Out of the ashes of war...

... Cologne experienced a musical explosion. But now the orchestral good life is under threat. Michael Church looks to the future

When the Allies had finished with Cologne, it looked like the surface of the moon. In the centre only the cathedral was left standing, as though protected by some macabre miracle from the surrounding devastation. But this had always been a musical city, and it was music which helped set it back on its feet.

A year after war ended, the local radio station was given a symphony orchestra. And, as its current boss Heiner Muller-Adolphi explains, this orchestra saw its prime job as administering cultural first-aid. "People desperately wanted to hear the music they had missed during the Nazi regime. Schoenberg and Webern and Bartok and jazz - all the things which had been proscribed as decadent. They felt completely cut off from international musical life." When the new radio building was opened in 1953, Stravinsky marked the occasion by conducting the first German performance of his opera Oedipus Rex. A year later, the radio station spawned a baroque ensemble.

It also gave birth to something with bigger repercussions. Tape recorders had been pioneered by German radio, but it was the Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer who in 1948 first used one to produce that collage of "found" sounds known as musique concrete. In 1951 Cologne Radio went one better and founded the electronic studio where Karlheinz Stockhausen launched the experimental odyssey on which he is still engaged today. His Gesang der Junglinge - in which the recording of a boy singing the Benedicite was spliced with electronically generated sound - represented music's boldest leap since Schoenberg.

As Stockhausen got into his stride, composers like the Romanian Iannis Xenakis and the Italian Luigi Nono joined in. Meanwhile Hans Werner Henze and the Argentinian Mauricio Kagel came to stay - and also, with Stockhausen, to teach at the new conservatoire. Students who caught the virus of experimentalism stayed on as professional performers; thanks to the avant-garde policies of the radio orchestra, they found a ready-made public. Thus did Cologne become the new-music capital of the world. Even today, Stockhausen (putting quartets in helicopters), Henze (reverting to romanticism) and the increasingly Dadaist Kagel are local eminences grises, while their students roam performance-art's wilder shores.

Cologne's cathedral precinct bristles with music shops, in several of which a book entitled Music Law is prominently displayed. This is significant: musicians in Germany's 120 state orchestras have rights that are the envy of musicians elsewhere. They earn over pounds 40,000 a year, and are all on life-contracts. They can go in at 21, and retire 44 years later after a stress-free career (there seem to be no tales in Cologne to match London's horror stories of second violinists devouring beta-blockers before they play).

But, as all the world knows, Germany's economic miracle is on the point of collapse, and the orchestral good life is suddenly under threat. A straw poll of key musical figures in Cologne reveals sharp disagreement over the future of these luxurious contracts. Muller-Adolphi says he has long wanted to see three-year contracts - "otherwise people can get lazy, go soft" - but the unions have always vetoed that. "But as cities start to go broke, they will not be able to afford life-contracts any more.

Finally the unions will have to accept this."

Not so, says a senior cellist in his orchestra. "Life-contracts are normal in all German professions, and no conductor or administrator will be able to change it. If you are at the top level of ability, you have the right to be safe in your employment." Yes, age may sometimes reduce physical competence - "but, if you are older, you have more experience, so it balances out." An administrator at another orchestra, despairing at the difficulty of trying to remove tired players, glumly remarks that it would actually be easier to close orchestras down than abolish life-contracts.

Hans Vonk, the laid-back Dutchman who has been principal conductor of the Radio Symphony Orchestra for the past six years, is glad for his players' good fortune - and rates their work high - but thinks a shade more stress might produce even better results. That's as may be, however, because at the end of this season he's off to St Louis - succeeding the charismatic Leonard Slatkin - and his departure is provoking frantic manuvres behind the scenes.

For, as Munich is currently finding - conductorless since the death of Celibidache - there are not enough charismatic conductors to go round. The RSO has appointed a "finding committee" with representatives from the rank and file, and everyone has had the right to make nominations. These have been whittled down to three - Andre Previn, Neeme Jarvi and Semyon Bychkov - each of whom is currently doing concerts which are, in effect, auditions. The contest is all very gentlemanly, and it's all officially denied, but everyone is agog, because much depends on the outcome.

When asked to crystal-gaze 10 years hence, Vonk gives a candid reply: "I see fewer orchestras, less rehearsal time, lower pay, and shorter contracts. Everything will be more difficult." He then adds that he hopes the Radio Symphony "doesn't make the same mistake which the South Bank made in London. I don't want to see them retreat into the safe haven of Beethoven's Fifth and Tchaikovsky's Fifth." He was shocked to be asked, on a recent visit to London, to lop off a "difficult" work by the Cologne avant-gardist Bernd Alois Zimmermann, on the grounds that it might put punters off. (This, presumably, before ENO turned the same composer's Die Soldaten into a hit.) "The orchestra absolutely must preserve their taste for adventure."

This sentiment may be somewhat undercut by the "safe" repertoire they're bringing to Britain this week (Weber, Mendelssohn and Brahms), but it is vigorously echoed by Renate Liesmann, Cologne's leading new- music co-ordinator. "This city has offered a protective biosphere in which composers from all over the world have been able to make their experiments, but this biosphere is now under threat. Our cultural life is getting more and more expensive, and there is less and less scope for inspiration. People won't admit it yet, but everyone can sense that some fundamental change is in the air."

At which point it seems appropriate to seek the view at Cologne's 10- year-old Philharmonie - acoustically one of the best halls in the world. Business, say its bosses, has never been better, and that goes for the avant-garde stuff as well. This spring they are holding their second Musiktriennale, in which the names of Rattle, Barenboim, Kremer and Bjork figure with equal prominence. On two successive nights I find the 2,200-seater hall packed, with long queues for returns.

Music in post-war Cologne has followed a huge arc - rising from the ruins, cruising the heights - but it's not going to crash back down to earth just yet.

Cologne RSO on tour: Sun, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161-907 9000); Mon, RFH, London (0171-960 4242); Tue, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121- 212 3333)

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003