German Intangible Cultural Heritage in Germany: The Best and the Rest

So Germany now has its list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage”. Officially known as the “German Nationwide Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage” (or, as Prof. Wulf, head of the selection committee, insists: “Cultural Heritage in Germany”, it contains twenty-seven arts, crafts, cultural concepts and practices. See a full list with explanations on three pages (one, two, three) at the German Commission for UNESCO. Their promotional video introduces several recognised traditions, mostly focusing on Europe, but also including the  Korean martial art Taekkyeon (택견).

The twenty-seven items registered in winter 2014 were selected from eighty-three applications—and more are to follow soon. In addition, this year one of the more interesting traditions—the idea and practice of cooperatives—will be suggested for the UNESCO list of Masterworks of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. See an article on the homepage of Free University Berlin (Wulf’s alma mater) for details.

Passion Plays at Oberammergau: view of the stage, June 2010, via WikimediaCommons, user: Andreas Praefcke

Passion Plays at Oberammergau: view of the stage, June 2010, via WikimediaCommons, user: Andreas Praefcke

Narrenzunft Wellendingen e. V., "Narrensprung" (jester's jump), 16 Feb. 2014 via WikimediaCommons, user: Andreas Praefcke

Swabian-Allemanic Carnival: Narrenzunft Wellendingen e. V., “Narrensprung” (jester’s jump), 16 Feb. 2014 via WikimediaCommons, user: Andreas Praefcke

Whether “German” or not, the inventory includes rather well-known and touristically exploited practices, most prominently carnival (actually two different regional versions), the passion plays held at Oberammergau, and Saxon boys’ choirs; more general ones like organ construction and playing, amateur choirs, timber rafting, morse telegraphy, bread culture; and local traditions probably unknown to most Germans, for example Finch Manoeuvre, Peter-and-Paul-Festival, Lime Tree Fair.

Some choices seem pretty odd, at least at first sight, most of all: The German Theatre and Orchestra Landscape (which, by the way, has been increasingly worn down by cuts in funding during the last years, even evoking an orchestra strike in 2013). In comparison with the Korean list, many German items seem quite abstract, of rather recent origin, or both. But then again, there us not much place for peculiarities in the Empire.

Rattenfängerauszug Hameln, 21 June 2009, via WikimediaCommons, user: Axel Hindemith

Dealing with the Pied Piper of Hameln: Parade in Hameln, 21 June 2009, via WikimediaCommons, user: Axel Hindemith

In any case, my favorite tradition is Dealing with the Pied Piper of Hameln! I started dealing in the early age of seven or eight, when I first visited the little city with my parents. Anyone who’s in for a deal should have a look at the story in German, as compiled by the Brothers Grimm. (Univ. of Pittsburgh provides several versions in English, translated by D. L. Ashliman.) In case you didn’t know: They are the German Sin Jae-hyo (신재효).

But what I found the most intriguing is Low German theatre. Besides the passion plays, the “landscape” (see above), and, possibly, “styles and ways of imparting rhythm and free dance movement” (yes, that’s modern dance!), it is the only theatrical tradition registered so far.

I knew about amateur groups and professional ensembles in larger cities like Hamburg or Bremen who play theatre in Low German (for example the Ohnsorg Theater whose productions are also shown on regional TV). I was also aware that local stations broadcast radio plays in this dialect on occasion. But I had no idea that there is actually a living community who still practice this art (one condition for registration) in my home region of Ostfriesland (East Frisia, the peninsula east of Holland).

This is from the official description of Low German theatre:

The Low German Theatre is the main pillar of Low German culture. Its peculiar character results from the combination of theatre and the local dialect: Low German exists primarily as a spoken language and is restricted to usage in social units such as families, friends, neighbourhoods and colleagues. In combination with the forms of expression to be found in the theatre, this local language is lent an artistic dimension.

So far, so good: A hybrid oral tradition with aesthetic merits. But like other traditions, Low German theatre is rooted in communal values and practices:

Theatre in the local language is a theatre of nearness. This is what creates its peculiar charm for actors and audiences alike. Currently ca. 4,500 groups of players are upholding the tradition of the Low German Theatre. The overwhelming majority of them are small municipal companies in the rural areas of North Germany. In addition, there are also two professionally run Low German Theatre Companies in Hamburg and Schwerin. On the one hand the repertoires consist of a whole range of classic pieces, but most of the plays performed by the small companies are written by the ensembles themselves. In this way they directly reflect the social reality of their municipalities. The Low German Theatre has a central role to play regarding the stabilisation of the Low German language.

(from the homepage of the German Commission for UNESCO)

The slightly longer German description even mentions Dornum, the town next to the small village where my grandparents spent the most part of their lives!

So I’m looking forward to sketching out, when time comes, a comparative post-doc project about the ways this German traditional theatre culture is practiced today–and how it relates to the (mostly) state-sponsored activities that surround Korean pansori. Tentative title: “From Representing the Village to Enacting the Nation: Theatrical Traditions as National Heritage in Germany and Korea”.

Stay tuned for some more thoughts on German and Korean Intangible Cultural Heritage…

– 5 May 2015 (火)


About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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