The famed British conductor, who was long at the head of the Berlin Philharmonic, has now been honored with one of Germany's highest awards.
Freeing classical music from the exclusive, elitist aura and making it accessible to a broader public has always been among Sir Simon Rattle's goals, also during his 16 years as music director and principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Germany has now honored the British conductor with the Grand Cross of Merit with the Star of the Order of Merit, one of the country's highest awards. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented the recognition during a ceremony on Tuesday in Berlin's Bellevue Palace, the official residence of the Federal President.
"You embody the promotion of music, which you bring to life with your orchestras. That alone is worthy of all honors," said Steinmeier, praising the conductor at the ceremony as an "extremely sympathetic representative of musical life."
Liverpool, Birmingham, Berlin
Born into a family of musicians in the English city of Liverpool on January 19, 1955, Rattle took up studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London at the age of 16, focusing on piano, percussion and orchestra direction.
Completing his studies in 1974, he won the John Player International Conducting Competition and was hired as an assistant with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, later with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1980, the 25-year-old was named principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra — and in the following 18 years, he led the provincial ensemble to world fame. Iron discipline, boundless curiosity and a blend of classical and modern repertories was the recipe for success, along with his seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm.
In an interview with Radio Bavaria in 2004, Rattle confirmed: "I am a veritable optimistic maniac." In a more recent interview with The Guardian, Rattle explained his motivation: Life in a 21st century orchestra isn't about "giving magnificent concerts" but about "being a disciple for the cause."
In that cause — classical music — Rattle received formative influence in the 1980s from the German conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. "Harnoncourt opened my eyes to what the historically informed performance movement represented and meant," he told DW. "So this sent me back to books, sent me back to the harpsichord, it sent me to study the baroque violin."
Meanwhile, the success of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was noted by the royal family, with Queen Elizabeth knighting Rattle in 1994.
Five years later, the members of the Berlin Philharmonic elected Rattle their new principal conductor, and in 2002 he succeeded Claudio Abbado as the sixth principal in the orchestra's history.
Simon Rattle's farewell concert
The most beautiful conducting job — and the most difficult
It was the beginning of an energetic and sometimes turbulent period.
Early on, the new principal initiated the Berlin Philharmonic's Education Program. One of its notable projects was incorporating young people from socially disadvantaged parts of the city into music and dance projects, as was impressively documented in the film "Rhythm is It."
The outreach extended also to hospitals and schools, where orchestra musicians would perform and explain their profession.
In the Digital Concert Hall, performances of the Berlin Philharmonic could now be seen worldwide, and the orchestra founded its own label.
In 2004, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were named UNICEF Ambassadors, the first time that honor had been given to an artistic ensemble.
In his 16-year tenure, this conductor had 1,100 concert performances with the Berlin Philharmonic — and he opened up a new repertory to the orchestra. It included English and Nordic composers that had been missing from previous playbills, Haydn and Mozart — and a lot of contemporary music. At one point, the American composer John Adams was composer in residence. The German daily "Die Welt" named Rattle a "glutton for repertoire."
What fell out of focus — at least in the view of some inside and outside the orchestra — was the Berlin Philharmonic's traditional repertory: the German Romantics. Criticism erupted in the orchestra's ranks and among critics around 2006, to the effect that the Berlin Philharmonic's unique sound wasn't unique any more: it had become, in what it performed and how it performed it, globalized and interchangeable.
"Everybody is a soloist within their own right. There is not such a thing as 'leaders' and 'followers' here, it's all leaders," is how Rattle described that body of musicians not lacking in self-confidence.
In an interview with Die Welt in 2015, he elaborated: "It is at once the world's most beautiful and most difficult conducting job. Usually at the same time. They don't ask, 'How?' They ask, 'Why?' That's why I love working with them."
That special moment
Rattle weathered the controversy and served up many special moments for audiences in Berlin and on tour worldwide. The most often mentioned highlights include the performances of Bach's Passions staged by Peter Sellars and of "The Rite of Spring" by Igor Stravinsky.
In 2013, Rattle surprisingly announced his intention not to extend his contract with the Philharmonic, moving on instead to the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017. "Rattle's appointment is precisely the seismic, creative shock that classical music needs," wrote The Guardian.
In August 2019, Kirill Petrenko succeeded Rattle at the helm in Berlin.
The Englishman and his third wife, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, retain their home in Berlin, and Rattle now spends a few months a year in London. Further projects with the Berlin Philharmonic — and with the National Youth Orchestra of Germany, of which he was named honorary conductor in 2018 — keep him in touch with German audiences.
Apart from London and Berlin, Rattle is often to be seen in the US, initially with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony, and now more frequently with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He also regularly appears with the Vienna Philharmonic — with which he recorded the complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies — and is principal artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Great Britain.
Sir Simon Rattle is also set to officially return to Germany. He will remain music director of the London Symphony Orchestra until mid-2023, all while beginning as chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra for the 2023/2024 concert season. He also wants to continue to live in Berlin.
Update: This profile of Simon Rattle was updated on February 8, 2022, as he was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit.