The Berliner Philharmoniker

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“Herbert von Karajan conjures up Ludwig van Beethoven,” drawing by Carlos Obers © 2015
“Herbert von Karajan conjures up Ludwig van Beethoven,” drawing by Carlos Obers © 2015

Circus Karajani

By Greta Brentano

Now and then, I read that the Berliner Philharmoniker philharmonic orchestra has supposedly presented a symphony “perfectly.” Such false praise sounds to me like an insult based on lack of judgment.

To me, Berlin vernacular appears to be better informed in this case, having described the Berliner Philharmonie concert hall – in mild but accurate derision – as “Circus Karajani” (a play on words on the popular Circus Sarrasani, of course) at the time of its opening concert in 1963. Unmistakable: the building designed by architect Hans Scharoun (1893 to 1972) is reminiscent of a circus tent. And the central orchestral podium with its upwardly inclined loge terraces on all sides (at the time a world first) absolutely has something of a circus arena about it. Indeed, comparing Herbert von Karajan (principal conductor until 1989) to a circus ringmaster or conjuror says more about his work than many a biography.

Yes, it was about magic for Karajan. The audience should sit stunned and open-mouthed, like children at the circus, when he, the magician, brought to life in a way that no ear had previously experienced it a Beethoven symphony already heard a hundred times before.

After all, you don’t listen to the Berliner Philharmoniker as private tutoring for music lessons. You might require technical perfection from your washing machine, but in the concert hall, you want to bear witness to a miracle.

At first, there was the roller-skating rink

“The way this unique conductor leads the orchestra with his magic wand is hard to describe …,” the Berliner Courier exulted in 1888. So, even back then, there was a conjuror on the podium: as the first principal conductor, Hans von Bülow (1830 to 1894), a pupil of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt and himself a renowned pianist, led the Philharmoniker (which was still known as the Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester  ‘Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’ at the time) in the hall of a former roller-skating rink.

After von Bülow’s death, the composer Richard Strauss (1864 to 1949) conducted the majority of the concerts until Arthur Nikisch (1855 to 1922) took on the position of “principal conductor for life.” The cosmopolitan Nikisch took the orchestra to guest appearances in Switzerland, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Russia, and invited international stars such as Pau Casals and the 11-year-old Jascha Heifetz to play in Berlin. Nikisch and the Philharmoniker first recorded an entire symphony for gramophone with Beethoven’s Fifth in 1913. Later, under the leadership of Karajan, sound recordings would contribute to the worldwide fame of the orchestra.

In 1922, Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886 to 1954) took over the magic wand. He was destined to go down in history as both the most brilliant and the most controversial conductor of the 20th century. Posterity struggles to come to terms with the fact that such a great mind allowed himself and his Philharmoniker to be abused by the National Socialists “for the glory of the Third Reich.”

The Silence of the Lambs

Furtwängler had always seen Arthur Nikisch as a role model. He in turn was strongly influenced by the style of Felix Mottl (1856 to 1911), who considered himself beholden to the music dramas of Richard Wagner and the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. He internalized Wagner’s idea that music served salvation. Embarrassingly, it did not save a single one of the many millions of victims of the Holocaust and the Second World War.

Like Beethoven before him, Furtwängler sought to make the profound thoughts and feelings hidden in musical scores audible. As a composer himself, he saw conducting as a creative act. For him, interpretation was also a matter of intuition and improvisation. He instructed his Philharmoniker to only play what they themselves felt. He intentionally kept the beat “vague,” in order to turn the metronomic balance into a musical flow (almost like jazz). Furtwängler’s free arrangements of dynamics and tempos have been praised and maligned almost in equal measure.

Music theorist Heinrich Schenker called him the “only composer who really understood Beethoven,” and Maria Callas has similarly been quoted as saying “For me, he was Beethoven,” (from John Ardion’s The Furtwängler Record, 1994).

Furtwängler was extremely highly regarded by many musical greats, including Arnold Schönberg, Paul Hindemith, Arthur Honegger, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and last but not least, Yehudi Menuhin.

Furtwängler invited him to Berlin as early as 1929, at which time the 12-year-old child prodigy Yehudi played violin concertos by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms under the stewardship of Bruno Walter. It was also Menuhin who returned to Berlin in 1947 as a demonstration of solidarity as a Jew with Furtwängler.

Had the maestro not spoken out against the ban on his Jewish orchestra members as early as April 1933 with his open letter (in the Berliner Tageblatt) to the Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels? And in doing so, did he not ensure that – at least to begin with – the “Aryan paragraph” was not applied? And had he not resigned from his positions as leader of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, head of the State Opera, and Vice President of the Reich Chamber of Music?

A kick in the teeth for Hitler and his cronies? More like the equivalent of a butterfly breaking wind. The Nazi head honchos Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels quickly placed him on their official “List of the divine” and the “Special list of the three most important musicians on the list of the divine.” Embraces that only served to smother the recipient.

Furtwängler did have the opportunity to take over leadership of the New York Philharmonic in 1936, as successor to Toscanini. Furtwängler turned down the offer. “There was an incomparable artist … living under the rule of the National Socialists, and he refused … to confirm …  to them – the emigrants – in that way … that he turns his back on barbarism,” bemoans Fred K. Prieberg in Kraftprobe. Wilhelm Furtwängler im Dritten Reich, 1986.

Furtwängler’s successor, Karajan, also had to live with the accusation of perhaps having shown a little too much ambition in Nazi Germany.

Music as Marketing and Management

After the death of Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1954, the Berliner Philharmoniker did not select Sergiu Celibidache (who had conducted the orchestra while Furtwängler was banned from performing from 1947 to 1952), but Herbert von Karajan (1908 to 1989) as his successor.

Karajan was the more renowned of the two. As early as 1938, after he conducted Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Berlin, the press labeled him “Wonder Karajan.” In 1939, Hitler gave him the title of Staatskapellmeister (State bandmaster), but then dropped him like a hot potato because Karajan had supposedly given the wrong cues in Wagner’s Meistersinger, an opera on which the GRÖFAZ (größten Feldherrn aller Zeiten – “the greatest field commander of all time” – as Kurt Tucholsky derisively referred to the Führer) considered himself an expert. Karajan survived. The Third Reich needed to uphold the glory of its star composer, who (unlike Furtwängler) was also a party member.

Now, after the war, the Berliner Philharmoniker had hit the jackpot with the choice of Karajan as “musical leader for life.” In contrast to the gramophone record cynic Celibidache, in Karajan they found a highly enterprising promoter of marketable concert recordings. He recorded around 700 works from 130 composers, which sold around 300 million copies worldwide. The Deutsche Grammophon label alone is estimated to have made a third of its sales (between 1960 and 2008) thanks to him. Beethoven, who had to count every penny throughout his lifetime, would have rejoiced at finally being able to match the Beatles in financial terms.

The orchestra members were also showered with money, which they allowed to rain down on them, but not to corrupt them. After all, the scandal relating to the clarinetist Sabine Meyer is spoken of to this day. Karajan insisted on bringing her into the orchestra, and tried to add force to his argument with blackmail. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the maestro threatened in a letter of December 3, 1982, “the orchestra tours, the Salzburg and Lucerne festivals, the recordings of operas and concerts for television and film, and the whole complex of audiovisual productions have been suspended of today as a consequence of the existing situation,” (quoted by Deike Diening in Der Tagesspiegel on 08/26/2007).

Karajan’s cleverness is also to thank for the fact that the Berliner Philharmoniker was able to bring the first audio CD recording in the world to the market in 1982, with An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss. And with its Digital Concert Hall, the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker foundation has been providing its audience with the opportunity to experience live concerts online since July 2014. Also included are archive recordings in full-HD quality, among them Karajan concerts from the 1960s and 1970s.

The Hollywood of Herbert von Karajan

Herbert von Karajan led and characterized the Berliner Philharmoniker for 34 years. But what remains of him?

Overly idolized by his contemporaries, he was unfairly underestimated by the subsequent generation of critics and listeners to the same extent. Of course, the total commitment to euphony in his musical approach did not suit the zeitgeist. Even Igor Stravinsky denied that “Le Sacre can be satisfactorily performed in the tradition of Herr von Karajan,” (quoted by Holmes: Conductors on Record, London 1988, p 126).

Was he really only a master of 19th-century music? Exemplary with Verdi and Wagner, a genius in his interpretation of Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius, but averse to any form of modernity?

For him, the natural power of every symphony should unfurl like a storm or a strong tide. He always had whole movements recorded live, never allowing individual passages to be repeated and put together as audio snippets – as some of his colleagues preferred to do things. As a rule, he gave his orchestra no cues; each musician should – as he did – learn the score by heart and listen carefully to their fellow musicians. However, this required acoustics that allowed all orchestra members to perceive all the others.

That is why he encouraged the head of construction for the new Philharmonie, Hans Scharoun, to make use of architecture working “from the inside out.” In this way, the convex reflectors hanging above the stage primarily serve to ensure that the instrumentalists can hear each other.

Karajan’s music had to sparkle, shine, and glisten with never-before-heard beauty – as was expected from a sound magician. He loathed ambient noise, such as that from the valves of the wind section; no soloist would have dared to hum along to the melodies (like Glenn Gould or Casals). Because of this, critics held his “high-gloss sound” against him, claiming he served up “classical à la Hollywood” rather than faithfulness to the original.

After Nikolaus Harnoncourt (who had once applied to be a cellist for Karajan) showed the audacity to perform J.S. Bach on baroque instruments in historically informed style and characterize Mozart as a dramatist writing a tonal language, rather than as an esthete, Karajan’s conducting appeared to have gone out of fashion.

Still Slim and Youthful over 100 Years On

After Karajan’s death in 1989, the Berliner Philharmoniker chose Claudio Abbado (1933 to 2014) as his successor as principal conductor. In addition to the classic repertoire, he was also very committed to the modern: Gustav Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich, among others. Abbado had already worked together closely with the contemporary composers Boulez, Berio, Nono, and Stockhausen in Vienna.

Compared to that, Karajan seemed all too backward-looking. But he, too, had left behind some modern reference recordings for posterity, including Claude Debussy’s lyrical drama Pelléas et Mélisande, Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, and the recording of Arnold Schönberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, with which he and the Berliner Philharmoniker proved how captivatingly beautiful even atonal music can be – if you play it the right way.

Abbado rejuvenated the orchestra, replacing half of the members. Today, 143 years after it was founded, the Berliner Philharmoniker has 128 orchestra members, 19 of whom are female.

In 2002, Abbado, who was suffering from cancer, was replaced on the principal conductor’s podium by the Brit Simon Rattle (born 1955).

Rattle’s conditions included a reorganization of the orchestra. The Berliner Philharmoniker had, up to that point, functioned as a nontrading partnership organized under the German Civil Code, whose income from the sale of recordings (records, videos, etc.) did not reach the Berlin city authorities, while a parallel organization, the Berliner Philharmonische Orchester, was subordinated to the Berlin senate chancellery for cultural affairs, which had to pay, among other things, the musicians’ fees. Now, both companies were converted into the public service Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker foundation. In this way, the city also earns from the venture and the musicians are saved taxes. At the same time, Deutsche Bank was brought on board as a financial backer. Media manager Martin Hoffmann (born 1959) was named General Manager in 2010.

Sir Simon combines his organizational talent with a charismatic personality, which soon made him a favorite with his orchestra and the audience – especially the younger among them. In 2002–2003, Rattle started his Education Programme, which gained international popularity through the documentary film Rhythm Is It! “It was, and still is something close to Sir Simon’s heart, and his firm belief, that the Philharmonie should be accessible to all nationalities and ethnic groups – something Berlin is particularly rich in …” (taken from the web site of the Berliner Philharmoniker). In addition, the knight of the realm conducts a youth orchestra with Berlin school pupils each year.

The performance of Gustav Mahler’s never-completed Tenth Symphony, with compositional additions by Deryck Cooke, was particularly important to Simon Rattle. He is also credited with being the conductor who returned the work of Joseph Haydn, whose genius helped inspire Mozart and Beethoven, to the canon of classical music.

“More than any other conductor, Rattle has attempted to make historically informed performance fruitful for the romantic repertoire. He has imported ways of playing from early music, and, in this way, made the Berliner Philharmoniker … it has to be said, the most progressive orchestra of its kind,” (quoted from Kai Luehrs-Kaiser on “Kulturradio vom rbb” on 11/23/2014).

Simon Rattle will stay with the people of Berlin until 2018, when his contract ends. Who could be the next principal conductor? An exciting question – especially for the potential successors.


Note: All facts stated in this article are based on written materials, from sources including Wikipedia. Quotations are expressly marked as such.


Recommended web sites:

Berliner Philharmoniker – concerts, tickets:
The Digital Concert Hall:
Rhythm Is It! (2004):
Sir Simon Rattle – Home – Warner Classics:
Sir Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker:
Kai Luehrs-Kaiser: Herbert von Karajan…karajan/herbert-von-karajan.htm


Johannes Althoff: Die Philharmonie. Berlin Edition, Berlin, 2002, ISBN 3-8148-0035-4.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Jupiter und ich. Begegnungen mit Furtwängler. Berlin University Press, Berlin, 2009, ISBN 978-3-940432-66-7.
Annemarie Kleinert: Berliner Philharmoniker: Von Karajan bis Rattle. Jaron-Verlag, Berlin, 2005, ISBN 3-89773-131-2.
Karl Löbl: Das Wunder Karajan. Heyne, Munich, 1978, ISBN 3-453-00827-8.
Klaus Lang: Herbert von Karajan. Der philharmonische Alleinherrscher. M-und-T, Zurich, St. Gallen, 1992, ISBN 3-7265-6025-4.
Eleonore Büning: Karajan, Dirigent. Ein Interpret wird besichtigt. Insel, Frankfurt am Main, 2008, ISBN 978-3-458-35027-9.
Cordula Groth: Das Berliner Philharmonische Orchester mit Claudio Abbado. With contributions from Helge Grünewald, Hans-Jörg von Jena, Ulrich Meyer-Schoellkopf. Nicolaische Verlagsbuchhandlung, Berlin, 1994, ISBN 3-87584-481-5.
Frithjof Hager: Claudio Abbado: Die anderen in der Stille hören. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 2000, ISBN 3-518-39662-5.
Angela Hartwig: Rattle at the Door. Sir Simon Rattle und die Berliner Philharmoniker 2002 bis 2008. Evrei-Verlag, Berlin, 2009, ISBN 978-3-00-028093-1.


PS: Double the enjoyment of your musical experience and share it with your Muse!

Is this the Blessed Virgin?

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Alice Springs: “Brigitte Nielsen with Her Son Kilian Marcus in Beverly Hills, 1990” © Alice Springs
Alice Springs: “Brigitte Nielsen with Her Son Kilian Marcus in Beverly Hills, 1990” © Alice Springs


Christmassy Thoughts on Photos of Pairs

By Greta Brentano

As every year, this December 25 we will once again celebrate the festival of improbability.

The Virgin Mary gave birth to a child after the “immaculate conception.” According to the myth. Forensics experts would add: “In fact, no traces of semen were established.” And what do you think? Can a woman who is virgo intacta become a mother? Completely impossible! And because it is impossible and yet true, believers speak of a miracle.

As an agnostic, I cannot be convinced that virgins can bear the sons of gods. It never crossed my mind to take Bach’s Christmas Oratorio as a factual report; nevertheless, it makes a believer out of me.

In my view, it would be utter nonsense to accept that the Bible, Tanakh, Koran, Pāli Canon, or other holy texts present research findings. They proclaim messages of salvation. We can call them myths, legends, or fairy tales. Not even a child would accept the telling of a fairy story as proof, but even the most perceptive skeptic must admit that good fairy tales convey profound truths.

No, I don’t intend to allow Allah, Zeus, Shiva, or the Holy Trinity to impose their will on me, but the call of the muezzin, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the works of J.S. Bach touch me – spiritually, too.

At Christmas especially I am happy to feel like a child. I consider it a gift to be able to experience reality as a miracle. That is the art of artists.

Occasionally, artists with cameras also succeed in bringing depth to the trivial. For example, this is how Alice Springs (June Newton, widow of Helmut Newton) portrays the Hollywood beauty Brigitte Nielsen with her firstborn in Fig. 1. Although her photograph from 1990 is no longer current and has therefore lost its attractiveness for news media, we still see an image that leaves a lasting impression: Mary and the baby Jesus – a Christmas icon.

“Glorious, high, and mighty, Queen of Heaven!” This Marian hymn from 1862 fits with a Regina Coeli that all the world looks up to. We down here – and they up there.

Appearing to contradict this, the photo by Howard Schatz (Fig. 2) presents a very different reality: a homeless New York mother with her child. Nothing more than reportage and documentation?

Then why do I – and perhaps you, too – see a Christmas image here? The unsheltered Mary, who had to give birth to the baby Jesus in a stable. A woman who remained dignified in hardship and faces us with her head held high.

Howard Schatz: “Homeless Mother and Child,” New York, 2007 © Schatz/Ornstein
Howard Schatz: “Homeless Mother and Child,” New York, 2007 © Schatz/Ornstein

The legend tries to appease us by naming the Almighty as the biological father. But following the code of ethics of the time (the intolerance of which is still rife in many countries today), the pregnant Mary – without a shotgun marriage to the paternal betrothed, Joseph – would have been condemned as a woman of easy virtue, a slut, and a whore.

I declare my solidarity with her: “O holy whore, pray for us!” This is my Christmas carol.

Too far for you? OK. I’m not encouraging you to preach sermons while you eat your Christmas goose. But perhaps we can agree that every form of love (including loving your neighbor, strangers, and enemies) should be wholehearted. There are no ifs and buts in love.

With this in mind, I wish all of you, dear readers, a happy festival of love!



My recommendations:

If you would rather avoid piety and family and spend a Christmas filled with love in the best of company, I recommend you visit or

Allow our personal experiences to guide you through a visit to Berlin:

You can find festive events on the stages of Berlin at

The Alice Springs exhibition at the Helmut Newton Foundation, Jebenstrasse 2, 106723 Berlin. Phone: +49-30-3196-4856;

The book by Howard Schatz, Homeless, is available from Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA 1994, and Schatz/Ornstein Studio, 435 West Broadway, New York, NY 10012; 75 BW photographs:




Brilliant beasts – the Vikings

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The Viking exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin

until January 4, 2015


Brilliant beasts – the Vikings

by Greta Brentano

The MARTIN-GROPIUS-BAU museum in Berlin is attracting people to its exhibition with “spectacular excavation finds” which are being exhibited in public for the first time along with a 37-meter-long reconstruction of a Viking longship***

What is so fascinating about these Scandinavian pirates who attacked their neighboring countries from the ninth to the eleventh century, looted thousands of tons of gold and silver, and probably murdered hundreds of thousands of people? Answer A: Their incredible success. Answer B: Their alarming resemblance to ISIS and similar gangs of criminals.

With a shake of the head, we ask ourselves: “What kind of human beings are they?” and “What is a human being anyway?”

“By nature,” if we allow ourselves to make a realistic self-assessment “humans are not really human beings at all.” Or in the words of the zoologist: “The human being is – along with ants – the most successful species on the planet. Both have three characteristics in common: the ability to build colonies, self-sacrificing bravery, and the capacity to commit merciless acts of violence in order to preserve their own species.”

Yet there is a catch to this biologistic thesis: it is only half true. That’s because it is not the genes alone that determine what makes the human being, but rather his or her education. Without being taught empathy the human being remains a beast. Only by constantly training the ability to empathize can mirror neurons develop in Broca’s area of the brain. It is through these neurons that the joy and pain witnessed in others can be sensed first-hand. The ability to feel sympathy is an indication of human education, similar to multilingualism and literature.

At first glance we may admire the Vikings as adept seafarers, but there is no reason to give sanction to their crimes.

On the contrary: this scientifically grounded exhibition takes the wind out of the sails of many a myth. For instance, the Vikings’ nautical skills were rather limited. They sailed by sight and were unfamiliar with the compass. And there is still little evidence to support the saga of Viking Leif Eriksson, who is said to have discovered America around AD 1000. The Vikings even imported their swords from Franconia, because their own armories were not technically adept enough.

Is it still possible to talk of their brilliance?

Well, around the time of “Roskilde 6” the Vikings were no longer investing their looted riches in weaponry, but in commodities. From Greenland, Ireland, and Britain to Latvia, Russia, the Ukraine, and Byzantium, they were now doing a roaring trade, transforming themselves into multilingual cosmopolitans, respected citizens, and devout Christians. Out of barbaric hordes grew civilized people.

So it is almost a fitting end to the story that the Viking descendant and Danish King Harald “Bluetooth” – who established Christianity in Scandinavia around 965 – is honored for his ability to bring people together by a logo that bears his name and with which we associate modern communication technology.

The names of online services such as Wikipedia, Wikimedia, and WikiLeaks also make reference to the Vikings, in whom they clearly see cosmopolitan role models rather than criminals.


***organized by the Museum of Prehistory and Early History, part of the National Museums in Berlin, in association with the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen and the British Museum in London.


Niederkirchnerstr. 7

10963 Berlin Kreuzberg



If you share this cultural event with a companion, you will double the enjoyment of the experience. Accordingly, I recommend a muse from:  or,
cell phone: +49-171-21-03-072


James Graham-Campbell: Das Leben der Wikinger. Krieger, Händler und Entdecker. Nikol VG, Hamburg 2002, ISBN 3-933203-45-7.

Angus Konstam: Die Wikinger. Geschichte, Eroberungen, Kultur. Tosa Verlag, Wien 2005, ISBN 3-85492-692-8 (former title Atlas der Wikinger).

Magnus Magnusson: Die Wikinger. Geschichte und Legende. Albatros-Verlag, Düsseldorf 2007, ISBN 978-3-491-96188-3.

Peter Sawyer (Ed.): Die Wikinger. Geschichte und Kultur eines Seefahrervolkes. Siedler Verlag, Berlin 2002, ISBN 3-88680-641-3

Georg Scheibelreiter: Die barbarische Gesellschaft. Mentalitätsgeschichte der europäischen Achsenzeit, 5.–8. Jh. Primus-Verlag, Darmstadt 1999, ISBN 3-89678-217-7.

Mobilität und Kulturtransfer auf prosopographischer Grundlage. Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2006, ISBN 978-3-05-004285-5.

Joachim Bauer: Warum ich fühle, was du fühlst: intuitive Kommunikation und das Geheimnis der Spiegelneurone. Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 2005. ISBN 3-455-09511-9

Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi, Vittorio Gallese: Mirrors in the Mind. Scientific American Band 295, Nr. 5, November 2006, p. 30–37

Giacomo Rizzolatti, Corrado Sinigaglia: Empathie und Spiegelneurone: Die biologische Basis des Mitgefühls. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2008. ISBN 3-518-26011-1.


Museums and exhibitions in Berlin:

A brief guide to the finer side of Berlin:

Xenophilia – True Love

Why do you kiss unknown lips?

asks Greta Brentano

When I sit on my terrace and look at the sky, again and again I discover clouds that resemble kissing lovers. But by the time I glance back from my cup of Earl Grey, the wind has already blown away the amorous clouds. That is how fleeting the joy of love can be.

Everyone knows it, but no one wants to accept it. That is why trashy kitsch and genuine art both claim “Love is eternal!” We see tattoos reading “True love forever!” And with their world-famous sculptures called The Kiss, both Auguste Rodin in 1886 and Constantin Brancusi in 1908 created epitaphs that attest to “immortal love” with the imperishability of stone, and with this magic debunk the ephemerality of love (see fig. 2 and 5).

“In the lips that had whispered, the eyes that had lightened, love was dead,” wrote Algernon Charles Swinburne in The Forsaken Garden in 1876. Richard Wagner also swore that “immortal love” was moribund: “Shall I breathe, shall I listen? Shall I sip, submerge? in their fragrances sweetly expire? … sink down, unconscious – highest bliss!” sings Tristan’s lover in Isoldes Liebestod (Isolde’s Love Death) (Tristan and Isolde, first performed 1865).

2. Auguste Rodin, The Kiss, 1901–1904 © Tate Gallery, London
2. Auguste Rodin, The Kiss, 1901–1904 © Tate Gallery, London

René Magritte’s The Lovers II (fig. 1) also suggests something morbid. Why are the heads of the kissing figures wrapped in cloth, stopping their lips from touching? And are the cloths not reminiscent of those used to respectfully cover the visages of the dead? Indeed, art historians tell of a childhood trauma that may have inspired the painter: when he was 13, his mother drowned herself in the Sambre, a river in Châtelet (Belgium). And when her body was recovered, her face was veiled with her white chemise.

A generation later (1993), Lucian Freud, the great English neorealist, painted the sleeping married couple Nicola and Leigh Bowery. Exhausted from sex, two lovers lie here in harmony, although they could hardly be more different. He is a colossus, powerfully claiming the bed as his own; she is a fragile, almost childlike being, with one foot tenderly lying on his sinewy thigh. Who says you have to match in order to be together?

We, those lucky enough to be around in the 21st century, have understood that love is a momentum, the intensity of which is inversely proportional to its duration. Only the conservative maintain that feelings should be preserved. The moment about which we would gladly say “Stay a while, you are so beautiful!” (à la Goethe, Faust I) longs for brevity so as not to become ennui.

Only a few women are able to experience this happiness – those with a talent for xenophilia. “I love the adventure of meeting with women and men who are complete strangers,” is one way aspirants describe their motivation for applying to me (Greta Brentano – a Muse tonight®) as muses.

The heart is a lonely hunter – the title of this novel by American author Carson McCullers shocked me early on. We modern nomads of art, politics, or management don’t want to be stranded alone at a Berlin bar after a stressful day.

A little flirtatiousness can without doubt blossom into “true love,” perhaps fleeting, but unforgettable. And the kiss of your muse will inspire you to become a connoisseur of the arts of love and life. But the xenophile does not indulge in affairs for the feeling of security that only lasting friendship, marriage, and family can provide. She is looking for adventure, an expedition into the kingdom of unknown and subconscious longings. Playing with the constraints of respectability – frivolity in words and actions – can often be even more enjoyable than breaking them down.

In Fergus Greer’s photograph (fig. 4), British performance artist Leigh Bowery (who also modeled in Lucian Freud’s painting, fig. 3) parodied the kind of sexual acrobatics that became fashionable thanks to pornographic role models. You can come across transsexuals, drag queens, lesbians, gays, swinger couples, and whole groups of exhibitionists in the bars and nightclubs of Berlin. But if you prefer things a little more subtle and sophisticated, Berlin has four opera houses, 60 theaters, 113 art museums, 440 art galleries, 85 public libraries, and 14 Michelin-starred restaurants. Your muse will guide and seduce you wherever you choose …

I look to the sky again – and see the vagrant clouds are kissing once more.


For more inspiration, please visit:

I recommend the following reading:

  • Constantin Brancusi and Richard Serra – A Handbook of Possibilities. Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011, 243 pages with 176 mostly color images; ISBN-13: 9783775728201 and ISBN-10: 3775728201
  • Leigh Bowery, edited by René Zechlin. Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, 2008; ISBN-13: 9783868280333 and ISBN-10: 3868280332
  • René Magritte, by Siegfried Gohr. DUMONT Literatur und Kunst Verlag, 2009, 320 pages; ISBN-10: 3832191518 and ISBN-13: 978-3832191511
  • Kleiner Versuch über das Küssen, an essay by Alexandre Lacroix. Matthes & Seitz Verlag, Berlin, 175 pages; ISBN 978-3-88221-033-0
  • Vom Küssen. Ein sinnliches Lexikon., by Otto F. Best. Reclam Verlag, Leipzig, 2003, 260 pages; ISBN 3-379-20056-5
  • Die Zunge, a novel by Lea Singer. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2002, 378 pages: ISBN 3-423-12954-9