Putting the song back into Germany | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 21.12.2010
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Putting the song back into Germany

While in Goethe's day, singing was an integral part of life in Germany, the collective choir of the nation has since fallen rather silent. Christmas can go some way to restarting a passion.

Children gather round a song sheet to sing

'Tis the season to start singing ...

Rudolph Tiersch grew up in a world of song. When he was a child, friends would come and visit his family on Sundays and would sit in the kitchen, drink tea, chat and laugh. As televisions were still a rarity in those days, it was only ever a matter of time before someone would pick up a guitar and the assembled company would burst into song.

For Tiersch, who is now 50 years old, they are happy memories. And not only for what they were, but for what he describes as their ability to unite people.

"It brings people together and gives them a home singing about their religion or their country," Tiersch told Deutsche Welle. "Chanting is the simplest way to bring people together. You always have a voice with you. Not everyone can play the guitar or the piano, but everyone can sing."

A long healthy tradition

An old painting of a Minnesinger

Reinmar the Minnesinger

The basic German Volkslied has its roots in the 12th century, which gave birth to Minnesingers, who largely sung of love. Over time, the songs came to deal with other important issues such as religion, social conditions, and the soul of the people. By the 19th century it had been turned into an art form, laden with bourgeois expression.

When the Nazis seized power in 1933, they used the national tradition of folk to promote what they claimed to be pure and German. They wrote new songs to the tune of National Socialism, successfully using them as instruments for manipulation and propaganda.

Once the war was over, the East German Communist regime continued to manipulate the masses through music, as Tiersch recalls.

"I recall a song called Unsere Heimat which poetically describes the beauty of the country set to a lyrical melody," he said. "The underlying message was that Socialism made it possible."

From passion to profession

Although much in Germany has changed in the twenty years since reunification, too many decades of state-decreed singing appears to have robbed many people of their lust for letting it all out. Not so Tiersch, whose love of song is so profound that he is a professional choirmaster.

Boys and girls in red and green waistcoats singing

Members of the Frankfurt/Oder singing academy

He is the head of the Singakademie in the eastern German town of Frankfurt/Oder, which comprises a children's, a youth, a concert and a chamber-choir. The choirmaster has been awarded Germany's Federal Cross of Merit for his efforts to bring singing back into everyday life. He says he sees his choirs as a social network.

"It's like a little society inside society," the choirmaster said. "You've got the judge on that side and the salesman there, but they sing together, they're talking together, maybe they drink beer together."

Seeing a mixed bag of people united through song pleases Tiersch greatly, and as choir member Antonia Brill explains, there are plenty of benefits to being part of a group with music at its core.

"It helps you. When you're sad, you think about moments when you sang together with everyone and it feels good, or when you're singing on your own at home, you feel better," the 19-year-old said.

Re-igniting the fire

But Antonia is not necessarily the rule. Rudolph Tiersch says it is becoming increasingly difficult to encourage young Germans to sing, a state of affairs which he finds alarming.

Christmas tree with ornaments

When better to sing than at Christmas?

"It has been scientifically proven that singing activates parts of the brain which otherwise lie idle," he said. "Children who hear their parents sing before they are three years old are better at school than their classmates who have only consumed music in the media."

He believes the over-emphasis of individual freedom in society as we know it today often leads to social isolation, and is keen to point out the sense of community which comes from singing together. Particularly at this time of year.

"Christmas is becoming more and more commercial in Germany, too," he said. "With prosperity we are moving away from the religious traditions which are part of every society. But Christmas singing takes us back to our roots."

And to prove his point, he has his singers working on Bach's Christmas Oratorio, which he explains is all about bringing love into the world. As his singing academy is based in the former GDR, where the state opposed the church, many of his choir members are not familiar with the religious concepts which the music conveys. To set that right, they discuss the work as a group, the aim always being to give the audience goose-bumps.

"If we don't, we've done something wrong," the choirmaster said.

Author: Peter Zimmerman (tkw)
Editor: Nina Haase

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