FROM Goethe to sausages, Germany: Memories of a nation
(Radio 4, weekdays) is on an epic journey to uncover the history
and myths that make up the German psyche. With Neil MacGregor
fronting this series of 15-minute episodes, this has all the
appearance of a Teutonic version of A History of the World in
100 Objects - and why not, since the latter series is regarded
as one of the very best radio series of the past ten years?
This latest offering also has much to admire, although cultural
history, so much bound up with questions of propaganda and national
identity, is a good deal messier than the examination of a single
object. The discussion of Grimm's fairy tales (Thursday's episode)
was a case in point.
Germany loves its woods: one third of the country is covered in
them, and they are protected by government laws. Germans
particularly love their oak trees, which symbolise resilience in
the face of destiny's storms. It was in the Teutoburg Forest that
Hermann defeated the Romans - a story of German resistance which
resonates down the centuries. So how does this marry with the
psycho-geography of the Grimm stories, where the wood is the place
where everything bad happens?
MacGregor's account of Martin Luther and his influence on the
German language was more straightforward: as a religious figure, he
may have divided people; but, as a writer who fashioned a new
register in which the German language might operate, he was a great
unifier. His neologisms and proverbial phrases suffuse German
literature in the same way as English is full of Cranmer and
Shakespeare; it was Luther's genius to find a mode of expression
that was equally at ease with upper and lower German dialects.
When we speak of Brahms as a nationalist composer, we think in
terms of an intellectual engagement with German culture. Such was
the thrust of Natasha Loges's contribution to The Essay
(Radio 3, Wednesday of last week), part of the network's Brahms
Experienceseason. Brahms's choice of texts for works such as the
German Requiem shows how different a musical mind his was
from that of Richard Wagner, whose nationalism operated on a more
visceral and emotional level.
This was an essay full of fresh insights. While doubts over the
composer's racial profile did not damage his popularity with the
Reich, it was partly Arnold Schoenberg's espousal of Brahms as a
musical progressive which saved this composer from damaging
For those who believe that religious broadcasting is going to
the dogs, comfort can be found on Premier Christian Radio, which
has undertaken to re-broadcast Priestland's Progress
(Saturdays and online at www.premierchristian-radio.com).
That listeners could be allowed 40 minutes of religious
discussion without the interpolation of brain-cleansing passages of
music seems hardly conceivable nowadays; but that is what the late
Gerald Priestland offered up in the early 1980s. One might baulk
now at the number of male professors featured; but one cannot but
smile at the intonation of the youthful Rowan Williams.