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Goodbye ceremony for Germany's Chancellor Merkel featured some telling music choices

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to leave the political stage next week. To mark the end of 16 years in office, the military threw her a ceremony known as a Grand Tattoo on Thursday. The guest of honor got to choose the music, and as Esme Nicholson reports from Berlin, the chancellor's idiosyncratic playlist was the talk of the capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Today's Germany is not known for showy military parades, something it usually shies away from for historical reasons. But on a bitterly cold evening this week, the Bundeswehr put on a choreographed display of respect for outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel. In what could be viewed as an attempt to upend the pomp and circumstance, Merkel requested brass band renditions of musical numbers, particularly incongruous to the setting. One of these was a 1974 East German hit by Nina Hagen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DU HAST DEN FARBFILM VERGESSEN")

NINA HAGEN: (Singing in German).

NICHOLSON: These days, Hagen is considered the godmother of German punk, but this number hails from Hagen's pre-punk days. Hagen, like Merkel, was born in communist East Germany, where the song was a huge hit. And yet this is by no means a middle-of-the-road pick. While its soft, poppy riff is more polka than punk, it's actually rather subversive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DU HAST DEN FARBFILM VERGESSEN")

HAGEN: (Singing in German).

NICHOLSON: The title, "Du Hast Den Farbfilm Vergessen" means you forgot the color film, a subdued criticism of the greyness of life under the East German socialist regime ironically sung to the tune of an upbeat Schlager, a saccharine West German genre. Hagen says this is why it became the secret national anthem of an entire generation to which Merkel belongs.

(SOUNDBITE OF NINA HAGEN SONG, "DU HAST DEN FARBFILM VERGESSEN")

NICHOLSON: Merkel only gave the military a week's notice to rearrange Nina Hagen's hit for brass band, and she looked pretty happy with the result.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DU HAST DEN FARBFILM VERGESSEN")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing German).

NICHOLSON: While the Hagen's number seems at face value a bizarre choice, Merkel's second request was uncharacteristically sentimental for a leader known to be a level-headed pragmatist. The 1968 ballad, "Fur Mich Soll's Rote Rosen Regnen," or "Red Roses Should Rain For Me," is a schmaltzy post-war chanson by West German singer Hildegard Knef, Germany's biggest diva after Marlene Dietrich. Historian Ulrike Zitzlsperger says that although the song is a little indulgent, it's a bold and affirmative anthem by a woman misrepresented in a man's world as difficult.

ULRIKE ZITZLSPERGER: (Through interpreter) Merkel's music choices are as much about the singers as they are the songs. Both Hildegard Knef and Nina Hagen are uncompromising, outspoken women who stand up for what they think is right.

NICHOLSON: Merkel's third request, a popular Lutheran translation of the Catholic hymn "Te Deum," comes as less of a surprise as the daughter of a Protestant pastor and the long-serving chair of the political party called the Christian Democrats. At the ceremony, Merkel echoed her playlist by speaking from the heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through interpreter) I've always taken the optimistic can-do approach, both in communist East Germany and even more so living in the free world. And it's this cheerfulness of heart that I wish for our country and for our future.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NICHOLSON: As the band struck up its final military march, Merkel plucked a single red rose from the bouquet she'd been given, smiled and left the stage. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANGIE")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Angie, Angie, when will those clouds all disappear? Angie, Angie... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.