UK Politics

Choral diplomacy: When Germany and UK united in song

The German Bundestag and British Parliament choirs perform together Image copyright AP

German and British politicians, united in song? It must be one of this year's more unusual diplomatic ventures.

For much of the last 100 years getting these two countries to sing from the same hymn sheet has been something of a challenge.

That didn't dampen the ambitions of the MPs and peers running the Parliament Choir, a workplace group of singers open to anyone who works in Westminster.

For years they had tried to persuade their counterparts in the Bundestag Choir that the two groups should come together for a joint concert.

Amid all the myriad tensions of these two countries' complex relationship - dominated by Britain's demands for a changed relationship with the rest of the European Union - the Germans had proved decidedly reticent.

In the end, it was the shadow of the conflicts which began 100 years ago which brought the two choirs together.

'Exhausting schedule'

They agreed to mark the centenary of World War One with a joint concert in Westminster Hall, the oldest part of Palace of Westminster. But they were determined this would not be a gloomy occasion.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Commons speaker John Bercow introduces the historic concert

Instead of singing something like Benjamin Britten's harrowing War Requiem, the choirs opted for Mendelssohn's Lobgesang. It's an uplifting piece written to celebrate the triumph of knowledge and the promise of the future.

Maybe this was what persuaded German chancellor Angela Merkel to give her backing to the initiative when she made her historic address to both Houses of Parliament earlier this year.

Conservative former cabinet minister Caroline Spelman, who chairs the Parliament Choir, says it was Merkel's call for a parallel political programme that turned what had been just a nice idea into a serious diplomatic venture.

Under the stewardship of conductor Simon Over, whose exhausting schedule saw him rehearse both choirs as well as the accompanying Southbank Sinfonia Orchestra, the concert finally took place on 9 July.

Image copyright AP
Image caption President of the German Bundestag Norbert Lammert addresses the audience

This was a moving occasion. It brought to mind the 1914 Christmas Truce, when German and British soldiers lay down their arms and temporarily unite together in song.

A century later, German and British parliamentarians were singing together again.

'Young men'

Members of the Parliament Choir couldn't help but look back to their families' involvement in the 1914-1918 War as the performance took place.

Image copyright Edward Webb - DO NOT RE-USE
Image caption Former minister Caroline Spelman chairs Parliament's choir

"I think every one of us who sings in the concert will probably have some family member in their mind," said Caroline Spelman.

Her own grandfather had the "terrible job of administering to the horses in the trenches", she says.

Lady Luce, a first soprano, spoke of her grandfather, the Earl of Crawford - a cabinet minister who enlisted as a private in the Army Medical Corps with the task of removing up to 1,000 men from the front lines every day.

And Andrew Tuggey, the head of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, recalled the moment he discovered his five forbidding maiden aunts had all been romantically attached to "young men" they had lost in the War.

In recent days, with the country marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, we have seen many more stories like this.

'Common Europe'

They have mostly been told with a very British mixture of horror, pride and grief muted by the passage of time.

But as the testament of the Bundestag Choir members revealed, Germany - which suffered a million more military deaths than the 800,000 inflicted on the UK - has a very different relationship with its past.

Image copyright Edward Webb - DO NOT RE-USE
Image caption The two choirs got a chance to compare notes beforehand

Many of those who travelled from Berlin to London to sing for the concert admitted they weren't really aware of their relatives' experiences in the four years from 1914.

War is not something the Germans like to talk about. Instead their focus is on the present - and the future.

Claudia Buelter, who works in the Bundestag administration, says grandfathers and fathers just "don't want to talk about" German involvement in the two world wars of the 20th century.

"The most important part of this concert is to meet each other looking to the future," she says. "To become a common Europe, to be partners and friends."

In the swirl of receptions at the Foreign Office and in parliament which preceded the concert itself, the singers had a chance to share their different views on the past and the future.

'Tread carefully'

The German message was of the importance of continuing the European Union as a great "peace project" preventing any further wars on the continent - the sort of goal which perhaps gets taken for granted in the UK.

Pro-EU members of the Parliament Choir were happy to nod their heads and agree. But its Eurosceptics - including the senior Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin - had to adopt a more careful approach.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Parts of Westminster Hall date back to the 11th Century

The need to "tread carefully" in this kind of environment is critical, Jenkin believes.

"One is aware the German attitude to integration [in Europe] is an article of faith about them leaving behind the history they're perhaps less comfortable to talk about."

British politicians like Jenkin were looking to use the concert to improve ties with Germany - and by so doing perhaps give a boost London's current diplomatic agenda with Berlin.

So it may have surprised them that on the night of the concert, the powerful speech from Bundestag president Norbert Lammert stole the show.

Lammert - who occupies the third most important office in German politics - described the performance of Mendelssohn's Lobgesang as a "political demonstration for reconciliation and friendship".

Reconciliation

It was, he added, "a promise of our common responsibility for the future of our respective countries and of the future of Europe as a whole".

Strong stuff. And a real reminder of the need to keep the pressure Britain's diplomats are piling on Germany to back European reform in perspective.

By singing together, these politicians have appreciated afresh the need for reconciliation.

But the real lesson for Britain may be a reminder that Germany's approach to its future has been fundamentally shaped by its past.

The country which lost the most from two world war defeats is unlikely to give up on its dream of the European Union 'peace project' any time soon.

Alex Stevenson is Parliamentary Editor of politics.co.uk.

Choral Diplomacy is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1100 BST on Friday, 9 August. Or you can listen again on the BBC Radio iPlayer.

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