While Europe has a rich palette of languages, peoples and customs the continent also has its shared cultural heritage. Peter Steinz’s book Made in Europe contains some striking examples, from which we have selected eight with an East-meets-West flavour.
The free spirit colliding with a rigid bureaucratic system: a European theme if ever there was one.
Everyone knows 1984 by British author George Orwell; what is less widely known is that the book was to have been called The Last Man in Europe. Another world literature standard dealing with the same theme is The Trial. This unfinished and posthumously published novel by Franz Kafka is about a trial against Josef K. The central character is unable to get a handle on the how and why of his conviction.
Kafka is a blend of Eastern and Western Europe: the author was a German-speaking Czech from Austria-Hungary who met the love of his life, Dora Diamant, in Berlin and died in Vienna.
Many European languages contain the word Kafkaesque to describe a threatening atmosphere caused by bureaucracy, meaning that the name of the man Steinz describes as the ‘strict stylist with the bat’s ears’ lives on in the language.
Along with Asterix and the Smurfs Tintin is one of the three world-famous European comic strip figures. But the comic created by Belgian illustrator Hergé is perhaps the most European of the three.
Like Jules Verne Tintin is a reflection of a European self-image: the traveller whose cunning enables him to overcome all dangers. The ultimate comic album King Ottokar’s Sceptre (1939) is steeped in European history. The adventure takes place in in Syldavia, a combination of Slovenia, Yugoslavia, Transylvania and Moldavia, complete with a fictitious travel guide and a made-up language.
It is hard to overestimate the influence Hergé and his 23 Tintin albums have had on comic strip art. His clear drawing and narrative style (ligne claire) made him a trendsetter in comic strip land. His style is also well suited to decorative items, with characters such as Thomson and Thompson and Captain Haddock holding pride of place on many a mantelpiece. Without Tintin we may never even have talked about comic strip art.
The ‘Hungarian Magic Cube’ had a relatively modest start in life in 1974 when architect Ernő Rubik designed the three-dimensional puzzle to improve his students’ spatial understanding.
The cube is a real brain-buster. The player has to turn the cube until all nine squares on each of the six sides is the same colour. It can only be done by understanding and applying certain formulas (algorithms). When you look at it that way, it’s a minor miracle that the object became a worldwide phenomenon, with no fewer than 350 million currently in circulation globally. It became a rage in the 1980s when a toy manufacturer launched the cube on the German market and has never really been away since.
The cube is still popular with artists, mathematicians and whizz kids. ‘Speedcubers’ compete to solve the puzzle in as little time as possible. The world record is held by Dutchman Mats Valk: 5.55 seconds. Warning: frequent use may result in a cube thumb.
Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Javacheff is descended from the Fischer family of wealthy German industrialists. His grandfather was sent to Bulgaria to establish a ball bearing factory, but a fatal industrial accident resulted in bankruptcy. Granddad took the name of one of the Bulgarian workers who lost his life. In 1970 Christo came into a share of his great-grandfather’s inheritance but donated the money to charitable organisations.
After studying art in Sofia, Prague and Vienna he had started his career as an impoverished painter in Paris - until 1958, when he turned to the 'wrapping art' for which he was to become world-famous. Together with his wife Jeanne-Claude, who was born on the same day and died in 2009, he wrapped up famous buildings, including the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Reichstag in Berlin (1995). The projects were financed from the proceeds from the sale of drawings, predesigns and earlier work.
One of the last Christo works is likely to be a 150-metre high pyramid made of 300,000 orange-yellow oil drums. Not just the highest pyramid but also the most expensive work of art ever.
Tsarina Maria Fjodorovna was very pleased with the Fabergé egg she was given by Alexander III for Easter in 1885. Thus started a tradition of tsars and wealthy people such as the Nobel family making gifts of these precious objets d’art.
The creator of these masterworks was Peter Carl Fabergé, of Saint Petersburg, a real pan-European: the son of a French father and a Danish mother he studied in Dresden and honed his skills as a goldsmith in Paris, Florence and Frankfurt. Unlike his competitors he valued craftsmanship over carats. His company grew into a multinational that produced 150,000 art objects between 1882 and 1918.
After the Russian Revolution Fabergé fled to Wiesbaden. The original eggs are shrouded in mystery; seven are still missing. This makes them a popular requisite in films, such as Octopussy (James Bond). Recently one of the original eggs was found by an American, who discovered on Google that the egg that he had bought for 10,000 dollars was a genuine Fabergé: an Easter present given by Alexander III to Maria Fjodorovna in 1887.
Waterloo marked the start of the victory. At least for Abba, one of the most popular pop groups of all time. In 1974 Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog won the Eurovision Songfestival for Sweden.
With their glitzy outfits and light-hearted music they set the tone for the continent’s Eurovision tradition. Their Europop song Waterloo was just the start of a multinational hit-making factory. Everything the band did turned to gold. Abba obtained a stock market listing in 1981 and for two years achieved a higher profit margin than carmaker Volvo.
For a short while the band was Sweden’s most important export article and the currency-poor Eastern Bloc was prepared to trade shiploads of cucumbers, cement and oil for Abba records. Napoleon would have been envious of the way in which Abba conquered the world.
Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth
Say ‘ta-ta-ta-dah’ with the right intonation and everybody will instantly recognise the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony. This is probably the most famous piece of classical music of all time.
However, from a historical perspective Beethoven’s Ninth is perhaps even more important, and not just for its musical value. When Dutch company Philips teamed up with Sony to develop the compact disc they used the lengthy symphony (an hour and a quarter) as their measure. The piece also came to be used as the anthem of a united Europe. Ludwig van Beethoven took the Alle Menschen werden Brüder from an ode to peace by the German poet Schiller, making it ideally suited as a unifying (unofficial) ‘European anthem’.
The Ninth was also the piece chosen to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, performed by a multinational orchestra and choir led by conductor Leonard Bernstein.
When he left for Paris in 1830 composer and virtuoso pianist Frédéric Chopin took a jar of Polish soil with him. But this was by no means all that he brought to the West from the Duchy of Warsaw. His music is also suffused with Polish influences, such as his variations on the polonaise and the mazurka, Polish dance music.
His lover, the French author George Sand, said of him that he was more Polish than any Frenchman had ever been French. His innovative compositions took piano music to the next level.
Chopin died young, of tuberculosis. In accordance with his last wishes his heart was removed from his body, preserved in alcohol and interred in a pillar of the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. The rest of Chopin was buried in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. For over a century his grave was the cemetery’s greatest attraction - until the arrival of Doors frontman Jim Morrison.
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