension here too. A Christian Democrat politician has just suggested that food discovered to be adulterated by horse meat can be turned to advantage by giving it to the poor to eat. But coalition politics, at the level of the individual regions, ‘Lander’ like Berlin or Brandenburg, and at the national Federal level, generates a profound undertow that pulls always towards discussion, compromise and politicians are expected, ‘verpflichtet’, not just to carp, but to contribute to finding a consensus, even across party lines….so the whole body, the corpus, of the nation, in theory at least, moves forward together.
As I mentioned earlier, Prussia was once made up of half a dozen geographical areas, separated by hundreds of miles, by culture and language, maybe I should drop Sir Simon, who knows what its like to be the guy at the back with the triangle patiently waiting for his chance to make his contribution, a line about the chances of starting a campaign to get Liverpool adopted as a new Bundesland.

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One thought on “of Rattle and the sum being greater than the parts”

  1. Thanks Nick. really liked the bit about Sefton Park. The palm House is one of my favourite buildings. Is Volksgemeinshaft similar to what you are describing? I think it goes back to World War 1 but took on a darker meaning in the 1930’s. Out with the two Kevins tonight to discuss the issues you have raised!

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