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The German shock rockers might seem stylistically light years away from classical music — but only at first glance. Take a closer look, and listen, and you'll hear intrinsic similarities, says DW's Rick Fulker.
"This is art," said the German composer Torsten Rasch about the music of Rammstein. Rasch adapted a number of the band's songs into a song cycle for solo voice and symphony orchestra that appeared on CD in 2004 under the title Mein Herz brennt (My Heart's on Fire).
The result wasn't crossover — which is often a stylistic compromise, but something quite different. Rasch took liberties with the songs, and sometimes the connection to the original is not particularly clear. Instead, he was more inspired by the powerful lyrics and gave them an avant-garde form of expression particularly suited for the voice of René Pape, an accomplished operatic singer.
Read more: How I learned to love Rammstein
A adaptation of a Rammstein song that exudes a more typically classical style was "Seemann" (Sailor), as covered by Nina Hagen and the group Apolyptica in 2003. A year later, the group Gregorian reworked "Engel" with a touch of Gregorian chant.
An affinity with "classical" culture in the broader sense is indicated by Rammstein frontman Till Lindemann's interest in the lyrics of Bertolt Brecht and in a volume of his own poetry titled In stillen Nächten and published in 2013.
People are inspired to learn German from Rammstein's lyrics. Do they want to also learn to play piano to enjoy this bound edition?
Classical frills and references
As for the band, hints of their affinity for classical music pop up again and again.
On their current European stadium tour, the warm-up act is the piano duo Jatekok. Made up of French pianists Adélaïde Panaget & Naïri Bandal, the duo performs songs from Rammstein's album Klavier (Piano). Released in 2015, that album goes with an 80-page hard-bound edition of the notes to the songs so that they can be played on a conventional piano at home — which historically, before the invention of the phonograph, was the prevalent method of mass dissemination of music. The structure of the songs, and their melodies, lend themselves to that other medium more fittingly than the music of any other rock group that may come to mind.
On the tour, between Jatekok's piano duo and the huge explosion that signals the beginning of the rock concert, George Frideric Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks sounds out in a nod to the band's famous pyrotechnics.
Classical stylistic elements are abundant in Rammstein's music. Take the recently released single "Deutschland"and fast-forward to the end, and you hear that it ends with a long, melancholy piano passage. Sample the strings in the song "Mein Herz brennt," or luxuriate in the sweeping choral passages in "Zeig dich."
Classical to the core
During the entire 27-city tour — with remaining stops in Riga, Latvia and Tampere, Finland; then on to Stockholm and Oslo before the final evening in Vienna on August 22 — there have been nearly daily news reports, be it of a physical altercation between Lindemann and a fan, or the lead singer's wiring of his jaw enabling bright light to stream forth from his mouth, as well as, most recently, the headline-grabbing male-to-male kiss that scandalized their performances in Russia, a country where homophobia has been encoded into law.
Often, however, it is the tiniest nuances in the performances of the songs themselves that get music journalists' attention. Far from a spontaneous, chaotic jam session flavor that characterizes much of rock and heavy metal, Rammstein's frame of reference are their perfectly-hewed songs and precisely choreographed performances that certainly earn the designation "classical."
That doesn't mean that Rammstein are stylistically anywhere near Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite or Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik. So what do I mean here by classical?
A look in Webster's New World Dictionary takes us a step closer. Here, "classical" means "designating or of music that conforms to certain established standards of form, complexity, musical literacy, etc."
Artistic expression on various levels
To me, "classical" is about form. Rammstein's influences are many, including Nina Hagen, Depeche Mode and the Slovenian band Laibach. That style has been described as including elements of industrial hard rock, heavy metal, grunge and electronic music, punk rock, pop music and gothic.
It's a sound with epic sweep, and much of it not terribly nice.
"Mutter," a song about a test-tube baby, was described as "music to invade Poland to" by a critic in the magazine Jam Showbiz in 2001, while the Southland Times of New Zealand suggested that Lindemann's "booming, sub-sonic voice" would send "the peasants fleeing into their barns and bolting their doors."
Rammstein have found their style — and stick to it. "Do your own thing. And overdo it!" is the band's motto according to drummer Christoph Schneider. But where did they get that style? Keyboarder Christian "Flake" Lorenz once answered, "We found the style by all of us knowing what we didn't want. We noticed that we can only do the music we actually play. And it is very simple, blunt and monotonous."
Yet that style is also profound, often disquieting yet sometimes tender and melancholy. Maybe the classical composer that comes to mind first in comparison is Richard Wagner. That most of their songs would be in a minor key is not remarkable — that seems to apply to most of pop music today. But could the deep sadness of "Engel" (Angel) be outdone, in any genre?
You have — or you hate?
As for Rammstein's shows, they are more like staged operatic performances than rock concerts: never an idle moment. Even song routines that have been repeated over a period of years — such as "Flake" Lorenz being cooked in a soup pot in a song about cannibalism — are performed with such perfection and attention to detail that they seem fresh.
That doesn't prevent conspiracy theorists from plumbing Rammstein's lyrics and videos for hints of hidden knowledge. Nor does it reduce the band's following on the far-right, presumably because of their glorification of machismo and unapologetic use of stylistic techniques reminiscent of an era most would prefer to forget — such as film clips in the style of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's film propagandist. Those qualities, and Lindemann's trademark rolled "R" are the things that most Germans find disquieting and that, rightly or wrongly, add to the group being perceived abroad as very German.
A colleague of mine recently remarked that during his trip to Canada, when he told people where he came from, someone said, "Ahh, Germany! Rammstein!" They then proceeded to ask what the title of the song "Du hast" means, thinking that it must be something terrible. They were surprised to hear that it simply means "You have," and that the song is about a marriage proposal. It also is a homonym for "You hate," however, and adding to Rammstein's famous ambiguity in its messaging, the band translated it that way in an English version of the song.
The audience in mind
Whether very many of the thousands who have seen Rammstein on tour together with Jatekok may develop an interest in piano duos is an open question.
But thinking of the band, I'm reminded of a letter that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart once wrote to his father. He shared some shop talk, and even that creator of the high art wasn't above taking his audience into consideration. Referring to the piano concertos he was in the process of composing, he wrote that he was calibrating them to be accessible to the neophyte, yet sophisticated enough to engage the interest of the cognoscenti.
A Rammstein song is like that. It can be absorbed at first hearing, but return to it later, and you will find that it can be appreciated on various levels. That, too, is "classical."