Introduction: Musical Life in Germany

by Christian Höppner

With its diverse traditions and a multitude of cultural institutions, Germany is a land of music. An introduction to political, social and cultural aspects of musical life by Christian Höppner, General Secretary of the German Music Council.

Since its reunification in 1990, Germany has developed into a landscape best captured in a single term: diversity. Practically every area of human and natural existence in Germany is marked by diversity. Its varied species, life forms and cultures are constitutive components of a democracy built on a judicious balance between freedom and responsibility – a responsibility toward Nature, toward the right of self-determination, and toward a society bound by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and its own Basic Law. In the evolution of its society, Germany's ties to the past are no less in evidence than the interaction with its European neighbours and the rest of the world. While absolutism and dictatorship continue to leave an imprint, Germany’s socio-political evolution has been influenced by such factors as demographic change, working conditions, transcultural communication, migration and digitisation.

A youth ensemble with professional aplomb: the State Youth Orchestra of North Rhine-Westphalia
(picture © Lea Letzel)

Germany's system of federalism is a defining feature of its social fabric, and thus, in accordance with Article 79, Paragraph 3 of the Basic Law, an inalienable principle of the structure of the state. Consequently, federalism is a dominant element not only of Germany’s social policies, but also of its cultural life. It not only undergirds Germany's administrative decisions, it also ensures above all a kaleidoscopic cultural diversity. The balance of relations among its three levels – municipalities, states, federal government – is subject to constant change within the stipulations of the Basic Law, underscoring the complex processes of decision-making and constantly raising the question of which responsibilities are to be borne by whom. The so-called educational and cultural sovereignty of Germany's states largely prevents the federal government from taking any part in these areas. Educational and cultural policy thus moves – or fails to move – in the field of tension between the division of responsibilities among the states and the right to equivalent living conditions, a right likewise set down in Germany’s Basic Law and reinforced by the coalition treaty of its government. The Digital Pact for Schools, designed to provide digital equipment for Germany’s schoolrooms, was ratified by the German Bundestag with a two-thirds parliamentary majority (enough to effect a change in the constitution), yet it was initially rejected by the upper house (Bundesrat). Since 2013 the State Contract for Education has been demanded by those states headed by conservative governments, but remains in the optional discussion phase of the Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK). Moreover, the ‘National Educational Council’, agreed upon in the coalition treaty, is rejected in the form proposed by the federal government.  In any event, a newly founded Conference of Cultural Ministers was launched on 1 January 2019, initially within the organisational framework of the KMK, to deal with the full spectrum of cultural issues relative to the states.

Germany's division of responsibilities has left its mark on the public funding of culture, which totalled € 10.4 billion in 2015. Of this figure, the federal government contributed € 1.5 billion, the states € 4.2 billion and the municipalities € 4.7 billion. These investments amount to roughly 1.73 per cent of all public budgets.  They are augmented by grants from the private sector, including donations, membership fees and funds from foundations and sponsors, to an annual order of magnitude of at least € 800 million.  In 2005 the Christian churches invested some € 4.4 billion in culture, or roughly 20 per cent of the proceeds from church tax and their own receipts.

 Singender Holunder : pub singalong concerts in Cologne  (picture © Jan Krauthäuser)
Singender Holunder: pub singalong concerts in Cologne
(picture © Jan Krauthäuser)
Open singalong at the Bad Homburg Festival of Choral and Orchestral Music, 2018 (picture © Heiko Rhode)
Open singalong at the Bad Homburg Festival of Choral and Orchestral Music, 2018 (picture © Heiko Rhode)
Generation Rock: a senior citizens' workshop of LAG Rock, 2018  (picture © Vera Lüdeck)
Generation Rock: a senior citizens' workshop of LAG Rock, 2018
(picture © Vera Lüdeck)
Orchestral rehearsal at the State Academy Ochsenhausen (© Landesakademie für die musizierende Jugend in Baden-Württemberg / picture: Steffen Dietze)
Orchestral rehearsal at the State Academy Ochsenhausen (© Landesakademie für die musizierende Jugend in Baden-Württemberg / picture: Steffen Dietze)

Germany's musical life, with around 14 million amateur musicians, is directly and indirectly affected by this socio-political context. A wide variety of different forms of amateur music-making are sustained to a very great extent by civic engagement. Among these amateur musicians are 2.1 million singers and 1.6 million instrumentalists in the country’s musical associations, plus more than 1.4 million students at public music schools and a great many students receiving private music instruction. To these figures must be added the musicians active in popular music, members of school ensembles in the state education system and participants in other cultural vehicles. Further indications of Germany's musical diversity are its professional music scene and the many thousands of ensembles from every area of amateur music-making that are financed either wholly or partly by public funds or private patronage.    Turning to the public sector, Germany's 129 professional orchestras and 83 music theatres offer a broad range of programmes in conjunction with a great many concert organisers, freelance musicians, independent ensembles and privately run institutions. The music economy, with total turnover amounting to at least € 8.1 billion in 2016, numbers among the country's major business sectors, forming an economic bridge between amateur and professional music-making. With roughly 14,400 companies and some 86,000 persons gainfully employed, Germany occupies a towering position in the international music market.

Christian churches unite some 850,000 people in their choruses and instrumental groups and enrich the professional music scene with such top-calibre ensembles as the St Thomas Boys Choir in Leipzig or the Dresden Kreuzchor. No firm figures are available for the contribution made to Germany's musical life by non-Christian religions: its large Muslim population (approximately 4.5 million in 2015), the 227,000 members of other non-Christian congregations and the roughly 98,000 members of its Jewish community. The crucial role played by Judaism in the history of Europe and the evolution of Germany's cultural life suffered a brutal setback with the expulsion or extermination of almost the entire Jewish population between 1938 and 1945. Since 2004 its 87 synagogues have also included music programmes as vehicles in their Jewish-Christian dialogue.

The cornerstone of musical life: cultural diversity

Cultural diversity is not a static situation but rather an active process among different forms of culture. It is the defining feature of Germany's cultural life, and hence its musical life as well. Germany is both colourful and rich – rich in its cultural heritage, rich in cultures from other countries, and rich in creative potential. These three areas constitute the core features of its cultural diversity. In this way Germany satisfies the three basic pillars of the UNESCO Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which was ratified by the 33rd UNESCO plenary session on 20 October 2005 and went into effect on 18 March 2007.  The Convention, which is binding under international law, has been ratified by more than 140 member states, including Germany's Parliament and the European Union as a community of states. Its genesis and the process of its ratification took place with unprecedented speed, bearing witness to the need for action in this area and for the Convention's potential impact. It was prompted by the efforts (especially on the part of the United States) to deregulate the world markets via the World Trade Organization (WTO) and by the debates on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). These efforts would have caused culture to be one-sidedly reduced to the status of a commodity. With the promulgation of the Convention on Cultural Diversity, the dual character of culture as both a cultural and an economic asset was ensured, and the autonomy of the nations’ cultural policies was brought into line with international trade agreements. Moreover, the national processes of ratification were spurred by the realisation that cultural diversity has been declining all over the world, and that it constitutes an economic advantage in the global competition and the key prerequisite for an independent national cultural policy.

17 Hippies (picture © Silverangel Photography)
17 Hippies (picture © Silverangel Photography)
Wacken Open Air 2018 (picture © ICS Festival GmbH)
Wacken Open Air 2018 (picture © ICS Festival GmbH)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra (picture © Geoffry Schied)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra (picture © Geoffry Schied)
Performance Sous Vide at ECLAT 2018 festival (picture © Martin Sigmund)
Performance Sous Vide at ECLAT 2018 festival (picture © Martin Sigmund)

From Bavarian folk music to DJing, Hip-Hop and House, from contemporary music festivals to the classical legacy, from Sorbian music to Carnival festivities and shanty choruses, a wealth of regionally diverse forms of cultural expression extend in Germany from north to south and from east to west. Music, at once the most evanescent and the most immediate of all forms of artistic expression, plays a central role in communicating and developing this diversity. By multiplying our powers of perception and musical self-expression, it forms a cornerstone not only in the cultural self-fulfilment of the individual, but also in the cultivation and advancement of musical diversity.

Music subsidisation: a public duty

In Germany, responsibility for education and culture lies in the hands of the federal states. The federal government basically provides the underlying legal framework, such as copyright law, social security law, law of associations, law of foundations and labour law. Erecting this framework is the responsibility of the relevant federal ministries or parliamentary committees. The Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien, or BKM) assumes responsibility for this area together with her department, which answers directly to the Chancellor. It is from the BKM's vantage point that duties of national importance are administered outside the sole responsibility of the states. The administraton of these duties also involves the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Close co-operation pertains between the BKM and the states in Germany's representation abroad. Germany's cultural policies in foreign lands reside in the hands of the Foreign Office.

Financial support from donors, patrons and friends has given the Balthasar Neumann Chorus and Ensemble the wherewithal to explore musical sources, to conceive programmes crossing eras and genres, and to present concerts all over the world (picture © Benjamin Krieg)

Germany's system of publicly funded education and culture was built up by its state and civil society during the post-war years. The idea of equal access to education and culture for every citizen gave rise to a firm belief that both education and culture are a public obligation subject to public accountability, and thus to public funding. This conviction is based on, among other things, Article 7 of the Basic Law, the constitutions of Germany’s federal states, and the educational and cultural mission of its public broadcasting corporations. Despite the recurring demand to include the words ‘The state shall protect and promote culture’ into the Basic Law, it has been unable, in the last three legislative periods, to gather the necessary majority of votes in Parliament. With the growing importance of foundations and the increase of short-term projects the proportion of private funding has expanded, but without solving the underlying structural financing problems. The number of private donors for structural financing has declined, for it is very often more attractive to invest in short-term projects that quickly produce visible results. Yet structural financing is essential for a sustained impact on education and culture. Projects can provide an impetus, but they cannot replace continuity and quality in educational and cultural offerings. The only way to counter the rapid spread of ‘projectitis’ is for the public sector to provide long-term structural subsidies for formal, non-formal and informal education. This also involves voluntary commitment in non-profit organisations, for, in an increasingly complex world, honorary positions require the professionalism of full-time paid employees.

There still exists a social consensus that education and culture, being essential to the common weal, must be financed primarily from tax revenue. This consensus is chiefly influenced by the educational and cultural experiences gained by generations of decision-makers during the formative periods of their childhood and youth. Yet the growing deficits in music education permit the opposite conclusion: that this consensus is not necessarily carved in stone.

Civic engagement: the guarantee for a vibrant musical culture

The emancipation of the middle classes in the 19th century marked the beginning of Germany’s system of clubs and associations, which has remained its central form of organisation for civic engagement to the present day. Nearly 44 per cent of the population over 14 years of age is engaged in voluntary service. After educational work and sports, a commitment to culture and music comes third place, doubling from 4.5 to 9 percent between 1999 and 2014.  Without civic engagement the breadth and high quality of Germany's educational and cultural infrastructure would not exist. Here amateur singers and instrumentalists, sometimes in interaction with the professional music scene, play a central role. Amateur music-making is a cornerstone of Germany's musical life, forming part of a network that impinges on every area of society. For many German citizens, no matter what their social or ethnic backgrounds, playing and listening to music of every imaginable style are an inseparable part of their lives. In the dialogue between cultures and generations, amateur music-making opens up worlds of encounter – the prerequisite for the humanist society of today and tomorrow.

'Bridges – Music unites', an intercultural musical initiative from Frankfurt am Main, brings together local musicians and those with recent refugee or migration backgrounds (picture © Eliane Hobbing)

Life in German society has not escaped the impact of international migration caused primarily by the worsening state of the world (27 wars and armed conflicts in 2017 alone) and some 68.5 million refugees. Public discourse has become increasingly coarse, and hatred and violence more prevalent, necessarily bringing about divisions in society. Debates have again flared up on the subject of ‘homeland’, revealing a need and a search for orientation and self-assurance. For the people seeking refuge in Germany, and for those who feel left behind, music in particular can open up new or seemingly lost worlds of experience. This is why the German Music Council, the umbrella organisation for Germany’s musical life, has developed a strong commitment in its musical policies and projects to convey the integrative power of music as broadly as possible. One example is the information portal ‘Music and Integration’ operated by the German Music Information Centre, which documents such initiatives on a nationwide basis and provides a point of contact for further information. The German Music Council’s membership meeting in 2018 (‘City-Country-Music’) clearly shows in its choice of topic that the statement by philosopher Karl Jaspers – ‘Home is where I understand and am understood’ – can serve as a source of guidance for everyone in our country. Many institutions of Germany’s musical life are also enganged in integration through music, the amateur music scene no less than the many orchestras, opera houses and theatres. The state music academies, with their offerings in advanced and continuing education, in turn ensure that the work of communication is carried out by qualified personnel.

Germany's amateur musicians reveal a high degree of motivation, identification and shared responsibility for the future of our society. By exhibiting civic engagement for a vibrant music scene, they are no less crucial to professional orchestras and music theatres than to the creative economy and educational institutions both inside and outside the state school system. More than 100 associations are members of the German Music Council, together with the state music councils and leading figures from musical life. They reflect the diversity of the professional and amateur music scenes alike. But in addition to improving framework conditions, the enhancement of public perception and recognition is one of the critical milestones on the path to increased civic engagement.

Creativity: a mainspring of social evolution

At the beginning of every creative development is the author. Before music can be played it must first be created, though both elements are united in the performances of improvising musicians. Artistic creativity in Germany is currently imperilled by a rapid decline in appreciation for creative work. This is evident, for example, in the spiralling illegal use of music and literature. The current legal framework, e.g. copyright law, is far from sufficient to secure the livelihoods of authors in the future. This poses an obstacle on the path to a knowledge-based and creative society, for a society’s intellectual and cultural evolution is all but impossible without creative achievements from authors and corresponding conditions to secure their means of subsistence. Digitisation has an impact on virtually all walks of life and is increasingly altering our thoughts and actions, including those that apply to culture. The achievements of creative individuals must be honoured in a manner at least capable of securing their livelihood. Similarly, all people must be enabled to actively participate in culture, regardless of their social or ethnic background. The success in the European Parliament of the proper involvement of creative individuals in the proceeds from streaming platforms is an initial step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.

Music education: a multi-layered duty of society

Music accompanies most people for the whole of their lives, from the prenatal phase to advanced age. Music education forms the foundation of a wide range of musical experiences and musical self-expression. For its work on musical policy, the German Music Council views music education as part of cultural education, and thus of general education as a whole.

The subject of education has gained considerable weight in recent public debates and is viewed both by politicians and by civil society as a multi-layered social duty. The various points of view regarding education range from its social utility with regard to Germany’s competitiveness in the global economy to the ideal of a holistic education with culture as its centrepiece. The debate on goals, contents and implementation is as broad as Germany’s federalist structure itself. But no matter how controversial the debate may be, there is general agreement in invoking education, and especially music education, as a mainstay of society’s ability to thrive in the future.

Nonetheless, the growing importance attached to education is not matched by action in everyday educational operations at the local level. Cultural participation – a basic prerequisite for identity formation and personality development – is not open to everyone. The poverty of music instruction in the state school system, where it is likely to be taught by non-specialists or dropped altogether (especially in primary schools), is worsened by noticeable deficits in early training. Practically no elementary music education takes place at the pre-school level, and when it does, it is only in the form of extra activities. The reason for this is simple: the area does not form part of the standard teacher training curriculum. Ever since Germany’s reunification in 1990, the accessibility of institutions outside the general school system has steadily declined. At public music schools alone there are currently over 60,000 pupils waiting, sometimes for years, for a chance to receive lessons against payment because tight budgets prevent the schools from providing sufficient staff.
The shortening of the length of grammar school (Gymnasium) from nine to eight years (G8), the expansion of the amount of time spent at school each day with the introduction of all-day schools, parents’ fears for their children’s career prospects: all these factors have led not only to a drastic compression in the ‘workday’ of children and adolescents, they are also increasingly producing adverse signs of strain. Ambitious parents often overburden their children with a welter of activities designed for professional qualification. The demands of school likewise leave children less time to practice their chosen instruments. Music frequently comes into play when the oft-repeated belief takes hold that 'music makes you smart'. For some, free time for spontaneous activities or simply doing nothing at all is a rarity.

Countless official reports, resolutions and public pronouncements from working professionals, civil society and politicians of every stripe have stressed the importance of music education. Finally, after years of a constantly widening gap between such pronouncements and reality, long-term educational initiatives have been introduced with prospects of sustainability. One example is the ‘JeKits’ programme (short for ‘Jedem Kind Instrumente, Tanzen, Singen’, or ‘Instruments, Dancing and Singing for Every Child’), which superseded North Rhine-Westphalia’s ‘JeKi’ programme in 2015 (‘An Instrument for Every Child’). Another is ‘Cultural Agents for Creative Schools’, which, following a preliminary phase from 2011 to 2015, has been instituted in Baden-Württemberg, Berlin, Hamburg, North Rhine-Westphalia and Thuringia since the 2015-16 academic year. But these efforts will only prove effective if the institutions of advanced and continuing education, the institutions of early training, and the only place capable of reaching all children and adolescents – the state school – are placed in a position to offer universal music education in practice and theory at every age level.

'JeKits', a programme for primary and special schools in North Rhine-Westphalia (picture © JeKits Foundation)

In this connection it is important to mention the shortage of qualified staff, especially in education, but also in some artistic subjects. The cause of this lies in the above-mentioned shortcomings in early training and the increasingly porous education system. If a grammar school no longer offers an honours course in music, it will be difficult to kindle a desire in its students to take up music teaching as a profession. The superfluity of pianists among the graduates of Germany's tertiary-level schools of music leads to frustrated career expectations and, often enough, to unemployment in their chosen profession. Being under-financed, Germany's universities and advanced schools of music have less and less capacity for the most expensive of all courses of study: music education at the school level. Here politicians are called upon to equip tertiary-level music schools and universities with the funds necessary to meet their needs. The attractiveness of the course offerings is also reflected in a greater number of foreign students, many of whom already have degrees from their native countries. As welcome as this great demand may be, measures must be taken to ensure that entrance examinations do not fall prey to ‘lopsided competition’.
Nor have the expressive powers of Germany’s instrumentalists and singers always kept pace with the striking recent advances in technique. This has become evident in, for example, the nationwide ‘Jugend musiziert’ (Youth Makes Music) competition, orchestral auditions and entrance examinations at universities and advanced schools of music. Here the operative factors are far too convoluted to be squeezed into a degree programme. The key influences of family, friends, educational surroundings and the media combine with the students’ own potential and early training to create the crucial groundwork for their powers of artistic expression. It is now often thought obsolete to spend time cultivating personal growth and gathering experiences, especially given the prevailing model, widely touted in the media, of quick and easy success. But Germany's equivalent to ‘American Idol’ or ‘Britain's Got Talent’ – the RTL series 'Deutschland sucht den Superstar' (Germany Seeks the Superstar) – produces, apart from a few well-adapted ‘winners’, nothing but losers. This stands in sharp contrast to ‘Jugend musiziert’, where the participants benefit from their encounters with other contestants and the professional advice they receive from the jury.

Challenges facing Germany as a bastion of music

In the eyes of the world Germany is a bastion of music, the ‘musical country’ par excellence. Yet music is at once a cultural asset and a business factor. The outlook for Germany as a bastion of music is best measured against its potential. The riches of its cultural heritage, its contemporary forms of artistic expression, its blend of cultures from foreign countries: these are what form the core of Germany’s cultural diversity. Together with its geopolitical location and its economic development, they also mark an excellent point of departure for turning this potential into reality. Cultural life past and present, combined with the three levels of Germany's federalist structure, forms the starting point from which to answer the question that poses itself anew every day: how can this potential be realised for the benefit of the individual and the community?

Previous findings from reports conducted by Germany’s educational and cultural authorities suggest that the increasingly virtual forms of human communication strengthen the need for other forms of creative self-expression and communication, especially among children and young adults. The focus falls on the sensory experiences gained from their own voice or instrument. The growing need for practical experience in the arts at every age has left only a small mark on the oft-repeated protestations of interest, as witness the long waiting lists at Germany’s public music schools.

Given this known and suspected potential, new incentives are arising at every decision-making level to enable everyone to participate in culture from the very outset and for their entire life. Some of Germany’s cultural and educational institutions are already working to develop their communication concepts further along these lines, even given the altered conditions of communication in the internet. But even the best concepts will miscarry or be marginalised unless the underlying framework allows for continuity in the communicative systems.It is an uncontested fact that, in all areas of society, existing potential is not being sufficiently exploited or cultivated. Germany’s educational and cultural infrastructure, still largely intact a few years ago, is being increasingly fragmented by more or less rigid policies of budget cutbacks that lack substantive or socio-political justification. The resultant gaps in education and culture threaten to exclude an ever greater number of people from a concept of cultural participation designed to ensure high quality and long-term continuity.

Where the Wild Things Are, a children's opera performed at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf (picture © Hans Jörg Michel)

Given the realisation that education and culture represent a core area of social evolution, several projects have already been launched to improve access to education and culture. Good examples of such projects are the commitment to music education demonstrated by many orchestras and music theatres, as well as the above-mentioned ‘JeKits’ project in North Rhine-Westphalia. However, this does not face the challenge of enabling everyone to participate in culture, regardless of their social or ethnic background, for the prerequisites of such participation are continuity and communication concepts that ensure a high qualitative standard. In particular the sites where encounters with culture first take place – day-care centres, state schools, music schools – are inadequately funded to carry out their tasks. Projects may provide crucial impetus for the further development of existing or new concepts, but they are no substitute for the work of educational and cultural institutions designed for sustainability. Here the concept of formative early training interlocks with an educational and cultural infrastructure that permits life-long learning.

One major challenge is the funding of Germany's musical culture. This factor is directly related to the state of public budgets and the associated underlying framework both for the educational and cultural infrastructure and for the social position of musicians. Although the sources of tax income continue to be forthcoming, they have not led to needs-oriented funding of education and culture. Indeed, the social position of many freelance artists is catastrophic. Ever since Germany’s reunification, cutbacks, mergers and shutdowns have affected not only the German orchestral landscape  (the former state of East Germany had the highest density of orchestras in the world), but the whole of the country’s educational and cultural life. In the funding of public tasks, the sharing of burdens has fallen out of kilter to the disadvantage of Germany’s municipalities, many of which are no longer capable of meeting their legal obligations, much less their so-called ‘voluntary obligatory duties’. By anchoring the so-called ‘debt brake’ in Germany’s Basic Law and limiting the federal government’s new debts to a maximum of 0.35 per cent of the gross domestic product since 2016 (the ‘debt brake’ will apply to the states beginning in 2020), clear limits have been placed on the growing mountain of public debt.

Germany is well on the way to becoming a knowledge-based society. It stands before the crucial question of whether this proclaimed goal will be accompanied by a second goal: the creative society. As more and more people are becoming aware, a knowledge-based society is inalienably connected with the ongoing process of discovering, promoting and developing creative potential. Cultural work, and thus musical work, form part of an overall social policy that seeks to expand our awareness of the value of creativity. For awareness generates resources – resources for investment in education and culture en route to a society that is at once knowledge-based and creative.

Given its background of established structures and its still enormous creative potential, the outlook for Germany as a bastion of music is excellent, provided that politicians and civil society succeed in realigning their investment priorities to the benefit of education and culture.

This article has previously been published in: German Music Council / German Music Information Centre, ed.: Musical Life in Germany (Bonn, 2019), pp. 30-49.

Christian Höppner

Prof. Christian Höppner is Secretary General of the German Music Council, of which he was a Presidium member and Vice-President from 2000 to 2004. He received training as an instrumental teacher, music educator and cellist at the Berlin University of the Arts, followed by studies in conducting. Since 1986 he has taught cello at the Berlin University of the Arts. He is also former president of the German Culture Council, for which he continues to work as spokesman for its music section. In addition, he is involved in numerous other institutions and committees.

Foto: privat