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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY NINETY SEVEN Cabbages and Kraftwerk

We're in Dusseldorf today - the home of Heinrich Heine, born to a Jewish family distantly related to the Marx family over in Trier. His poems were set by a myriad of composers - Schubert, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wolf, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann, Wagner, Hans Werner Henze, Carl Orff, and, of course, Schumann; his Dichterliebe are sixteen songs from Heine's Lyrisches Intermezzo. Friedrich Silcher (and several other composers) set what is perhaps Heine's most famous poem, Die Lorelei:

And yonder sits a maiden,

The fairest of the fair;

With gold her garment glitters,

As she combs her golden hair.

The largest Japanese community in Germany lives in Dusseldorf and the restaurants are cosmopolitan. But they do like traditional food, too: for lunch today we are having old-fashioned Sauerbraten (beef marinated in vinegar and spices) with a ladle of sauerkraut. The Race Marshal pointed out that I have said nothing about this German staple: it is so ubiquitous as to be invisible.

The derogatory expression kraut was invented in the First World War and it is only by chance that we are called limeys and not krauts, given that we carried sauerkraut as well as limes to ward off scurvy on our voyages of discovery.

the decorative German cabbage (c)meirion harries

Sauerkraut is made from finely shredded cabbage fermented with salt. Other vegetables, collectively known as kumpost, are preserved in this way. Some believe that Genghis Khan introduced the process to Europe; others say it came from China. Certainly sauerkraut has been eaten by rich and poor for many centuries. When Marx Rumpolt wrote the first professional cookbook in 1581, he used sauerkraut in various ways – suggesting, for example, its use as the base for baked salmon at an Imperial banquet.

These days sauerkraut is on the up, as are all fermented foods. Replete with many vitamins, fibre, minerals and enzymes, sauerkraut can improve eyesight, ward off cancer - and the juice heals mouth sores, so they say. And it goes very well with sausages.

(In parentheses: when Germans emigrated to America, they took the tradition with them. Up until the 1870s, krauthobblers would visit homesteads in the autumn to shred and salt cabbage for the winter. Henry John Heinz, who was born on the Rhine, not far from Heidelberg, built a factory on Long Island to make sauerkraut – perhaps one of his 57 varieties.)

But back to Dusseldorf: the city lies at the heart of industrial Germany, the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region - a dense sprawl stretching south of us to Bonn and Cologne and flowing with the Rhine northwards to encompass the cities of the Ruhr - Dortmund, Essen and Duisburg. Three thousand square miles and ten million people at the centre of what is officially called the Blue Banana – the patchwork megalopolis of 111 million people that curves across Europe from Liverpool to Milan.

Dusseldorf is not industrial, more a city of headquarters and administration for the region. Possibly the wealthiest town in Germany – the 'city of fashion' with some breathtakingly expensive shops along the Koenigsallee – it has a skyline of gleaming buildings. Most are new (the city was bombed flat) but there is still the Mannesmann Haus - known locally as the Behrensbau - built in 1912 by Peter Behrens (whose Berlin atelier was staffed by Gropius, Mies van de Rohe and Le Corbusier).

the Behrensbau (c)wikicommons

This region was the epicentre of the Wirtschaftswunder, the Miracle on the Rhine - the extraordinary recovery and growth of the German economy after the war. In 1963, a British journalist described the life that had emerged from the rubble: “Today the German working-man leads a comfortable life and wears a well-filled waistcoat. He eats well, and his food – although German cooking lacks the elegance of French – is wholesome and appetizing. He buys good clothes, and he dresses his wife and children well. He generally has money to spare for television sets, week-end excursions and football matches. And he is not afraid of celebrating occasionally on a grander scale.”

By the mid-1960s, this return to material security hard-won by the war generation was running into the counter-culture - the anti-establishment youth movement with roots in America that stretched across the Atlantic.

In Germany, there was a twist – a search by the younger generation for identity. They grew up in a world dominated by the Second World War and the horrors that their parents' generation had perpetrated. German youth questioned what it meant to be German: and that inquiry, the urgent need to find a German identity drove a great deal of cultural life.

At the Robert Schumann Musikhochschule were two students, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, who went on to found Kraftwerk, a pop group that the New Musical Express, no less, paired with the Beatles as “the two most important bands in music history”.

Kraftwerk (c)wikicommons

Their driving force was exactly this quest for a German identity. Ralf Hütter said “There's a whole generation ... that has lost its own identity … There was really no German culture after the war. Everyone was rebuilding their homes and getting into their little Volkswagens. In the clubs when we first started playing, you never heard a German record … all you heard was Anglo-American music. You went to the cinema and all the films were Italian and French. That's okay – but we needed our own cultural identity.”

Hütter and Schneider sought a “new, genuinely autonomous type of music … to express a new German identity, one that rejected the values propagated by Nazism and by Christian conservatism. Inevitably, it had to be constructed from scratch, though it could look back to the great modernist tradition that existed in Germany before it was cut short by fascism.” (Uwe Schütte, Kraftwerk).

Kraftwerk's answer was to harness the soundscape around them - their Heimatklänge. Theirs was ‘ethnic music from the Rhine-Ruhr area’, according to Florian Schneider. And they made this music with ambient recordings and electronic synthesizers. Hütter and Schnieder immersed themselves in all the arts – Joseph Beuys was very influential, as were the Futurists.

Luigi Russolo (c)wikicommons

Luigi Russolo had put forward the notion of noise as music in his 1913 manifesto L’Arte dei Rumori. Like Kraftwerk 50 years later, Russolo built his own instruments, such as the experimental intonarumori (noise-makers), to play his new music.

Hütter acknowledged the debt: ‘We feel a connection with Futurism and try to build upon the art forms of that period.’ Their classic piece Autobahn begins with a car engine revving and a horn honking before the synthesiser and the endless chant of 'autobahn' cut in.

But there was another dimension to Kraftwerk. Ernst Bloch, the philosopher whose work strongly influenced the protest movements, taught that art can instigate or inspire political change – the same idea of 'social sculpting' that Joseph Beuys talked about in the art school in Dusseldorf. Kraftwerk, in their search for a new German identity, believed that their music had power to achieve change: as they chant in their song Electric Cafe - "Música electrónica. Arte política".

Did they change Germany? They might have done – certainly their generation has made an open, internationalist Germany. But it might be that the country was changing already: take, for example, the joint celebration by Adenauer and de Gaulle of a mass for peace in Reims Cathedral in 1962. Or, closer to home, the public apology in 1960 by the city of Dusseldorf itself: they bought 90 paintings by Paul Klee and housed them in a new museum as an act of contrition for his dismissal from the art school by the Nazis.

Friedrich Silcher's Die Lorelei sung by Richard Tauber in 1939 -

How to make sauerkraut -

A tour of Dusseldorf -

Kraftwerk - Autobahn -

Kraftwerk - Electric Cafe -

Bill Bailey's tribute to Kraftwerk -

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