Reconstructing cultural identity


A remarkable German building project

In the centre of Berlin, a most spectatular building project is currently taking form: the reconstruction of the Berlin royal palace, the ‘Berliner Stadtschloss’, in the heart of the city at the end of the famous boulevard Unter den Linden. This project is interesting for new music, since it represents a change in the spirit of our times, until recently dominated by certain notions of modernity which are now increasingly being considered ‘outdated’; ideas which, in the postwar days, stimulated many composers to consider Europe’s rich musical tradition as being ‘out of step’ with the times, thus creating a mental field all of their own, disconnected from the central performance culture.

Within any society, architecture is the most visible expression of cultural identity in public space. It is partly art, partly function, creating the space where people live, work, travel from A to B, and influencing their psyche, if ever so subtly. The way buildings are given form: their exterior character, is a matter of importance to the community because it is creating the nature of their living sphere. While the visual arts and music can be ignored if one wishes so, architecture in public space cannot be avoided. The modernist monstruosities which form such an eye sore in Europe’s old cities have become increasingly under attack, not only from the general public – who never had much influence upon the intrusions of their living space – but increasingly from intellectuals, writers, artists, and even contemporary architects themselves. In the eighties, Prince Charles of England launched an attack upon modernist building which has caused such damage to the British cities and towns, and supported the creation of a new little town: Poundbury, entirely built in traditional style, combining traditional and timeless beauty and humane proportions with the practical comforts of the modern age:

In England, which has always been a more traditionally-oriented country and which suffered less in the Second World War than the continent, the emergence of contemporary architects who build in traditional styles (including the classical style) is less than a surprise, as is the emergence of contemporary composers who do the same with music: reconnecting with older traditions because they offer more than modern practices in terms of beauty, expression, artistic value and interesting structures. Apart from the brilliant and increasingly successful traditionalist composer David Matthews – brother of the more modernist composer Colin Matthews – increasingly younger composers dip into prewar tradition, developing their own personal mixture of elements: James Francis Brown, Peter Fribbins, Alan Mills, and probably many others still unknown but certainly to appear in the future when the taste for modernist nihilism and ‘hip’ nonsense has faded.

In postwar Germany, the bombed city centres had to be quickly rebuilt and modernism, with its prefab materials and practical efficiency, offered the easiest way to fill the many voids. But not everywhere: the small town of Münster, where the renaissance and baroque centre had been completely destroyed, all the buildings of the town’s heart were meticulously reconstructed so that it once again blossomed as one of the beautiful towns in Europe. Also the reconstruction of Dresden’s famous opera house and Frauenkirche springs to mind, emblems of the old city’s beautiful and inviting character. Over the last years, voices are increasingly heard that criticize the bland, characterless and often extremely ugly modern buildings disfiguring the German cities, like Frankfurt with its imitation of Manhattan. The classical architect Leon Krier (one of the designers of Poundbury) advocated a demolition of all those modernist boxes and towers and rebuilding the German city centres in the original styles, an idea that increasingly finds sympathy with the general public, however impractical its realization – not least because of the expenses involved. This goes against a broad consensus in modern culture since WW II, that new architecture, like new art, has to renew itself constantly and that stylistic imitation of older styles are nothing but lies, masks, and admissions of creative impotence. Also – with an Adornian twist – looking back to traditional styles and forms were condemned as ethical failings, an ideological burb going back to the Viennese architect Adolf Loos who notoriously said, at the beginning of the last century, that ornaments on a building were a felony. He even wrote a book titled ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1913). Loos introduced a sense of the ‘immorality’ of ornament, describing it as ‘degenerate’, its suppression as a symbolic necessity for regulating modern society. The comparison with postwar modern music is easily made: Wagner initiated the holocaust because of Hitler’s annexation of his ideas, Strauss collaborated with the brown regime, concentration camp brutes loved Schubert, so: traditional styles became subject to moral condemnation, in an attempt to justify the development of a new art form that had nothing in common with what had been understood as music before. Thus, the ideology of progress in the arts and in architecture demanded a movement further and further away from the past, and with the notion of renewal and individual originality at its centre, an originality unhindered by achievements from ‘older others’.

But this idea cannot be reconciled with the reality of the long history of the arts, and of architecture. In 2010, a remarkable exhibition in Munich’s Museum of Architecture showed that architectural history is full of imitation, reconstruction, reformulation and the following of models. The museum’s director, professor Winfried Nerdinger, made the exhibition’s point very clear: “A copy is not cheating, a facsimile not a forgery, a cast not a crime and a reconstruction not a lie. The education of artists and architects was based, for centuries, upon copying of models and examples, and art and architecture developed through imitation, adaptation, citation and repetition.” Finally, people are waking-up from the tyrannical obsession of a paranoid consensus about the arts, and architecture, and there are signs that something of reality is beginning to make itself felt. As in music, modernism in architecture was and still is a destructive force, an intrusion from a field of experience, fundamentally different from the multi-layered experience of a culture that has developed over the ages and has created so much beauty and character in our environment, a culture that has given us a legacy of artistic experience which has greatly contributed to Europe’s identity. This has been excellently formulated by the German writer Martin Mosebach in his contribution to the international symposium ‘Zwischen Traum und Trauma – Die Stadt nach 1945’ at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Braunschweig in 2010, a text that appeared later in the same year in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

Also in music history, following models and examples was at the heart of the developments of the art form, a practice which – the Soviet Union excepted – never sank to the level of a totalitarian orthodoxy. Limitations of style, taste and availability were transcended by the really talented composers, blending general practice with personal interpretation. In this way, individual achievement could rest upon the fundament of the accumulated achievements of a culture which formed a framework of reference, binding creation, performance and reception into an organic whole. The only way contemporary music in the 21st century can recover from a period of degeneration, is taking the reality of the past to heart and trying to restore such a framework, reconnecting contemporary creation with achievements from the past.

Understandably, also performance is part of this restoration of a framework. In Germany, where many greatly-talented composers were forced into emigration or were murdered during the nazi period, condemned works have been recovered and performed, like the opera ‘Die Vögel’ by Walter Braunfels, and music by other composers which appears to be of special interest because of their artistic qualities and their intrinsic part of European music history and cultural identity. A recent book upon the development of antisemitism (‘Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis’ by Michael Haas, Yale University Press) traces the discriminative discussions that eventually resulted in the nazi paranoia back to the 19th century, when Wagner made his contribution to the fatal mix of chauvinistic nationalism and antisemitism. Research like this feeds the current attempts to present ‘forgotten’ music from the first half of the 20th century, as for instance by the explorative programming of the well-known German chamber orchestra ‘Kammersymphonie Berlin’:

From the site of the Kammersymphonie, referring to the orchestra’s last seasons: “Im Mittelpunkt standen Werke der Klassischen Moderne und die verfemte Musik des frühen 20. Jahrhunderts. In dieser Zeit gab es in Berlin eine faszinierende, breit gefächerte Musikszene.”

These explorations clearly show that European classical music before the Second World War had spread into a wide delta of different styles, all connected to older forms of tradition, and that the so-called Viennese School of Schönberg, Berg and Webern did not present ‘the’ progressive and ‘best way forward’, as had been projected backwards by postwar ideologies and as this misrepresentation has found entrance in most of the new music histories, was merely a marginal phenomenon, hardly taken seriously by the central performance culture in which premières by music of Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, Ravel and the like were considered events of prime importance: new, unfamiliar music but part of the receptive framework as created by tradition. Postwar modernism has destroyed that framework and turned the central performance culture into a museum for the presentation of old repertoire, thereby severing tradition from any contemporary feeling of European cultural identity.

The Berliner Stadtschloss was a large building from the baroque period, centre of government of the kingdom of Prussia and later, the German Empire, with impressive and dignified façades and richly-ornamented courtyards. After the bombing in WW II, only the damaged shell of the outer walls survived, which were thoroughly destroyed under the DDR-regime since the city centre fell within the eastern zone, and on its place a modernist box was built as a cultural centre dedicated to the Volk. After the unification in 1989, this ugly structure was in turn broken-down, which offered the possibility of the reconstruction of the palace. Reconstructing such a historic building is, of course, something different from recreating a rich musical tradition – but it signifies a need to heal the wounds of a barbarian age and to recover something of the character of a place. Of course this project is loaded with cultural and political symbolism, of which the history creates an apt metaphor: an object from a past when public buildings had to express cultural identity with taste and an unerring feeling for beauty and grandeur was destroyed in a political catastrophe, after which modernism replaced its last remnants, thereby destroying it further in an attempt to create a ‘new age’ disconnected from the past, in fact: attempting to destroy history, after which the recovering of common sense and the realization of the need for beauty, character and cultural identity led to the ambitious plan of a reconstruction and giving the new/old building a new and contemporary purpose: the Humboldt Forum, a museum and cultural centre dedicated to the ‘cultures of the world’.

Interestingly, the initiative of rebuilding this impressive palace was taken not by the authorities – the government or the city council – but by a civilian, the German industrialist and aristocrat Wilhelm von Boddien, who set-up an association which mobilized public commitment and has now been lobbying for the necessary funds since its inception:

By the time the project had grown in stature and size, and its symbolic meaning had become a theme in the media, the government took it on and garanteed the bulk of the building costs. As could be expected, the project has been surrounded by extensive discussions, which all centred on the notion of cultural identity, proving that the palace was not merely a nice building which would be a good idea to have reinstalled at a gaping void in the city centre, but a symbol of a theme the meaning of which goes far beyond the object itself. And so it is with contemporary music: it should not be a marginal form of postwar celebration of anti-music, but a symbol of the European spirit, which has faced various crises in the past but which has always recovered from them and found new ways of restoring its continuity. In the Europe of today, it is not ‘progressiveness’ which is at the centre of most pressing concerns, but cultural identity. Renewal can have very different appearances. In the global context in which we find ourselves today, Europe has to reformulate its identity to be able to deal with the immigration problem and with the economic pressures which form a threat to Europe as a whole. Many of the problems that form a serious challenge for today’s Europe, problems like the tensions surrounding the EU and its relation to the world at large, are problems of identity. And problems of identity are cultural problems, which means that culture plays a crucial role in their solutions. Europe’s culture is not something that has to be reconstructed, but to be restored, and much can be learned from the spirit that informs such projects as the rebuilding of the Berliner Stadtschloss.

As the French historian and philosopher Jacques de Goff already said in 1977, a text which adorned the walls of the above-mentioned exhibition in Munich:

“Modernity can appear in the garb of the past. This is characteristic of all Renaissances.”

© John Borstlap / 2014

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