The Solo Traveller's View


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David Garrett and the Violin

An attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 4

On YouTube, a private video recording gives us a glimpse of little David as he plays his first violin. Did you see the look of fierce concentration on his face? Did you notice his attitude of let me show you what I can do? There is such determination in his look, and even at that tender age his whole manner shows that one day he is going to master this instrument.

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Already there is a remarkable difference to other young children. Whereas their instrument is usually a strange entity and something they have to come to terms with across a gulf of separateness that often feels overwhelming, little David mentally embraces the violin. The movements of his bow are sweeping and confident, he knows how to produce a good sound, he is on pitch; no strangled cats here. Observing his father and brother as they play, he instinctively grasps what it is to be a violinist: what it should feel like, sound like, and look like. And already his temperament is that of a soloist. To achieve the matching skills will be the work of years, but the potential is undeniable.

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Gradually he traverses the realm of fractions as his instrument grows with him, from that first, tiny 1/16 violin that looks like a toy, through the 1/8 and 1/4 sizes to the 1/2 and 3/4. Then, finally, the full size, the one he describes as having arrived at too early. That first Stradivari he received at age eleven was still somewhat too large for him, but it was an offer one would not have refused. It must be around this time, I suppose, that those malpositions began which later led to such problems with his posture and the resulting physical trouble he experienced; the pain and numbness that plagued his later teenage years to the point where he knew he had to stop, sort it all out and make a fresh start.

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Watching YouTube material that shows this child-violinist in rehearsals and onstage, the unhealthy angle of his head gives the viewer an uncomfortable feeling. David’s face is resting on his instrument almost as if it were a pillow. Yes, this does illustrate his connection with the violin as the interface that produces his sound, but it also makes one worry about the discs of his neck, because this is a posture he assumes for hours each day, over months and through years. What were the adults around him thinking, one wonders. Didn’t they notice? Fortunately, David himself was able to change his habits in time to give his still resilient body the opportunity to recover.

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The footage that shows David Garrett after his time in New York also shows the liberation of his face from his instrument. Now his head is upright and free as he plays, and he has shed those involuntary facial expressions (so typical of string players) that were still part of his playing in the early years. His bearing and all his movements are an image of complete liberation. The hard work it must have been to arrive at this seeming effortlessness can only be guessed at.

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Interviewers have sometimes asked David Garrett if his violins have nicknames, if he has a romantic relationship with his instrument, if maybe it could be described as his woman … Now this is where I would roll my eyes and express disbelief and disgust; but David patiently explains, yet again, that he never had nicknames for his violins, that the relationship is entirely businesslike, and that, although it could be called a partnership and there is certainly attachment, the instrument is primarily a means to an end, and that end is MUSIC.

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But there remains an enduring fascination on any interviewer’s part with the great name of Stradivari, with the thought that David Garrett’s best violin equals the value of a row of suburban homes or a country estate, and also with the fact that he once had the heartcrushing misfortune to slip and fall on his violin case, thereby damaging the instrument it contained. (It was not the Stradivari.) David says little about the time it took him to come to terms with that blow, with the daily renewed realization of this grief, but you can imagine the pain.

Now imagine carrying an object of such value through your days and much of your nights. How does it affect you? Surely it must train a heightened awareness that extends beyond the boundaries of your natural self. An attitude of protective care develops, a habitual carefulness that will in time become second nature. (As we know, first-time parents of newborns get thrown into this state without any preparation.) Organists, pianists and harpists obviously excepted, most musicians have the carrying of something vulnerable and precious through their daily lives in common. This tender, protective care is a soul quality we have always rated highly in any man. And David Garrett, trained by necessity, must necessarily have this quality in abundance. It is yet another attractive facet of his character, another string to his bow. (And never has this expression seemed more apt.)

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David Garrett’s Musical Magic

An attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 3

The question has been asked: What is it that distinguishes David Garrett from other violinists? Those that worked nearly as hard as he did in their childhood and now play almost as well? Those that play in an orchestra instead of centre-stage? – The great conductor Zubin Mehta, David’s long-time friend and mentor, put it like this: “You need to have the sound of a soloist, and the temperament of a soloist … He has both.”

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But there is also David’s ability to take any hackneyed tune you hoped never to hear again – O sole mio, O Tannenbaum, O whatever – and to make it shiny and new, like the spinning of straw to gold in a fairytale. His heart, head and hands mark the boundaries of that force field in which a joyous rebirth of any – yes indeed, any – piece of music occurs before our astonished ears, takes place in the close-up transmission of cameras before our wondering eyes.

YouTube fan comments: I never get tired of watching this musical genius.” – “It always makes me happy to watch David Garrett play.” – “Maravilloso … simplemente encantador!” – “Many thanks for the magical music!”

There is such conscious clarity in every note and interval, and his playing is never overly sweet, never sentimental. The hint of edginess about the strings and the masculine vigour of his performance work equally well with contemporary and classical music: Beethoven and Brahms, Metallica and Nirvana, Tico Tico and the Czardas, Yesterday and Summertime, even Chopin and Schubert (being all about the piano) can rarely have sounded more enthralling.

“Have you ever heard anything more beautiful?” – “Como llega a mi corazón! Excelente!” – “… an extremely gifted and sensitive musician.” – “His tone is amazing.” – “Every touch of magic, perfect!” – “He adds so much to the song with his own style. Every note played with such clarity.” – “I doubt that anything he touches doesn’t transform to gold.” – “Thank you, dear David Garrett, for your fantastic music and the happiness it brings to us all!”

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David Garrett can afford to be fearless in his choices, for tags like ‘classical’, ‘crossover’, ‘cover artist’ and suchlike melt to insignificance in this, his particular process of witnessed, conscious creation in music’s universally understood language: A sequence of notes in faultless timing, a progression of harmony, a rhythm … and David’s individual phrasing that expresses a specific emotion in the most beautiful way this moment in time and his outstanding skill affords.

It seems to me that this particular alchemy – this process of turning something too-well-known into something worth listening to – is David Garrett’s unrivalled ability, seasoned with his infectious joy and musical passion. And like a magician he conjures this enchantment for our delight, time and time again, with unfailing commitment. But what he conjures is never illusion. It is truth, pure and sweet.

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Moving on to other projects, I decided not to keep this domain going; and so it is goodbye, dear readers – this blog and all its content will soon disappear.


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David Garrett: Ideal and Role Model

An attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 2

So the question arises: Why did the gods shower this one person with such an abundance of their best gifts? What could have been their intention? That we should see him, and through him be reminded of them? That we should have an image of what man could be, and ought to become? Because at times David Garrett appears a messenger of the truly divine. Listening to him play Beethoven’s violin concerto may convince you of it. That he claims not to be religious is beside the point. There are those who insist that Mozart was not religious, yet his music proves the reality of heaven to all who have ears to hear.

Anyhow, the term ‘religion’ merely refers to our reconnection with the divine – nothing more nor less; a linking of our mind and soul to the godly world of beauty, goodness and truth. In that universal world of the spirit, our material world is embedded like ice floating in water: the same element, but in solid form. And of this invisible world the entirely non-material phenomenon of music has always been both message and evidence. That, I believe, is the reason why we enjoy, love and need music: It is a line of connection to our spiritual home.

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And isn’t this precisely what so many people (both male and female) respond to in the case of David Garrett? That he is clearly not descended from apes, but created in the image of a god? Like it or not – this is my personal conclusion regarding the wellspring of his near-universal appeal. Just go and see how often the sentiments ‘divine’, ‘god-like’ and ‘not from this world’ can be found among those YouTube fan comments:

“He is secretly Apollo. No doubt about it!” – “… plays divinely.” – “… like a god with a violin.” – “… his music is the language of God.” – “Me encanta, parece un ángel tocando el violin.” – “Wie ein junger Gott – als hätte er die Violine erfunden.” – “… transports me to another world.” – “… shows the beauty of paradise.” … And so on. You see my point.

Yet even David Garrett cannot please everyone, as becomes distressingly evident from those very same comments sections. There are usually a few people (mostly male, but not exclusively) who spew acrid bile in response, as if his light were casting a shadow into their soul. Let us be sincerely glad that David has neither the time nor the inclination to read these comments. Those declarations of love and those darts of hate do not reach him. He follows his passion for music with a mature attitude to criticism and a cool disregard concerning the views of those whose opinion matters not. For he has already earned the approval of all those whom he respects most, and that is sufficient.

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“Are the 172 people who disliked this video from ISIS?” one comment asks. It is indeed hard to imagine a mindset that responds negatively to so much beauty. Yet it exists, and the violence of its expression is worrying. That secret deposit of poisonous hate poses the question: What is it that could destroy David Garrett? Naturally one shies away from possible answers, for one wants him to be safe and to make music forever. Yet he himself wears a chunky memento mori on his finger, openly aware that all is temporary. Judging from his intense work schedule and his frequent travelling, a burnout or heart failure will be the likeliest threat as he gets older. It seems improbable that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – figuratively speaking – will dig his grave, since he appears to be so sensible in his choices.

Often has it been said that women love a bad boy; but I suspect they love a good boy even more if he arrives in the shape of David Garrett. The rapacious debauchery of certain rock, sports and film stars does not compare at all favourably with the disciplined coolness he projects. Observe, for example, that he finds the idea of taking sexual advantage of his groupies distasteful; that at televised events he usually switches unobtrusively to water after a first, polite sip from the offered drink; and that he refused to be drawn into a discussion on the benefits of drug-taking for musicians, stating firmly that they were addressing the wrong person for insights on this topic.

All you mothers of sons: Weren’t your hearts swelling with gratitude at that moment? What a fearless role model! David Garrett makes sensible choices look desirable, and it doesn’t seem to be an act. While he certainly knows how to party, he is also aware that it impairs his ability to perform the next day and is not afraid to say so – and, more importantly, to act upon this insight. In his achievements, young people have inspirational proof that self-discipline, dedication and persistent practice are indeed the foundation and the price of deserved (and lasting) success … and, hallelujah, they are prepared to take note.

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Note to the reader: Since writing the above, I have realised that spiteful slander is just as real a threat to David Garrett as it is to anyone who dares to rise above the commonplace. I should have liked him to be exempt from this hateful rule, but bright lights always cast dark shadows.

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Moving on to other projects, I decided not to keep this domain going; and so it is goodbye, dear readers – this blog and all its content will soon disappear.


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What is it about David Garrett?

An Attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 1

Valentina Babor, the young German pianist, says of David Garrett that he is “exceptional as a musician and as a person.” – She knows him. I don’t. The purpose of this essay is to explore her statement further.

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By way of introduction, let me say that in fifty years I have never once put anyone’s poster on my wall and have never sought an autograph; that being a fan is not in my nature and becoming a groupie out of the question. The stars in the musical skies of my youth were John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bob Marley – all alive and well. I loved their music and felt their appeal, understood why girls screamed or swooned – but didn’t.

Never having been a moth to anyone’s flame, how come I’m up late these nights, watching scores of YouTube clips of David Garrett and reading pages of interviews? Those who do this, I’ve discovered, identify themselves collectively as ‘DG Insomniacs’ and are, I suppose, a growing group. I never responded to the discovery of a musician with such interest before, though I did research a fair few in my time. (Note: My great favourite is Mozart. He is the one I know – and love – best, and nothing will change that. Be assured, if there were live recordings of him on YouTube, I’d be watching those.)

I only became aware of David Garrett’s existence in the autumn of 2015. Zapping lazily through the channels one night, I spied him on a German talk show where he was promoting his new album and was instantly mesmerized: Who is that? With this question began my quest to explore the nature of this musician. For what I had heard was thrilling, what I had seen delightful – and both to such an unusual degree that it could not be ignored.

Through scores of interviews, both written and recorded, a picture began to form of David Garrett’s story. I listened carefully to his words; and though my ears were keenly prepared to find them, there were never any wrong notes on his part, though there were some among the interviewers. I mean, for instance, that David-Beckham-of-the-Violin tag. Puh-leeeze, really? Just imagine that other David kicking a violin about … So what if they share a name, good looks and fame. It remains a skewed analogy, not worth repeating.

But, musicianship and good looks aside, what struck me instantly was what an unbelievably nice guy this David is. Not a trace to be found of meanness, of ignorance, conceit or arrogance. Instead, a loving nature of such strong and immediate appeal that the impact is best described by quoting an often repeated fan comment: “He takes my breath away.” – This statement is repeated in many languages and with slight variations throughout the comment sections below his YouTube material.

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What would David Garrett be without his violin? – Just an extraordinarily good-looking man. And what would he be without his looks? – Just an exceptional musician. But he, favoured by fortune, is both. He enchants our eyes as well as our ears, and through them our hearts. And, as if that were not enough and this combination of blessings not more than any mortal could hope for, he also has such personal charm: a beguiling mixture of kindness, sensitivity and tact, of diffidence, modesty and politeness. These qualities (uncommon and unexpected in celebrities) expose one to a riptide of admiration, of adoration. It is even more endearing that David himself seems quite unaware of his effect and – whenever it is mentioned – shrugs with embarrassment and attaches little importance to it.

I’m sure that those who know David personally could complement this list with a few less noble characteristics. He is very human, after all, and himself has named obstinacy, hardheadedness and impatience as his less agreeable traits. These, however, cannot be found in the YouTube material my research is limited to.

But wait … there is more! On insomniac trawls through the abundant video material I successively discovered other delightful qualities: David Garrett has a quick-witted sense of humour and the comical talent of a true entertainer. He expresses a lively intelligence with a philosophical bent that makes him look at life in a way that, at times, seems wise beyond his years. What he has to say about his background, his life and his projects is actually interesting. He radiates positive energy, has mastered the difficult art of self-discipline and solved the conundrum of how duty and freedom are related. Being alone does not frighten him, and he credibly displays a complete lack of desperation where female companionship is concerned. The first, great love of his life is music, after all, and he will never lose that.

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So, yes – all of these findings show that Valentina Babor’s assessment is spot-on: David Garrett is indeed exceptionally exceptional. Fan comment: “Amazing person! Why are there so few people like him in this world?”

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Moving on to other projects, I decided not to keep this domain going; and so it is goodbye, dear readers – this blog and all its content will soon disappear.


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The David Garrett Success Story – How It All Began

This is my translation of the Interview on Austrian TV, ‘Vera bei David Garrett’ – November 07, 2015. (I skipped Vera Russwurm’s introduction. The wording of the interview has been minimally streamlined and edited for better understanding. Banter, repetitions, irrelevancies and talking across each other have been left out.) 

Vera: “Thank you for inviting me to your home in Berlin, and into your circle of close friends. Even though all of you are also working together, the two of you [to Jörg Kollenbroich] are also best friends, right?”

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David Garrett: “Yes, we have now been on the road together for seven years, and initially we got to know one another on a professional level. At the time I had a contract with DEAG and they hired him for the tour, and the first thing that made a good impression on me … because, before that, I had another tour manager who categorically refused to carry my suitcase. I have some trouble with my back, though I’m a pretty strong guy … [laughs] … but he was great, he just grabbed my suitcase.”

Vera: “Did you do that of your own accord, or were you told to?”

Jörg: “I just did it. I’d help any old lady on the underground. That’s how I was raised.”

David: “I really liked that. He mucks in and doesn’t think himself above such things.”

Vera: “So a connection was forged, and then you realised that your paths had already crossed once before, a long time ago.”

Jörg: “We had been on the road for a couple of weeks and were sitting in a car together. He said, ‘Say, Jörg – don’t we know each other from someplace?’”

David: “Your face seemed familiar. Let me begin the story and correct me if I’m wrong. I grew up in Aachen and there was just this one club, the ‘Starfish’ …”

Jörg: “… and I worked there as a bouncer in my student days. I worked with a team and we selected entrants at the door.”

David: “I was a just a pupil at the time and … well, you did let me in … [laughs] … but I was wearing a baseball cap and I remember you telling me to take it off as I went in …”

Jörg: “… and you said, no problem, I’ll do that.”

David: “Yes, well – I’m kind of obstinate, and that cap went with my outfit. Once inside, I put it back on after a while. A few minutes later, he taps on my shoulder and asks me to follow him. I’m thinking he might present me to a girl …”

Jörg: “… or get an autograph …”

David: “Nonsense! I wasn’t recognized at the time, so I didn’t think of that, but I thought …”

Jörg: “What an idea … that the bouncer would introduce you to anyone!”

David: “You see, I was really naïve then … that’s what you get from being home-schooled … and so we go outside, it’s almost winter and I’m just wearing a T-shirt. And then he tells me, ‘That’s it, you’re not going back in.’ – ‘What? All my things are inside!’ … And the reason was just the fact that I had put my cap back on … You swine!” [Laughs]

Vera: “Very strict! – But it is amazing that you [Jörg] should remember this.”

Jörg: “Well, I only remembered it after he told me. Of course this was just one among many incidents and not at all dramatic.”

David: “Hey, I’ve never been asked to leave anywhere else. That was the one and only time.”

Jörg: “It is quite awkward to find myself suddenly on the other side, as [his] employee.”

Vera: “But you hadn’t recognized David …”

David: “I wasn’t known then! Maybe in the world of classical music some people knew of me, but how many CDs did I sell back then? Maybe a thousand, or fifteen hundred.”

Vera: “But in the classical world you were the child prodigy …”

David: “Yes, but Jörg Kollenbroich isn’t someone who had my early CDs on his shelf.”

Vera: “And how was it with you, Andy? Did you know of David, the Wunderkind?”

Andy: “Not at all, not at all. I was suddenly confronted with an entirely new face and a new name.”

Vera: “And yet you [David] had already been called ‘the greatest violinist of his generation’ by Yehudi Menuhin.”

David: “That’s because I grew so fast in those years.” [Laughs]

Vera: “And at age 13 you were already playing a Stradivari.”

David: “Well, actually even earlier than that. I got the first Stradivari at age 11. It happened really early on, I was still very young when I began to do that professionally … Surely also because my parents saw the talent and supported it, even with occasionally applied pressure. Admittedly, without this pressure many things would not have come about. And so I played a concert, aged 11, at the Villa Hammerschmidt, and of course the president of the German Republic, Richard von Weizsäcker, was there. He got me the instrument through his connections and put in a good word on my behalf. At the time, this was pretty sensational for me … to get a Stradivari at age 11.”

Vera: “I believe you were privately educated, taken out of school.”

David: “Yes, for the entire time of secondary school until I returned as a regular student to college. But the time in between … [laughs] … At what age does one attend secondary school? Ten, eleven? Yes, the decision was made after fourth grade (though I could have continued, my grades were ok) but my parents saw my potential. I wouldn’t have minded going to school, to be honest. Those five to six years I missed out on, socially … [laughs] … I believe they do make themselves felt occasionally. But on the other hand, I practised a lot during that time. That’s the good thing.”

Vera: “That is good – but you didn’t have many friends.”

David: [laughs] “Actually, I had no friends at all … I had no schoolmates. I started at nine o’clock in the morning – excuse me for laughing, but it seems funny now. Every morning at nine, if I wasn’t travelling with my father and playing concerts, I would get up. My parents were generous, so if I had returned late after playing a concert, my private tutor would have to wait for an hour until I had woken up. It was a real luxury, but very isolated. We had a separate room for my private tuition, which was very intense. I didn’t have the usual amount of school hours [per day], but only four to four and a half, maximum. But there wasn’t anyone else, so when the teacher posed a question, one couldn’t drop one’s gaze and wait for someone else to answer the question.”

Vera: “But didn’t you like all the applause, the fame and acclamation? Or did you just want to be like all the other boys, with less practice and more friends?”

David: “Up to this day I don’t enjoy the fame, being recognized. It seems to me – no, it is – embarrassing. Not once in my life did I have the thought ‘I want to be famous’ … I never saw myself on stage in my dreams, enjoying success. If I do see myself on stage in a dream, it is usually a nightmare … because I really dislike going on stage. For me, the only reason to go on stage is to make music.”

Vera: “This is a sensational cue … I mean, the two of you [Jörg and Andy] have surely heard David play in private many times, but I … You’ve just released your new album, Explosive … Would you play something from it?”

David: “Of course.” [Unpacks his violin]

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Vera: “And that is another Stradivari?”

David: “Yes, but this is … I really don’t want to make my first one look bad, but I have to say that to get a Stradivari at such a young age is difficult. Firstly, a full-sized instrument was still too large for me at that point, and secondly, the violin I was given was not ideal. Everyone thinks a Stradivari is like a Ferrari and they’re all fantastic – but their sound is very, very different. Stradivari was … how to explain this … he made many, many attempts. And this violin, unfortunately, had been an unsuccessful attempt. The problem is, when you’re 11 years old and trying to explain to your parents why this particular violin does not work for you … of course you will look rather arrogant.”

Vera: “And one needs to appreciate the value of such an instrument. This Stradivari, for example – can you give us an approximate figure?”

David: “Well, the important point I was trying to make – and we can come back to the value in a moment – is that your average guy would say, ‘Man alive, you arrogant cub! Here you are at age 11 with a Stradivari – and you don’t like it?’ … I must add that, if this same Stradivari were offered me today, for free, I wouldn’t take it … because its sound does not at all do justice to my notion. At some point I returned this violin and chose to play a cheaper instrument, because it gave me more … or rather, it gave me a range from which I could form the sound I wanted. This other Stradivari had such a peculiar sound, I couldn’t do anything with it, couldn’t vary it. This Stradivari, however, is not a failed attempt. This is a good one.”

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Vera: “But now let’s return to its value, so people can appreciate …”

David: “The value is completely irrelevant! Unless you have to buy it.”

Vera: “Well, if you were to buy it? – In this case, it is a loan, isn’t it?”

David: “No, that one is mine. If it weren’t mine, I could talk more easily about the price tag … but it’s difficult.”

Vera: “In any case – somewhat over a million euros?”

David: “It’s six times one million euros.”

Vera: “Six times one million! … Well, just so we know …”

David: [plays piece from album]

Vera: “Is this one of your own compositions?”

David: “Yes, that is one of several of my own pieces which, if I may say so, I had the courage to write for this crossover album. In the past I always included one or two of my own compositions in the crossover albums, but this time I wanted to open the door a bit further for myself as a composer. It is what I studied [at the Juilliard School of Music], and because so many people only see me as a cover artist it was important to me to show that writing music means a lot to me, that it is part of me as a person. It is quite difficult to find the right sound for pieces by Michael Jackson or Metallica, for example … to find the right balance between the orchestra and the band, to write new transitions. Arranging music – if you do a first-rate job – is exceedingly difficult, so if you are able to write good arrangements, you will also be able to write original music. And that was very important to me with this album.

Vera: “In any case, it’s a huge success … [to Andy] … How many tickets have you sold this year?”

Andy: “David tours stadiums and arenas, so he draws crowds of over 20’000 on a regular basis. That’s the kind of league, and I think this number tells you more than saying you sell 200’000 tickets per tour.”

Vera: “But in any case it has grown huge. In the meantime, you have become a superstar of the masses. David Garrett has left the narrow sector of classical music behind. Was that your goal?”

David: “No. It has never been my goal to become famous or to appeal to the masses.”

Vera: “Now I must ask this of Jörg: Even if the image [of David] was a good one from the start … because, seven years ago, the image that was marketed was different, wasn’t it … well, let’s say ‘Most Beautiful Violinist in the World’, ‘Rebel of the Violin’ … wasn’t that a deliberate way of saying, hey, here comes one who is different, who does things differently?”

Jörg: “I would not say that at all! When I met David, he looked just as he does now. He always went about like this and always had his own style. There has never been a marketing consultant who told him to wear these boots, those jeans or that hat … or anything like it. It has always been David’s own style, probably formed during his time in New York, in contact with cool people, and I believe that this is the secret behind it: that he has always been genuine in everything he did. He never put on an act onstage, yet he opened up the world of classical music to a young audience … a world that seems at first rather fusty to many, myself included. I barely knew the name of these composers and none of their works, but in working with David this world has opened up to me. And when you see how young the audience is, how enthusiastic people are across all age groups … you might say from eight to eighty, they are all represented. However, the percentage of young people, say between twenty and forty, is considerable.”

Vera: “And in all of these age groups, the majority is female.”

David: “I don’t think one can say that.”

Jörg: “That is an often repeated prejudice. David is a good-looking guy, I understand that the girls think he’s great. He is tall, he’s handsome …”

David: [with a big smile] “I pay him well.”

Jörg: “But it’s a fact! He is likeable and attractive, also to men. Youngsters say of him, man, that is one cool guy.”

Vera: “So, being tour manager is like being a nanny, isn’t it? If David needs something, you are there for him … even if you weren’t friends.”

Jörg: “The term ‘nanny’ sounds rather negative. Of course one offers support. I think the traditional role of the tour manager is that of the accountant as travel guide. He is the first port of call for any issue, and one gets to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, complementing each other. And if you do it in the spirit of friendship, that is really great.”

Vera: “That really is great.”

David: “One also learns a lot from the other. In this profession, you get to know a lot about the business. [To Jörg] You learnt an incredible amount during those seven years, also about human interaction, what works and what doesn’t.”

Jörg: “You learn every day, and if you can have a frank exchange … and we do, we talk openly about whatever … you always get the other’s perspective to complement or change your own. You might say, man, you’re right – my approach would have been totally stupid, so we’ll do it like this for these reasons. And that is a great development, where one can learn with and from the other.”

Vera: “In the course of seven years everyone changes a little bit. You as well as David. Has success changed him in any way, from your point of view, and be it only an increase in self-confidence?”

David: [to Jörg] “Do you remember Rio, the hotel?”

Jörg: “Yes, let’s put it like this: Something that is really important to him now – and it doesn’t always meet with my approval – is that we stay in very good hotels. I understand his reasoning. We travel an awful lot, and so he insists on staying in good hotels.”

David: “It’s the most important thing. A hotel is my home. If the room is bad, I change hotels, and with good reason: I need a good ambiance for my work. This is [about] my life, my quality of life. So I don’t put up with a bad bed, bad lighting and so on. You return at night to your home that is just how you like it, where you feel comfortable. For me, a bad hotel is just the worst nightmare.”

Vera: “How many nights a year do you spend on the road?”

David: “Between 300 and 320. And I spend them in hotels, which is why I need to feel comfortable and at home to a certain degree.

Vera: “But as for the locations of your performances … [to Andy] those would be your responsibility, the tour plans.”

Andy: “I have to say in all honesty that I can’t enter into the topic of tours as those two can, who are on the road … I had the role at DEAG, we had founded a small record label which released David’s first album in Germany, and David did a tour at the same time.”

Vera: “And you just said, ‘We want this guy!’”

Andy: “We want this guy!”

David: “Actually, it was a bit more complicated. If I may explain in more detail: Universal said … well, it was their manager at the time, Christian Kellersmann, who could have taken on my project. He listened to the album I had just recorded and told me it was rubbish, that no one would want to listen to it, and where would we place it on the shelves? There’s pop, rock, jazz and classical, and it fits nowhere. ‘You’re not going to sell four of them!’ – That’s what he told me. I replied, ‘Christian, I respect your opinion, but we have to find a way’. And he said it didn’t look good with him … Yet I already had a contract with Universal. Then I did a TV program – I believe it was ‘Titel, Thesen, Temperamente’ – which one of you guys saw. I believe it was Peter Schwenkow, who then invited me for a talk …”

Vera: “… because he saw you play on TV?”

Andy: “David had signed with a London company in 2007 …”

Vera: “… and at that time David Garrett was unknown in Germany.”

David: “Totally unknown.”

Vera: “You’ve risen steeply since then! … Even in the classical scene you were no longer a name. First a child prodigy, and then it was over.”

David: “Exactly. I hadn’t played [concerts] in five years.”

Vera: “Not even in New York.”

David: “I didn’t do concerts anymore, intentionally, during the time of my studies [at Juilliard’s] and hadn’t performed in five years. And if you haven’t been on stage for that long, people begin to wonder whether you can still do it.”

Vera: “Those that remember to ask … for the market value decreases rapidly.”

David: “It takes a very long time to build a reputation, especially at that age. I had played a lot of concerts at age 17 – 18. Then came the break, and to return at age 22 – 23, asking to be invited once more … You have to audition all over again.”

Vera: “That was extremely difficult. And that is precisely the time when this story takes place. What interests me: This break you mentioned – did the pressure become too much or did you just want to be more yourself and escape the management of your parents?”

David: “Firstly, I no longer felt comfortable, and secondly, I was no longer good. At that age I noticed that there was no consistency in my development and I searched for ways to improve. There were several things that were not ok: bowing, vibrato and posture … So, in my playing, there were a number of things that needed improving and I pondered for a long time how to change this. Of course one could make small adjustments and continue to play concerts, but there were so many problems and building sites that I told myself to stop, and to start over from square one.”

Vera: “Wasn’t that difficult for your parents, who had such high expectations of you?”

David: “[To them] it was incomprehensible.”

Vera: “So it was also a break with your family at the time.”

David: “Yes. My father had worked with me for many years, and one has to say that he always saw me as extraordinarily talented. To him, I have always been the best of the best. But the problem is that when you are this close, your judgement is very subjective. It is lovely that he saw me like this, but he could not under these circumstances understand that I saw it differently. My saying that I wanted to study, that there were faults I wanted to correct … that he did not understand. Because he just saw my excellence, and not my mistakes.”

Vera: “Ok … and at this point Andy comes into play, after he saw you on TV.”

Andy: “Those were magical moments, the likes of which we rarely see in this business. Everything fitted. Peter was on a business trip in London and had visited the company that had David under contract. They had produced his album and tried to offer it to that German company, for distribution in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. That was the talk ‘We don’t believe this will work’. And Peter returned from London, where crossover was really big at the time. He told me about it and handed me a stack of CDs to occupy myself with. And then came that key phone call with Peggy Smith, who worked at the London company. She called me and said, ‘We have this artist, his name is David Garrett; we tried to convince this German company, but they have no faith … Would you do it?’ That was really bizarre, because when you make a decision of this kind, it normally takes a long time. One considers the investments, the work and everything else; one brings it to the team for discussion … And the funny thing was, as I was on the phone with Peggy, I googled David – that’s the great thing these days – and while she was still talking, I said to her, ‘We’ll do it!’ … Peggy just carried on talking, thinking she still needed to convince me. That was such a magic moment! And when David came to Berlin, we all sat round the table and cleared everything within two hours. We had the complete concept.”

Vera: “When was it … I seem to have heard … that David played somewhere and it was the response of the women in that private audience that swayed the decision, because they were so enthusiastic?”

[She is referring to the  Spiegel TV ‘Porträt’ of December 21, 2014, where Peter Schwenkow made the following statement (at 21.10): “Before we went on tour for the first time, I invited him to a private concert at my home. About 80 to 90 friends were there. David came and played in this intimate setting, and I saw at least 50 pairs of female eyes light up – and I knew this was going to work.”]

David: “How come I don’t know about this?”

Andy: “Indeed, there is another name linked to this story of how it all began, and that is Elke Krüger, who accompanies David’s career to this day and does the media management. After my phone call with Peggy I contacted Elke, who I knew was about to go to Leipzig where they were looking for something special, and I sent her photos and music and also a video of David from the proms. Elke and I had been working together for 20 years and we were used to building up new artists. How to get media attention – that is always difficult, because people are reluctant and prefer Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and other things they know. And now a sensational thing happened: Elke returned from her trip to Leipzig and said, ‘Andy, you won’t believe this. All the women at the broadcasting centre and all the editorial staff have put up the pictures of David on their office walls, they love David Garrett, they talk about him’ … and that was that.”

David: “And I thought they liked the music! … After all these years you’re telling me … [with mock indignation] What impudence!” [Laughs]

Jörg: “It was always the whole package.”

Vera: “On the topic of women: I’d like to mention – I don’t know if you’ve read about this – that David has been in a relationship for a while, but now that appears to be over.”

David: “At the moment I am very much occupied with promoting [the new album], assisted by Elke who always makes sure that I am permanently entertained, participating in talks and shows. That is very important right now and I appreciate it. To me, the most important thing is my work, and so I find myself in an intermediate zone right now.”

Vera: “An intermediate zone … I’ve read the following statements made by you. If I may quote …” [takes out her notebook]

David: “Of course – but they may not be accurate.”

Vera: “That is just what I want to find out! [She reads] ‘I am someone who can get along damn well just by himself.’ – Is that right?”

David: “Did I say damn? Probably …” [He nods]

Vera: [continues] “’That has become my way of life over the course of time.’ – Accurate? [David nods] – ‘I have been on the road for over 12 years now and am very much focused on myself. I don’t – (and here it comes) – miss a permanent relationship.’”

David: “I never missed that, certainly. I am just as happy and content when I’m not in a relationship. I don’t think there’s a difference. [Turning to Jörg] You’ve seen me in relationships and without them. Is there a difference?”

Jörg: “Well, the phone bill tends to be different … But you just don’t have the time to commit. Either you meet a girl – and the same goes for me – who says she can accept that her boyfriend is away such a lot; or you have a girl who, at some point, realizes that she doesn’t want a rock star and prefers Joe Blogs, who has an ordinary job and comes home at five o’clock each day. Which one can totally understand.”

Vera: “One probably imagines it to be easier than it actually is.”

David: “I believe that a relationship is fundamentally difficult, no matter what situation you’re in.”

Andy: “I have always admired your clarity in this matter; how clearly you perceive your life, and how relationships fit into it.”

David: “Well, I always state my priorities right at the beginning. If they don’t believe me, they’ll soon notice. Music has top priority, my job and my performance. That is the most important thing – my ability to perform.”

Jörg: “But I believe that they have a hard time gauging that.”

David: “At first they think, he doesn’t really mean it. But in the end, if I know I have to practise and my girlfriend would like to have a romantic dinner, I have to tell her that, no, I need to practise.”

Vera: “Tough as nails.”

David: “And why? Because the people who come to my concerts expect top quality. They wouldn’t come back otherwise, and I would never compromise on that … for a woman!”

Vera: [sweetly] “Well, in that case the right one hasn’t appeared yet.”

David: “That’s what they all say, initially. But these are my priorities, and they will never change – never!”

Vera: “Never say never, David.”

David: “If I were to find the right woman, only to notice that my work was suffering, I would break up with her.”

Jörg: “That sounds extremely harsh, but actually it isn’t. If you work in a bank, you have to start at eight and finish at six – or at seven, if you’re the manager – and you don’t take your wife or girlfriend to work with you. This work is important for your life, your ability to live. And it’s the same with us. The issue is that we don’t come home at night, but naturally we have to focus on what it is we are doing. And that can’t be done if you say, oh, I’ll spend tonight with my sweetheart.”

Vera: “Listening to you, one might suppose that we, in Austria … and with you being on the road a lot [we’d see more of you] … but you only ever give one concert in Austria each year. (…) But one question concerning this year’s performance: It was precisely the day of that terrible road-rage incident. How did you handle it? I heard that the concert was going to be cancelled, but then it went ahead and there was huge dismay among the population.”

David: “That was very difficult. It was not my decision to make. I did not say, ‘We’ll play anyway’. The local organizer decided to go ahead. I have to say that such incidents are unforeseeable and terribly tragic, and before we began the concert I went on stage and spoke about the situation. That was important to me, so the audience would know that this wasn’t being ignored. The show was meant as entertainment, and I wanted people to know that [the tragedy] affected me too, made it hard for me … Ultimately, music is very healing. If I’m not feeling well or have problems, I listen to music.”

Vera: “You listen to music – you don’t play yourself?”

David: “No. I could do, but listening requires less focus. I believe that music has an important function, not just when you’re happy, but especially when you are not. That’s why I didn’t have a problem going ahead with that concert. In the end, there is nothing more important than consolation at such a time. That’s why we played.”

Vera: “Do your parents attend your concerts? Do they like what you do now?”

David: “They are great fans of all I do. There are differences in taste, which is normal, but they are happy to attend and think it great … all the things that have happened in both areas, whether I do crossover or classical tours. But it has to be said that – especially when my father is present, who worked so intensively with me in my youth – I do get somewhat nervous. Even though he tells me that there is really no need, that he thinks I’m great, that I do this better than anyone … One can’t get it out of one’s system. On stage I have to take a very deep breath.”

Vera: “Is it because he was also your severest critic? He was tough on you, wasn’t he?”

David: “Very tough. From my fourth to my eighteenth year, he was my teacher.”

Vera: “Is it true that he occasionally hit you with the violin, or the bow?”

David: “The violin would have been too expensive.”

Vera: “But he was brutal in his severity.”

David: “Quite. He was not overly gentle.”

Vera: “And at that time, until you left home, did you ever think, I don’t want to do this? I just don’t want the pressure … and cry, and scream, and throw a tantrum …”

David: “Yes, exactly.”

Vera: “And who prevailed? – In the long run, obviously your father.”

David: “Obviously … [laughs] … or I would not be sitting here.”

Vera: “But today you are glad? Or do you sometimes feel that he robbed you of a part of your childhood?”

David: “Of course he did. I’m aware of it and there is no point pretending otherwise. And I’m certain that if he were here today, he would admit it. He is not crazy – on the contrary, he thinks very clearly. Only it was an unusual situation for both of us. For me, because I wanted to do this – though not always – but I noticed that it was something I could do well. For my father, he was so close that it was hard to remain objective, and so he took a lot of decisions about which he was later unhappy. In theory they were right, for they brought about that increment of intensive practice. But looking back, I doubt that he would do those same things again. In the end it was all right, even though I would not want to have to go through it again. It was too … too …”

Vera: “… intense …”

David: “Nice word!”

Vera: “Does reproach or gratitude predominate now? You wouldn’t be where you are without him.”

David: “I’m not religious, but I believe one has to let go of things. I’m not someone who lives in the past. Yes, I did feel reproachful for a while after I left home, but I believe that if you hold on to reproach or regret, it robs you of so much energy and strength, so at some point I put it aside. Otherwise you can’t focus on today and tomorrow, which is much more important. I don’t know if I swept it under the carpet, so to speak … At some point it was no longer important. It didn’t touch me anymore. And then there was respect for his work, and for recognizing things that I probably wouldn’t even recognize in a young musician. He recognized it – no matter how – and so there is certainly respect.”

Vera: “There is also respect on my part for your achievements, of which I would love to hear a small sample.”

David: “Certainly.” [Plays solo passage from the Devil’s Trill Sonata]

22

***

Moving on to other projects, I decided not to keep this domain going; and so it is goodbye, dear readers – this blog and all its content will soon disappear.


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Workaway @ Proitzer Mühle

A fascinating workaway placement does not necessarily need an exotic setting somewhere near the South Pacific. I, for example, had a wonderful time at a restored historic watermill in Germany – located almost in the middle of nowhere.

Proitzer Mühle, as seen from the Tree House

Proitzer Mühle, as seen from the Tree House

The Seminarhof Proitzer Mühle is set in the beautiful, remote Wendland. Groups of people book in to attend workshops and seminars, the catering is done by a team of fantastic cooks and the housework by energetic cleaners. The management of it all – and the hosting of workawayers – is in the capable hands of Heike, who is ably assisted by Jutta and Sally. The three women divide their time between administrative tasks, animal care, Scottish dancing, cycling and carpentry, as well as looking after the guests. Their love for the English language leads to many interesting discussions of its finer points. Whenever the four of us were together, talk turned to matters of language sooner than later, and we mainly conversed in English.

Heike and Friend

Heike and Friend

Living at the mill is a mild-mannered wild pig named Nessie, and also Prince Rupert, a grumpy pot-bellied pig. They share the stables with three beautiful if somewhat aged ponies, and with Major Tom, almost bursting with a cat’s self-confidence. Heike looks lovingly after her animals and it is easy to see how much they mean to her. Ducks and chickens live here too. Red deer, red squirrels, grey cranes and storks drop by on the occasional visit.

Welcome to the Mill!

Welcome to the Mill

Going out

Enjoying the Spring Sunshine

Winter Fun

Winter Fun

At any time of the year, there may also be travelling volunteer workers at the Proitzer Mühle. These stay for variable lengths of time and help out with all kinds of tasks in kitchen and house, in stables and garden. Sometimes these workawayers make a real difference and leave their unique mark as an enduring memory, such as this beautifully crafted bunk bed:

A Workawayer's Project

A Workawayer’s Project

The mill’s buildings can accommodate up to seventy guests in thirty rooms (but most beds are of the more traditional variety). Many of the visiting groups have been here before and come regularly every year to enjoy the peaceful setting, the fine facilities and the excellent cooking. Every day, I look forward to the breakfast buffet because it is such a splendid affair: crusty, oven-warm rolls, high-quality cooked meats and cheeses in abundance, honey and homemade jams and jellies, a large bowl of yoghurt, jugs of cream and coconut cream, steaming porridge, muesli, bowls of nuts, almonds, grated coconut and pumpkin seeds. A large urn dispenses hot, delicious lemongrass-and-ginger tea all day long. This tea is a speciality of the house and very popular with the guests, who like to buy it in bags to take away with them. Most likely they will remember the lovely time they had here at the mill over each steaming mug at home …

The coming and going of new groups of people naturally adds interest to each passing week. A Tango Argentino workshop is followed by an amateur choir that replaces those seductive accordion tunes with uplifting sacral music. Sweat-lodge-builders, osteopaths and Tai Chi enthusiasts arrive in turn to pursue the study of their subject with focus, discipline and enjoyment. Tea breaks and meals increasingly take place out of doors as the spring sunshine gathers strength. The atmosphere buzzes with a zest for learning and self-improvement, and much laughter punctuates friendly conversations everywhere. Musical instruments for public use are scattered around the common rooms and make up for the fact that the mill remains a TV-free zone.

One evening there is a splendid buffet, a feast to celebrate the end of the Tango Lab. The cooks have surpassed themselves, and nothing is more surprising and delicious than the ice cream spiked with crushed pumpkin seeds and topped with a ruby-red cinnamon and cardamom sauce. Later on, I sit in and watch the tango ball in the beautiful, mirrored hall with the sprung wooden floor. One couple in particular catches my eye. A young man and woman are locked in a hold that is at the same time commanding yet utterly tender as they dance with closed eyes and great skill. Their steps are much smaller than those of other couples, and they seem absorbed in an inner space that binds them together and makes them move as one. I wonder immediately if they might be Argentineans far from home, so connected do they appear to this dance, and so pleasing to the eye is the picture they present … It turns out that they are the instructors. Another Argentinean master arrived recently, and once he begins to dance, I am unable to watch anyone else. The fluidity of his movements and the carefully guided intensity in the way he leads his partner are unmatched. He embodies the tango, which is so much more than a series of steps. The German lady he is dancing with is quite accomplished, but her face betrays the strain of trying not to be a disappointment to him, as well as the bliss of finding herself in the arms of such an expert.

Another night, there is a concert of folk music and songs by a talented trio of Scandinavian musiciansA lot of local people arrive for this event, and the dining room is crammed to the limit with an appreciative audience.

Folk Music by Huldrelokkk

Folk Music by Huldrelokkk

I also enjoy the performance put on for all the workers at the mill by the very dedicated Tai Chi group on their last night.

Tai Chi Demonstration

Tai Chi Demonstration

So much for the evenings! In the daytime, my contribution as a workaway volunteer is to wake the garden from its winter’s sleep. The beds and borders around the terrace need tidying and planting with spring flowers. Drifts of autumn leaves have to be raked off the grass, cobbled areas need to be swept and rose bushes are waiting to be pruned. I also remove bunches of dead stalks from flowering perennials and am thrilled by glimpses of new buds waiting in the soil. The air is full of the promise of spring, and the sun has a tender force that draws the cold earth slowly into the new season. But a large bush no longer displays any signs of life. One by one, I saw its branches off near the base and drag them over to the woods. Major Tom the cat joins me and tries to catch the twigs, or even the saw, in his lightning-quick paws.

Almost everyone who passes offers a friendly greeting, and some even stop to exchange a few words. And although I have barely begun, I already get comments on how nice it all looks. Oh, what a lovely change from working as a teacher, where one is criticized so readily! How agreeable is this kind of life, where there is no position or reputation to safeguard, no possessions to acquire and no ambitions to pursue! A warm and pleasant room, good food, friendly people and a variety of outdoor work in a lovely location seem an excellent bargain in exchange for the aggravations of a settled life.

I love working outside in the March sunshine, and my favourite job is the lopping of tangled branches crowning the linden tree by the main house. It is overgrown with shoots that need removing, for the old and partly hollow main branches can no longer support the growing weight. So I spend a few days perched on a tall ladder, wielding my trusty loppers and feeling increasingly at home up there.

The tallest Ladder yet ...

The tallest ladder …

A Job Well Done

… and the satisfaction of a job well done.

There is also plenty of time to explore the area with my kind hosts. (I have already described our outings to Salzwedel, the Elbe River, Schnackenburg, the former inner-German border and the Grenzlandmuseum in previous blog posts.) This gorgeous part of the Northern European Plain is particularly well suited to bicycle tours, therefore the mill has a stable full of bikes for guests to borrow. But Heike and her friends prefer their personal recumbent bikes and invite me to try one. Verdict: Wonderfully easy on the backside!

Flat land, no traffic, straight roads – cyclist heaven!

Flat land, no traffic, straight roads – cyclist heaven!

So what's a recumbent bike?

So what’s a recumbent bike?

On my last day, Heike collects me, a plateful of poppy seed cake and two thermos flasks of tea and takes me to her private sanctuary, the treehouse, for a tea party with Sally and Jutta. One by one we ascend in an electric lift that winches us up to the platform in the oak tree, towering above the mill. The view is great, for the branches are still bare at this time of the year. In the summer, it must be like a sea of green.

Inside the large and professionally built tree house there is a table with benches, fixed to the wall, and chairs covered in furs and blankets. Two large windows let in the light, and the eye roams freely across the land. Huge branches like minor trunks pass through the interior space, up from the floor and out through walls or roof, and around the corner there is a proper bedstead under a skylight perfect for stargazing. What a view – and what a feeling!

Heike's Place

Heike’s Place

And up we go ...

Up, up, and up we go …

The sun is setting in a haze behind the dark fir forest on the horizon, and on my last evening walk along the fields nearby I spot four deer. They are watching me, seemingly unafraid. The evening air is warm and smells of spring. I feel at peace, easily able to live in the moment … It is hard to leave, for I loved being here and should very much like to return one day!

Evening Walk

Evening Walk


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Grenzlandmuseum Göhr

Saturday, 22 March 2014

This morning, I have an appointment with Herr Ritzmann from the Grenzlandmuseum in the village of Göhr, and two of my new Workaway friends decide to tag along. Although the museum doesn’t open its doors until the tourist season begins on the first of May, Herr Ritzmann is willing to show visitors around by appointment.

Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann was a youngster when the partition that became known as the Iron Curtain was built. He remembers watching the labour force at work, only a few kilometres from his home near Schnega in the district of Lüchow-Dannenberg. He was fascinated by it all and, at the age of thirteen, began to take pictures of the border with his first camera – now also part of the exhibition. His collection of photographs exceeds five hundred and represents a personal documentation of historic value.

Of course Ritzmann was at the local border crossing in Bergen (about halfway between Göhr and Salzwedel) on the day the border was opened in 1989. He describes how a long line of Trabis crossed into the Federal Republic of Germany; how residents of the West had set up tables and stalls to welcome their new neighbours with drinks, fruit and cake; how people embraced and shed tears of joy … ‘It was an exciting time’, he states with a look laden with memories.

After Germany’s reunification, Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann travelled along the former border with a GDR army truck and collected memorabilia for his little museum, anything that was moveable: parts of the metal-mesh fence, complete with wires and alarm lights, border posts and warning signs, radio communication units of Russian provenance, border guard uniforms for all seasons, documents, maps, a large flag nobody wanted anymore, various mines (complete and in splinters), buoys from the Baltic, and even an army truck and a patrol car.  The complete office of an NVA-Officer, including its red telephone, is a highlight. Ritzmann encourages our friend to dress up in an original officer’s uniform and try out the desk. Erich Honecker – head of state and butt of jokes (see previous blog post) – smiles cautiously from his picture frame.

Original Office of the NVA (Nationale Volks Armee)

An Original Office of the NVA (‘Nationale Volks Armee’)

Trying out a 'Trabi' of the Border Guards

Trying out a ‘Trabi’ of the Border Patrol

GDR border guards helped Ritzmann to stow his treasures. ‘Take whatever you like – take it all!’ they said. He is still friends with a number of them, and a press picture shows him raising a glass with the former enemy at the 20-year-anniversary of the day the border collapsed.

Border Guard on Duty

Border Guard on Duty

Details of Border Fortifications

Details of the Border Fortifications

Of course Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann also knows the story of the wily mayor of Harpe and shows me the ‘Vodka Bend’ on a map. (Please see blog post ‘Cycling in the Borderlands’ for this intriguing tale.) 

The Vodka Bend, curving around the Village of Harpe

The ‘Vodka Bend’, curving around the Village of Harpe

A less amusing note is struck by articles reporting the number of casualties along the border, and the often gruesome deaths of men willing to risk their life to escape the socialist paradise. (You can read more about this in my blog post ‘Iron Curtain’s Silver Lining’). Lacerated by the shrapnel blasted by spring guns along the fence, they were sometimes left to die by the border guards who arrived at the scene without delay. Those who wandered into the mine fields also died alone, just like the wild boars, the stags and red deer that had the misfortune to get caught there. Only hares and foxes fit through the small holes cut at intervals into the mesh of the fence. These openings were reinforced with a collar of sheet metal and bolted tight from the outside. Hidden by the undergrowth on the western side, no one even knew they existed, except those small animals that were thus able to cross the border without setting off the alarm and losing their lives in the process.

Opening for Small Game

An opening for small game …

The Boar at the Back fell Victim to the Spring Guns

… but the boar at the back has fallen victim to the spring guns.

Nevertheless, people kept trying their luck, and a few were successful. Three workers at a factory in the vicinity of the fence observed the border guards over time, became familiar with their routines and hatched a plan. Before six o’clock one morning they escaped, in a bulldozer that took the shrapnel in their stead as it tore a hole in the fence and ripped concrete posts from the ground. The men got away unharmed.

Border guards were also (one might assume, especially) susceptible to escape attempts, and therefore they were always deployed in groups. They knew that their comrades had orders to shoot them, should they make a dash for it. In any case, those scouts that were sent to explore the land beyond the border, smuggled out through secret, hidden, tiny gates, were drawn solely from the politically rock-solid elite. They were kitted out with smart uniforms and the best equippment, and they always wore ties on their missions that involved a lot of crawling through bushes. Clearly meant to impress the decadent capitalists with their accoutrements, they were strictly forbidden to speak to the enemy. No greeting, no nod and certainly no smile … Ritzmann remembers meeting such eerily silent figures on his early rambles.

Border Scouts, in Summer and Winter Uniform

Elite Border Scouts, in Summer and Winter Uniform

'Our border is always reliably protected!'

‘Our border is always reliably protected!’

'Please do not touch the mines!'

‘Please do not touch the mines!’

Ritzmann explains the Alarm System

Ritzmann explains the Alarm System

It is a dark chapter in the history of man’s violence towards his fellow man, and added to the state-sanctioned cruelty is the hypocrisy with which it was justified: The armed fence was there to ‘protect’ the citizens of the GDR from the fascists beyond, the great enemy that was always trying to get in and corrupt the socialist paradise of happy workers and farmers. (Isn’t it strange then that all the guns and mines were on the inside?) Of course, a heavy amount of hysterical propaganda was necessary to shout this threat into existence in the minds of the populace. But this kind of brainwash, beginning in early childhood, was undermined by the media of the West. Westfernsehen and Westradio were of course strictly taboo, yet their allure was strong. In the end, they helped to reveal the government’s propaganda as the pack of lies it was. And when the farmers and workers saw, and compared to their own, the style of life, the means of production and the advance of technology in the West, they began to realize that they had been cheated. ‘It was then I knew that a big crash was about to happen …’ a farmer said after his formal visit to the other side of the fence.

Those living within a certain distance of the border in the West were allowed to apply for permission to visit family in the East several times a year. But they had to pay an admission fee, as well as exchange a set amount of their money at a rate of 1:1 per day of their stay. Of course there was nothing to spend that money on, so it was an expensive outing and not overly popular.

A large sign next to the road to Salzwedel marks the place of the former border line. A watery ditch running along the woods may or may not have been part of the former fortifications. Everything has been removed: The metal-mesh fencing (its raw material supplied by Krupp-Essen and the finished product by Sweden – thank heavens for neutral nations; they must have made a fortune from that order!), the barbed and the trip wires, the concrete paving, the mines … nothing remains but a bitter memory and a green belt of healthy, because undisturbed, nature.

After my visit at the museum, I wander into the woodland of firs and follow tracks that criss and cross between the trunks of tall conifers. The ground is mossy, strewn with small fir cones … and it is quiet, so very quiet. Despite its grim history, this land is beautiful and of Zen-like tranquillity. I like everything about it: the softly rolling landscape, the expanse of sweet-smelling woodland and the charming architectural style of its settlements. And since I am not looking for employment, the absence of industrial development seems a blessing. Could a way be found to generate job opportunities here without turning the Wendland into an ugly park of industrial estates? I hope it with all my heart.

'Erich's Revenge' - 'With Original Contents'

‘Erich’s Revenge’ – ‘With Original Contents’