Letter from Europe

Music in Potsdam

Issue no. 2010/18


Fernweh is a marvellous German word that is not easily translated into English. It hints of the unbearable pain of being stuck at home when in truth you would far rather be exploring a desert island on the other side of the planet.

Dear fellow travellers

Fernweh is a marvellous German word that is not easily translated into English. It hints of the unbearable pain of being stuck at home when in truth you would far rather be exploring a desert island on the other side of the planet. It is that ache in your heart for somewhere distant and exotic. We have always thought that those overcome with a sudden yearning for Finland might try Sibelius' Sixth Symphony, while those struck by a passion for Bohemia might turn to Smetana's Má Vlast for solace.

Music can be tremendously evocative of landscapes and communities, and it is that thought which inspires a music festival that kicks off in the German State of Brandenburg this weekend. Brandenburg is a region inexorably linked to music of course. Don't forget all those Bach concertos. And this year's Potsdam Sanssouci Music Festival combines travel and music in a quite ingenious manner. For 17 days this month the streets, churches and auditoria of Potsdam are filled with music that connects to foreign lands, some quite close to home and others far distant.

Last evening's opening concert in the 2010 festival included Baroque interpretations of Swiss, Greek and Turkish identity by Jean-Baptiste Lully. There was a remarkable evocation of China by Jean-Marie Amiot, an eighteenth-century French Jesuit who spent over four decades in China. There were Arabic and Andalusian airs, Italian arias and Yiddish melodies.

Potsdam is of course peculiarly well placed to orchestrate such an initiative, for few other German cities can rival Potsdam in having such an unusually cosmopolitan history. As the onetime home of the Electors of Brandenburg and later of Prussian royalty, Potsdam developed an eclectic architectural tradition that should appeal to anyone suffering from Fernweh. Hohenzollern wealth funded a Moorish waterworks, a large Dutch quarter within the city (with some fabulous Dutch gables), a lovely Russian settlement, Egyptian obelisks and a Chinese tea house. Wander the streets of Potsdam and you can take in sights from several continents, but this month more than ever. This evening for example there are whirling dervishes, exponents of tarantella and classical Indian dancers in Potsdam.

At the end of a week of gorgeous sunshine in Brandenburg, the opening of the Potsdam Sanssouci music festival highlighted Potsdam's legitimate claim to be regarded not merely as Berlin's junior partner, but as a worthwhile destination in its own right. Potsdam is delightful, one of the finest cities in Europe just to linger, and it is at its very best on warm summer evenings.

The Potsdam Sanssouci music festival runs until 27 June. One highlight next weekend is a bicycle concert with cyclists having the chance to ride rural routes around the city and experience mini-concerts from several countries at stops along the way.

Friday evening's opening concert featured the musicians and singers of Le Poème Harmonique, an ensemble from Bruges in Flanders. This appealed to a very specific aspect of Potsdam history, for the city, and indeed the entire area south of Berlin, was home to many settlers from Flanders. It is not for nothing that Berlin's southern hinterland is called Fläming. Indeed, it is often speculated that the village of Brück near Potsdam took its name from Bruges.

Next time we tire of Berlin life, and yearn to be somewhere else, we shall take a bike ride through Fläming. There are certainly enough windmills to seduce us into thinking that we are in the Low Countries.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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