Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Making Music, not Malice, Together: the European Union Capital of Culture in Essen, Germany



by Renée Gordon Holley

Amid fears of terrorist attacks and increasingly public xenophobia in Germany, tensions have grown as this founding member of the European Union and world economic leader has increasingly taken on burdens in the current financial crisis, aiding in the bail-out of Greece and now Ireland. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration that multiculturalism has utterly failed in this ethnically diverse nation reflects growing concerns throughout Europe regarding uniting people from various cultures. In contrast to these dark political clouds, my field research in Germany during summer 2010 took place among celebrations, accompanied by World Cup vuvuzelas, cheering soccer fans, German flags everywhere, and news reports that Germany’s ethnically diverse team was an exemplary model of how the country had finally learned to work together with its many minorities.

Although the 2010 World Cup was an entertaining backdrop for the two and a half months I spent in Northern Westphalia last summer, the main object of my pre-dissertation research was the musical events of the EU’s Capital of Culture program. The EU’s recent participation in cultural policy has produced programs and agendas that simultaneously strive to preserve the cultural diversity of its members while highlighting common cultural threads throughout Europe. The EU’s main effort in this regard and most widely recognized program is the European Capital of Culture. Every year, several member states are selected to host an elaborate year-long series of cultural events. Cities in these countries compete for this honor in a similar style to that of Olympic cities. Along with Pécs, Hungary and Istanbul, Turkey, Essen, Germany and the entire Ruhr Region generated a rich program incorporating every aspect of culture.

As a musicologist, I am interested in the musical life of other nations and in learning about how assorted musical styles and performers contribute to the discourses of music, politics, and culture. My association with the EU Center and coursework specifically on the policies and structure of the European Union led me to consider how this institution adds to and amends the musical cultures found in its member states, especially Germany. An appropriate combination of music and EU policies made the Capital of Culture a dynamic stage where challenges regarding an aging population, cultural diversity, economic downturn, and industrial re-imagination were acted out by area orchestras, teenage pop singers, church organists, ravers, and sound sculptors.

Touted as one of the top highlights of Essen’s program, the !SING – Day of Song brought together hundreds of choirs from Europe and beyond. The four-day event featured over sixty-six individual choral performances and sing-alongs. On June 5, as over 50,000 amateur and professional singers gathered at the Veltins Soccer Arena in Gelsenkirchen, international star Bobby McFerrin and the Bochum Symphony orchestra accompanied us as young and old joined in singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” and the Beatles’ “Let it Be.” Germany has a long history of choral singing, where amateurs sang together with hopes to strengthen a sense of German identity and political consciousness in its members and the nation as a whole. The !SING events and many of the other concerts and performances held in Essen this summer worked to unite the community and reach out to its neighbors. This demonstration of music’s role in shaping and influencing Germany’s and the EU’s citizens shows how they might move forward in the years to come, isolating and tackling political, social, and economic struggles through music.

Renée Holley is a doctoral student in musicology at the University of Illinois and an EU Center FLAS Fellow. Her pre-dissertation research was supported by a DAAD German Studies Research Grant. Next school year she plans on completing dissertation research in Bonn, Germany, analyzing music’s relationship to regional, national, and EU cultural policy agendas.

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