Conductor Sir Simon Rattle leaves London to become a German Citizen

Sir Simon Rattle with the LSO in Bonn – Source: Barbara Frommann at DW

Music, classical music in particular, has no borders. While the notes are written down on paper, the music is transmitted through the air and cannot be controlled by political authorities.
Note the similarity with the Covid virus!

Beethoven’s ninth’s symphony with the message, “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All people will become brothers [and sisters, we have to add today!]), not only provides the hymn of the European Union, it is popular all around the world. For example, in Japan, hundreds of choirs regularly practice and sing this cantata. Dmitry Shostakovich, reflecting on the crimes of the Stalin regime and commemorating the Jewish tragedies during World War Two, not only speaks to Russians but to the whole world. The same is true for Edward Elgar, whose deep melancholy expresses the grief and sadness about not just the British victims of World War One.

Conductors of classical music, although only executing what a composer’s genius had created, have caught public attention for quite some time. It started in the 19th century, when orchestras had become so big that they could not be led any more by the concert master of the first violins. Conductors quickly gained their reputation as “absolute dictators, leading their musical armies through the storms of a symphony”. In Germany some of them gained the title “Generalmusikdirektor”, a term which clearly contains a military element – the notion of absolute control. In democratically governed societies the conductors of symphony orchestras held the last remnants of “absolute power”, if only for the times of rehearsals and the public concert.

In the Britain of the 19th century, several famous musicians, composers and, in particular, conductors, were hired from the continent: the violinist Adolf Brodsky from Russia; the composer/conductor Max Bruch from Germany, the conductor Hans Richter also from Austria-Hungary and many others. As one can read from George Bernard Shaw, Richard Wagner and his ‘Ring’ made a deep impression. It was only in the 20th century that British conductors, such as Edward Elgar, Thomas Beecham, John Barbirolli, Adrian Bould etc., gained acclaim in their own country and world-wide recognition.

Simon Rattle from Liverpool is one of the “youngest” British conductors who gained international status. Having raised the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to new high standards in the 1980’s and 90’s, he became principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1999, one of the world’s best orchestras. Rattle left the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018 to take over the London Symphony Orchestra as music director. While continuing to live in Berlin with his (third) Czech wife and their children, Rattle focused his music making on London and vehemently lobbied for the building of a new concert hall with better acoustics than the existing Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican Centre and others.

In January 2021 the, “Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks”, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in Munich announced that Rattle would become the successor to Mariss Jansons, the Latvian-born maestro who had died in December 2019 and had been regarded by many as the most gifted living conductor. Shortly afterwards Rattle told the public that he was applying for German citizenship. Although Rattle avoided saying in public that this had anything to do with the Brexit decision, it is quite obviously the reason.

The “Hard Brexit” allows British citizens to travel and work in various EU countries only for a limited time and after a lot of formalities, as graphically illustrated in Aliye Cornish’s earlier article in West England Bylines. So British musicians can no longer pursue their profession as before. Contrary to many German orchestras, the British ones do not receive major public funding, but have to rely heavily on private sponsors, concert tickets, CD sales and international concert tours. For British musicians, like for other “art workers”, Brexit truly has become a “Tsunami”, washing away the very basis of their livelihood. Rattle must have realized that his dream of having a world-class concert hall built in London would not materialize, since the City is facing heavy losses of financial businesses and jobs and probably fewer visitors from abroad.

Traditionally, Munich along with Dresden, Leipzig, Cologne and Berlin, has been one of the centres of classical music in Germany. Ludwig II, the Bavarian king, had brought Richard Wagner to Munich and Bayreuth. The “Bayerische Staatsoper”, Bavarian State Opera, is considered second only to that of Vienna. The Bavarian Radio Orchestra gained prominence after World War Two with conductors like the Czech Rafael Kubelik, a reputation maintained in this century by Mariss Jansons. The orchestra reaches a large audience with its regular radio and TV broadcasts. The radio station itself is financed by the tax payer, thus putting the musicians’ jobs on a safe basis. Jansons even gave up his prestigious position as Chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam to work solely in Munich.

Understandably, Germany can provide better working conditions for musicians and this might have been the major reason for Rattle’s decision. Also, having lived with his family in Berlin for several years, it seems logical that he should apply for citizenship in an EU country.

In the UK not too many people will take note of this and will care about it at all. Despite the London Proms, the Glyndebourne opera and other events, classical music has never been so popular and wide-spread in Britain as in other countries, say the Netherlands, Austria or Germany.
Still Sir Simon’s decision adds another sad facet to the endless saga of Brexit and should be remembered as such.


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