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
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced