Barocking in the Free World | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 22.01.2002
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Barocking in the Free World

20 years ago, the German Academy for Early Music was founded in a private appartment in Berlin. Today, the orchestra plays in the international league.


Today, music from an early era is still unusual

The independent German ensemble "Akademie für Alte Musik", or Academy for Early Music, was founded 20 years ago when several young musicians got together in East Berlin to play music on historical instruments - a bold move in East Germany’s otherwise rather stodgy culture, giving a decisive impulse to the hitherto timid efforts in this musical field in the former east German Republic. Today, the group is internationally renowed, performs regularly in concert halls all over the world and has now been nominated for an award at this year’s Midem music market in Cannes.

An orchestra with a difference

At the Academy, autonomy is an important principle and democracy a golden rule - at an orchestry which very often plays without a conductor. The players are equally responsible for the performance: there is no set concert master – the concert masters rotate regularly – giving every violinist a chance to "lead" the ensemble.

This attitude was one of the reasons why the former east German government watched the group with a wary eye. Playing music on a democratic basis in addition to digging up "original" sheets of music did not quite fit the German Democrats ideals and did not go along with FDJ-marching tunes.

However, the musicians carried out their rehearsals in private apartments and soon attracted a delighted and ethusiastic audience. "People were not interested in the intellectualism of early music," violinist Stephan Mai told Deutsche Welle, "they just wanted to experience enjoyment".

By this time, West Germany had also become aware of the former GDR’s first ensemble for early music. A west German newspaper asked in 1990 why no similar music group had been founded before in the German Democratic Republic: According to the Kölner Rundschau from March 1990, this was the result of a bad education, missing historical instruments and stiff marxist ideological critique.

It was in 1985, the year commerating 300 years of Bach and Händel that the group also attracted the enthusiasm of the East German government. 1985 saw the first record release, and in 1986 one of the group’s founders, Stephan Mai, took a revolutionary trip to West Germany .

Today, the ensemble performs at renowned concert halls all over the world, including the Wigmore Hall in London, the Beaux Arts in Brussels and the Paris Theatre des Champs-Elyseés.

The members are all professional musicians – however, in other, leading orchestras. The Akademie für Alte Musik is a hobby and according to the group’s members, is set to stay that way. Playing in a leading chamber orchestra besides a full-time job and family life has its restrictions, violinist Stephan Mai admits. The group "only" manages 4 concert programmes a year - other leading orchestras manage an average of 30.

But it is this, the fact that the members’ dedication to the group is motivated by enthusiasm and enjoyment and not by obligations or constraints, that is regarded as the source of their success.