Musicians on the move
Updated: Mar 14
Germany is flooded with people like me - musicians who have moved here from all over the globe to pursue their musical ambitions. What is it about the German classical music scene that has such a pull factor, and how do we reconcile that with living far away from home and family?
I thought I'd interview some of my musician colleagues and see what their takes are on these issues. These were very organic chats, and I loved how we ended up covering all kinds of themes: different traditions of choral singing, the baroque aesthetic, dealing with homesickness, the philosophical reasons for becoming an artist, and different perspectives on personal growth, to name but a few!
Yves Ytier is a baroque violinist and dancer from Santiago, Chile. He left in 2011 to study Dance in Essen and Baroque Violin in Berlin. He now lives in Cologne and works as a freelance violinist.
What made you leave Chile?
I was 22 and I had just done my exams in violin. Everything was open. I met Ingrid Zur at a masterclass and she recommended that I come to Germany. She gave me the impulse, and recommended a few teachers, so I applied and took the auditions. It was the desire to go further in terms of music, and also to grow personally and to experience different things.
Did you imagine you would stay so long?
No. there was lot I didn’t know. It was just a gut feeling - I knew that I wanted to go further but I didn’t know where. First I had a place for a Masters in Violin in Berlin and for a Bachelors in Dance in Essen. I did 4 years of Dance, and studied violin in Berlin parallel. Then I worked as a dancer in a theatre. It wasn’t planned - I love Chile, I love the people, I didn’t want to go away. I just wanted to experience different things, and then ended up staying!
How different would your career have been in Chile?
There’s less variety to the musical life there and there are no baroque ensembles. I would have had to have a fixed job in an orchestra. If you are connected to a university then it's a lot more stable.
People are very interested and excited by music and the scene there is growing. But many people leave - this is also a question for me - if all the good musicians leave then the musical landscape won’t grow and develop. It's also good when people go back and give something - teach, found an organisation. I’m not considering that now but I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility.
What have you learnt from being away and living abroad?
I’m still learning! Many things - to be alone and so far from everything you know - you learn to take responsibility for yourself. I like the freedom that that gives you. At first you feel lonely but then you also feel free - you decide your own life. You always meet new people and you learn something from everyone you meet. Also the language, the culture, another way of thinking. But everything you learn is also a way to get to know oneself better - the more one gets to know the outer landscape the more one gets to know the inner landscape. Musically, artistically, it broadens your horizons.
What do you see as the main musical differences between Germany and Chile?
Recently I played with Chilean colleagues for the first time in a while. It was good, but very different! We played Bach, and it was completely different to how Bach is played here in Germany. The people obviously don’t speak German, so the accent in the singing was very different for one thing.
Perhaps the main difference would be that here everything is refined and precise here, and in Chile it's more free and chaotic. Maybe not so perfect but with a lot of spirit and temperament. Here in Germany there is also spirit, but within a form that is very precise. It doesn’t lose itself in chaos, which happens more often in Chile! But there is a lot of talent and enthusiasm there.
This difference occurs to me often in terms of dance - in Chile, dance is very passionate and has a lot of energy. When I first arrived in Germany, the dance seemed to be just form and much less spontaneous, with less power. In Chile it was really fiery. I missed that when I came here, but for losing that I gained precision and other things. A certain cleverness, that can be very positive. For me personally, it is about how one combines the different elements that one has learnt in the different places.
In Chile, if someone wants to be an artist they really have to burn for it. You have to accept that you will never be rich and you will live from the absolute minimum, so the desire to make art has to be very strong. Thus, the art comes from a very deep place. Somehow this makes it more political to be an artist. You are against the system, as the system has no place for you. Its a fight, its almost revolutionary. There is only one dance company - a ballet company - and everything else is freelance. The scene is fairly underground, in a good sense. Here in Germany, being an artist is more comfortable, you don’t have to be against the system, which makes a big artistic difference.
This reminds me of the argument sometimes bandied about in political spheres that artists have to suffer in order to be creative...
Yes but that’s not true. Everybody should be able to live honourably doing whatever it is they have a calling for. As an artist you will suffer anyway! It doesn’t need to be made worse by external factors.
There are lives that are very painful, and then there are other types of pain - not to do with external factors, but to do with internal factors. It is this inner suffering, so to speak, that makes us become artists. Where does our artistic energy come from? From suffering, from joy, inspiration, pain, they are all there.
I've felt this since I was born - a certain pain. There's no external reason to suffer, I have a very happy life, but nevertheless there is this inner suffering. Some types of pain don’t come from you, they come from generations before you. Its a feeling that everything isn't flat, that there is a certain depth and tragedy to life. Its overwhelming. It can be totally positive - you can use your life to do something with this feeling. Therefore I don’t think artists need to earn less in order to suffer, they suffer anyway.
Artists can also have so much joy. This broad spectrum, these extremes. With art we try to get away from conformity. Society is organised so that we all do the same, eat the same, wear the same clothes, watch Netflix…. Art gives you the opportunity to experience something different - it offers abnormality in both directions. Personally, I forget this sometimes. In classical music its easy to forget the creative aspect. Art is not just decorative. it should wake us up and remind us that we’re alive!
Live your life, and not the life that is put on you from the outside. This is also a reason to go away from where you are, from where you always were - to find this freedom to be different, to be yourself.
How does it feel when you go home now? How has your relationship to your country changed?
I’ve changed a lot in 10 years. But that would also have happened if I hadn’t left. I never had a Chilean community here, it just never happened really. I’ve spoken little Spanish. I never had anything against my country, in fact I missed it and longed for it sometimes. When I go back I have the need to connect myself with the people there. Everything that one has left behind, its like an open question. When I'm in Chile I try to feel how they are living, by doing things together and playing music together.
Somehow I have the wish to unite my two worlds, that in Chile and that in Germany, so that everything belongs. It all belongs to me, is a part of my world. My home is all over. I am at home in the world. That is a good feeling.
Andrey Akhmetov came to Germany in 2013 to study Early Music Singing in Cologne. He now works as a freelance bass baritone and lives in Wuppertal.
What made you leave Russia?
In Russia there is only one early music department in the whole country, and it doesn't offer courses for singers. I wanted to study early music so I left. I left my love, my country, my relatives. I think I had been dreaming of living in Europe since I was a child. In my high school we had a course on world culture, so to speak, learning about the architecture, mythology and cultures of different countries, so I
wanted to see everything that I had been learning about. When I moved here, my German was only level B1 so I found it very difficult - setting up a bank account, organising the WIFI in my flat, everything!
How is your connection to Germany and to your home country? How has this changed over time?
I am Germanised, obviously. in some things I'm totally germanised, but in other things I'm still Russian, and cannot accept some things about life here. I'm germanised in terms of the organisation. Here, the rental rights are so strong compared to in Russia, I like that. And I love German bureaucracy!
I had struggles with the German attitude to life at the start, in some ways I felt a strong rejection of the way things are here, but over the years this has become less and less. The ways things are planned here is very different to in Russia. In my professional life I appreciate this planning, but in my personal life I find it very different - I want to be spontaneous and not have to plan things so far in advance!
Musically, how would your life be different if you were in Russia?
In terms of money, I am better off here. Here, I can pay my rent without a problem and sometimes treat myself to a sandwich with salmon! I wouldn't do that in Russia. And that's important - I seriously love salmon!
I could exist in Russia as a singer, and I would have a very vivid concert life, but it would give me zero money! For example, I had a solo concert in the main Philharmonic Hall in St Petersburg, the most majestic hall in the country probably, all bedecked in red velvet and crystal and chandeliers, and I received 200 euros! And this would be normal fee there.
However, if I was in Russia I would be doing lots of different repertoire, not just Bach, and I miss that diversity here. I got used to performing a huge variety of early music back in Russia - Monteverdi, Händel, Buxtehude, Schütz - and that's not the case here. No-one does French baroque in Germany! So now I'm learning French, and trying to re-connect with my original dream - singing French baroque.
So maybe France is the next step...?
No, I'm very comfortable with the German lifestyle. Even when I'm back in Russia, I miss Germany after a few weeks. My home is here now. Obviously I enjoy the eloquence with which I can speak with people in Russia - speaking and understanding everyone, from the person at the supermarket checkout to my friends and family.
Toxic masculinity is still blossoming in Russia, which I don't like, although with elements of matriarchy thrown in. The mothers are always the rulers of the family, so its matriarchy inside the house and patriarchy outside! Its been more than one hundred years since the revolution (1917), and since then women had to work, everyone had to work. So its a double edged sword.
What do you miss from Russia?
The language, the spontaneity, friends and relatives. I do love German people, I have lots of great colleagues, who are really open. But they are open in another way. I miss this other way of being open. Maybe this is just a cultural barrier which I still haven't overcome. The sincerity. I miss being able to laugh at Russian cultural references.
How is the musical landscape different in Germany compared to Russia?
Music-making is generally more spontaneous and open-minded in Russia. There are two very different types of professionalism. In Germany people are professional in terms of punctuality, and in terms of deciding about details of choir singing - for example the pronunciation. In Russia this was never discussed. You just sang out, and never thought about unifying the choir sound. But in Russia there is professionalism in terms of sight-reading. You could be picked out in rehearsal and made to sing a fugue by yourself, and this just wouldn't happen in Germany.
In the choir where I sang in Russia the basses were the majority - we had 20 basses, 17 tenors, 16 altos and 14 sopranos! The basses were the fundament and were meant to be very present, very dominant, almost a 'rough' sound. We never adjusted to our neighbours, we just sang out! I'm not only a fan of the well-groomed, cultivated sound that basses are meant to have in Germany, I like the Russian style too. If a choir is soprano-heavy, as every German choir is, you miss this juxtaposition of a strong bass sound. It lacks the stability.
For me, timbre is so important. Choir singing is not just about function and transmitting information, but about expression and emotion. The colour of the voices is emotional information on another level. Not just being pure and minimalist, but also giving.
It's beautiful making music with German choirs, it's immaculate, but somehow it lacks juice! I don't think Germany wholly embraces the baroque aesthetic. After the war people rejected opulence, because of its guilty associations. But I strongly believe that baroque needs this opulence. That's what excites me, and that's the spirit of the time - opulence! Baroque music doesn't need to be so pure. Saying that Bach is minimalistic is bullshit. Some arias are just made out of ornaments. It needs some balls!
LOTTE SUVANTO is a baroque violinist from Alavus, Finland. She left Finland almost 20 years ago to study with Gottfried von der Golz in Würzburg. Before she left she'd had a freelance teaching and performing career in Finland. She lives with her family and her dog in Freiburg and works freelance.
What made you leave Finland?
Before I left I was living in a completely different situation - I was working freelance and teaching, and I saw my future absolutely in Finland. But then I saw Gottfried von der Golz play in a concert and I thought “I want some of what he has!” I thought, OK, I’ll find a scholarship programme and go for lessons with him.
When I arrived in Germany I had many debts, no money, and nobody could speak English in Würzburg. Suddenly I was a student again aged 30.This strong dialect, these people in Lederhosen, I thought "Where have I landed?!" There were no other foreign students, and the music department was tiny.
At some point the question arose of what I should actually do, whether I should stay or go back home to Finland. Not knowing whether to stay or go I found very exhausting. But then at some point I decided just to stop weighing up the options, and I made a vague 5 year plan - I decided to stay 5 years and then re-think. When this time was up it was already clear that I would stay, I had a relationship here and lots of work.
Where is home for you?
When you’ve been away long enough, home becomes foreign.
Whenever I left Finland at the end of the summer, it felt like my heart was breaking in two. I found it really difficult for a long time, for about ten years. But then at some point I understood that even when I leave Finland, the place itself remains. It will always be there. Realizing this calmed me a lot.
Without something solid here in Germany, life would be very difficult. Always being on the road in this job makes having a secure home even more important. I have two homes somehow - in Germany and in Finland. It's good to have two places where you feel at home - you can read the news in two languages and have two different perspectives on the world.
What I also find difficult, and what remains difficult, is that one’s parents get older and one is not close by. It was always my nightmare that my parents would get ill and I wouldn’t be there. But when that finally happened and my mother got ill, I actually felt like the winner out of my siblings because I could come and stay for longer periods of time, a few weeks, unlike my brothers and sisters who lived closer to her but were always working.
What do you see as the main differences in the music scene between Germany and Finland?
Well, in Finland one plays again and again with the same people. There is a lot of music, and a lot has developed in the time I’ve been away, but still the musical circles are much smaller than in Germany. Having said that, I can’t really answer as I don’t really know the current situation there very well. Many people teach, but there are very few who are entirely freelance. Baroque violinists, of whom there even fewer, are living in Finland and playing throughout Europe, not just playing in Finland.
And what are the main differences between the people here and there?
The Finns take a moment with new people before they open up to them. In comparison the Germans are warm! But this is obviously just a generalisation.
What aspects of Finland do you miss the most apart from family?
Space. Space! The freedom of Finland - there’s just so much space and there’s so few people. The sky is so big. Where I grew up, I could look out my window and see the snow, get my skis and leave directly from home. Its another life!
But once you move your life is in another place, with the people there. If I went back to Finland now I’d have to start afresh. That doesn’t happen so fast.
Natalia* is a mezzo-soprano from Poland. She left aged Poland aged 26 to study for a Masters in Classical Song in Karlsruhe. She lives in Leipzig and works as a freelance singer. As we did this interview Natalia's time in Germany is coming to a close, she is returning to live in Poland in the coming months.
What made you leave Poland?
Half the people I knew said I was crazy - throwing away a secure job! (Natalia had just signed a permanent contract with the Warsaw Philharmonic choir when she left). But it was due to musical reasons - I wanted to check what possibilities there were. I wanted to check how good I really am! I felt I had too much energy and I wanted to see what was out there.
Probably if a friend of mine hadn’t moved to Germany a year before then I wouldn’t have had the idea. She’d studied Lied Gestaltung (Classical Song) in Karlsruhe, which is the same course I then applied for. My idea was to ask my boss if I could take a two year sabbatical and then return to the choir in Poland. My boss said “You won’t stay just two years!” and wouldn’t give me a sabbatical. I guess he was right! I asked if I could have a week to decide, but I already knew what I was going to go - leave the job and come to Germany.
How is the musical landscape different in Germany compared to Poland?
They are worlds apart! In Germany there are so many more possibilities. I don’t want to say that Polish people are imprecise but in Poland we are generally more emotional than Germans - and our music making is also much more emotional. In Germany I’ve learnt a lot about musical style and precision. There are many more fixed jobs and music festivals. In Poland you can’t earn money singing in a church service like you can in Germany.
How has your relationship with “home” changed over the years?
At the start I had many Polish friends and wasn’t really ready for something so new, but then I gradually opened up. Before learning the language I couldn't let myself go, but as I slowly learnt German it appealed to me more and more here. Once I started to work professionally in Germany alongside my studies, I got the feeling I was part of society.
I've always gone back to Poland for summer, and my parents' house continues to be where I think of when I think of 'home'. Having said that, there have been some times over the last decade where I've felt better here in Germany than in Poland. Now its strange. Now that I know I’m going back home (Natalia plans to move back to Poland in the coming months), Germany doesn’t feel like somewhere I belong. I never planned to stay here so long.
What do you miss the most from Poland?
My family. I don’t like the distance to my family. One has to grow a hard shell in order to deal with it. I never would’ve cried when I left home, probably because I was at a boarding school when I was younger, but 50km from home and 1400km feel very different. My parents can’t visit me very often, as its so far.
What have you learnt, and what skills or strengths and skills will you take with you?
I got over lots of complexes here in Germany, so I go back as another person somehow. I don’t have to prove myself anymore. I know what I am capable of, and what I'm not, and either people see that or they don’t: I don’t need to run after things to achieve them. That is what I would pass on to other people - don’t look around at who is saying what, you have to discover for yourself what is right for you. That's the biggest thing I’ve achieved here. Perhaps I would’ve come to these same conclusions if I’d stayed in Poland, I’ll never know. But if you live in another country, you have to look after yourself much more than when you're at home, and that forces you to grow.
So much has changed in Poland over the last ten years, when I go back I think in some ways I’ll feel like I’m living in a foreign country!
* Natalia's name has been changed for privacy reasons
Benedikt Kristjánsson is an Icelandic tenor. After graduating from the Reykjavík Conservatory of Music in 2007 he came to Germany to study with Scot Weir. He lives in Berlin with his wife and three children.
What made you leave Iceland?
I wanted to study singing. Doing that in Iceland, although you can do it, is just not on a level with central Europe. There are a lot of Icelandic singers, and every one of them has studied abroad. I wanted to go to Germany in particular because I’d lived in Germany as a kid for 1 year, so I already knew the language, and also because the tuition fees are nothing in comparison with the US or Britain. It was always obvious in my mind that I wanted to go to Germany. I ended up in Berlin because I met my teacher, Scot Weir, at a masterclass in Stuttgart, so I applied for a place in his class in Berlin.
Did you imagine you would still be here now?
Yes, I always knew I would not go back. Possibly to retire, I’m not closing any doors. But I do see it as career suicide to move to Iceland! Not just career suicide, I think I’d have to give up singing altogether. I’d never be at home due to the extra travel time, the logistics would never make sense because your travel costs would be so crazy. There is nothing for singers to do in Iceland. You can teach, that’s the only way you could have a steady job. There are only two opera productions per year. Nobody is hired by the opera, its only on a project basis, and concerts are practically non-existent. There is no way to be a singer in Iceland only working in Iceland. That’s just not a possibility.
How does it feel when you go home?
For every year I spend in Germany the word 'home' in Iceland gets more blurred, I would say. The CD that I’ve recently made is all about this subject, actually! The feeling of what’s home. Its Schubert's Winterreise alongside Icelandic folksongs: Listen to Benedikt's album here. I know this feeling. Its super weird, really. Obviously if you’ve lived 13 years away, as I’ve lived 13 years in Berlin, of course one becomes a bit distant from one’s relatives. When you meet your relatives and suddenly they’re over 70 and you realize how much you've missed over the last decade. So it becomes pretty odd.
The first years I was in Berlin I was probably in Iceland three times per year, maybe four. I spent all my summers there, and it was obvious Iceland was my home. Then after marriage and kids it became a lot more work to go to Iceland! Now I go maybe once a year.
How is the musical landscape different in Germany compared to Iceland?
The quality is obviously very different. The music is a lot better quality here in Germany, because there are just so many more musicians, more interest, everything. In Iceland you have just one symphony orchestra, and maybe some of the players have baroque instruments just for fun. So you could maybe perform a Bach cantata. In fact, I did perform a Bach cantata with baroque instruments in Iceland, but there’s no trumpet, you know, nobody there plays the baroque trumpet! Its no comparison, I mean, Iceland has just 300,000 people!
What do you miss from Iceland?
I miss the air, that’s number one. Fresh air has a different meaning when you’re there - it's a whole other type of oxygen that you’re breathing. The weather is a big thing. There’s never ever weather that is just “ah this is nice” - its always dramatic in one direction.
The general mentality is totally different, and that’s something that I do miss - the Icelandic mentality. Food, weird food, rotten stuff, I miss that!
What are the main ways living abroad has changed you, and what have you learnt?
Learning how to adapt to different people and to other surroundings and cultures. You need to be able to do that pretty quickly. You can’t just be the vulgar drunken Icelandic Viking the whole time, you kinda have to be civilised!
... just for the record, ten years on and I'm definitely not planning on becoming civilised any time soon... :-)