Simon Rattle conducts his first concerts as music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2002. He was elected by the orchestra on 23 June 1999, when he was just 44, the first British conductor to hold the post. It is the latest step in a journey which has already made an extraordinary impact on the musical world. ‘It is a remarkable development, beginning from a very, very high point of achievement’, says his colleague the conductor Bernard Haitink, ‘he has such an open mind, and a really incredible charisma’. For the composer Nicholas Maw (whose opera Sophie’s Choice Rattle conducts at Covent Garden in December 2002) ‘we are all fortunate to be living through the Rattle era...[he has] spiritual and intellectual curiosity, appetite, dedication, concentration, and the ability of all great conductors to make musicians give the best of themselves –to make them want to play.’

It is a puzzle to some why Simon Rattle would want the unknown and possibly difficult challenges of Berlin when he could, had he so wished, have been living a well-paid, highly feted life in recent years as music director of any number of orchestras in Europe or America. To understand his attitude, you have to appreciate his total commitment to making musical relationships work on a long-term basis. He has always been most interested in gradual development, and in Berlin, having signed a contract for ten years, he sees the potential for huge growth: ‘Everyone would say that man for man, player for player, the [Berlin Philharmonic] is now individually stronger than it has ever been. No orchestra comes close to that individual level; the level of ability is breathtaking, I mean almost vertigo-inducing’. For Rattle, Berlin is the future.

Simon Rattle was born in Liverpool in January 1955, the son of parents who were musical enthusiasts but not professional musicians. His elder sister Susan brought him back scores from the library where she worked, and soon Simon was devouring music, listening to records and the radio, reading Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration, and organising family concerts where friends and relatives played the percussion parts he had written out for them. He was able to hear much 20th-century repertory in concerts in Liverpool under such conductors as Charles Groves and John Pritchard, and he says it was a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony under George Hurst he heard when he was eleven that first made him want to conduct. ‘That was it, that was a totally transfiguring experience. It was the road to Damascus, and it knocked me for six…I think in serious terms that is where the seed was sown’.

He developed his talent for performance (he was an excellent pianist and a less good violinist, and joined the Merseyside Youth Orchestra as a percussionist) but also a talent for bringing other people together to perform. He assembled his first professional orchestra at the age of 15 in Liverpool and was soon well-known for his intense enthusiasm and energising musicianship. He later became the conductor of the Merseyside Youth Orchestra, where he conducted his first Rite of Spring. His musical tastes expanded to include Stravinsky, Janacek, Shostakovich, Gershwin, Bartok, Britten, Tippett –a roll-call of great 20th-century composers whose cause he would argue to concert audiences throughout the world in the following decades.

His emerging skills served him well when he arrived at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1971, aged 16. Although he found much of the formal education less than compelling, and never did enough piano practice, the Academy was an ideal base for his emerging conducting activities. (As one colleague recalled, he was always racing into the Academy canteen saying ‘I’ve got the hall for an hour, anyone want to play Bruckner 7?’). Rattle mounted a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony on 6 December 1973 which first brought him to attention of the professional world and began his conducting career. His agent since that time, Martin Campbell-White, said ‘He had quite obviously galvanised them…the performance was somewhat raw but, my God, it was fantastic...the impassioned approach that is a hallmark of Simon’s style was already there’. In 1974 he entered and won the John Player Conducting Competition in Bournemouth against a field of more experienced conductors, and his course was set.

His professional activities were beginning to develop in London, with the Philharmonia Orchestra and with contemporary music groups, the London Sinfonietta and Nash Ensemble, and he was beginning to work as an assistant to at Glyndebourne. But winning the competition brought him a post with the Bournemouth orchestras which involved classical repertory for which he did not really feel ready and which he has described as one of his hardest professional times. He says ‘I faced the whole difficulty of the young professional in coming to terms with the limits of one’s ability…I very seriously toyed with the idea of giving up altogether’. But he then moved to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as assistant conductor, and back home to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as associate conductor, and both of these posts allowed him to develop a wide range of adventurous 20th-century repertory.

The decisive moment for Rattle came in 1980, when the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was looking for a new conductor after an unhappy period. Rattle was convinced he was the man for the job, the new manager Ed Smith had been one of his closest colleagues in Liverpool, and together they set about reinvigorating the orchestra in the most spectacular fashion. A combination of brilliantly chosen repertory, rigorous training, the firm support of Birmingham City Council, and the ability to undertake many recordings for EMI provided a solid base for development. Rattle immediately developed a rapport with the Birmingham audience who came to trust his taste whether he took them into Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, new music from Robin Holloway and Nicholas Maw, Sibelius and Nielsen symphony cycles, or the challenges of the second Viennese school.

The programmes were always well-balanced, enabling the audience’s taste to develop alongside the orchestra’s understanding of the repertory and Rattle’s command of it: an ideally organic process. The injection of extra cash from the Arts Council in the mid-1980s enabled the orchestra to develop, those the increase was shamefully not maintained. The building of Symphony Hall, which opened in 1991, enabled the orchestra’s sound to develop even further, and major projects such as Towards the Millennium, a decade-by-decade survey of 20th-century music, brought them international acclaim. Rattle took the orchestra often into the recording studio, and television work was also plentiful, with documentary series on BBC2 such as From East to West and appearances on the South Bank Show for London Weekend Television. A major series for Channel 4, Leaving Home, featured Rattle talking about many of the 20th-century works that were most important to him, including Stockhausen’s Gruppen.

Meanwhile Rattle’s activities developed quite slowly elsewhere, for he always gave the CBSO priority and was determined not to compromise his work with them. He formed a close relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but resisted overtures to be their music director; he became principal guest conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. He conducted in Boston and Philadelphia, which he enjoyed, and Cleveland, which he did not. There was a period when he seemed a likely successor to Seiji Ozawa in Boston, but that never became a vacancy (until Ozawa announced he was leaving for the Vienna Opera, ironically on the very morning of the Berlin vote.) Philadelphia remained a more serious possibility right up until the beginning of 1999, but in the end Rattle decided to stay in Europe, and to take his chance with the European music-making that felt closest to him. But he returned to Philhadelphia for a successful series in 2002, and will do so again.Glyndebourne became the centre of his operatic activities, and he conducted an unforgettable first staging there of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1986. He finally made his Covent Garden debut with Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, in 1990 and followed that up with Jenufa and The Makropoulos Case in France.

In the mid-1980s, Rattle’s musical development took several leaps forward. He made his long-awaited debut with the Berlin Philharmonic: they had repeatedly asked him but it had proved difficult to agree on repertory because they were sceptical of the Deryck Cooke completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony which Rattle wanted to bring. (Subsequently they came round to the piece, and the recording they made together shortly after his election as music director became an award-winning best-seller.) He also appeared for the first time with the new Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. His early involvement with period instruments led to a remarkable concert performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo, and thence to the Mozart-Da Ponte cycle with the OAE at Glyndebourne. At the same he drew ever closer to the heart of central European musical mainstream in his relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic, which he conducted for the first time in an unforgettable Mahler 9 in 1993, and then in dazzling concerts around Europe including Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

Through this period of expanding horizons, he remained committed to Birmingham and repeatedly renewed his contract there. Increased funding struggles in the mid-1990s and the end of his first marriage to the singer Elise Ross, after which his two children were based abroad, finally led him to feel the moment was right to move on. He remarried in 1996, to the writer Candace Allen. He left Birmingham in 1998, following a series of triumphant Beethoven symphony cycles and contemporary works at the Salzburg Festival, an astonishing eighteen years after he arrived. He had given 934 concerts with the orchestra and rehearsed them for over 10,000 hours. ‘What this young conductor has achieved in Birmingham should –but probably won’t—serve as a model for running a symphony orchestra and galvanising a musical public in favour of a wide-ranging and progressive repertory’, wrote Hugh Canning in The Sunday Times.

The following years were a heady mixture for Rattle: adventures in the period-instrument world –the premiere of Rameau’s Les Boreades in Salzburg with the OAE, Berlioz on original instruments, and Fidelio with them at Glyndebourne at the Chatelet. Then there was a variety of newer music with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group –Bernstein’s Wonderful Town for EMI and at the Proms, premieres by Colin Matthews and others. And there were also extended periods with the Vienna Philharmonic, including a remarkable performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp, leading to a complete recorded Beethoven symphony cycle in 2002. As if this were not enough, Rattle began to explore Wagner: he performed Parsifal with the Netherlands Opera, which came as an amazingly fresh concert performance to the Proms in 2000, and then conducted the same opera to huge acclaim at Covent Garden in December 2001. He returned to Amsterdam for Tristan und Isolde in 2001, and began to plan a Ring cycle in Aix-en-Provence for the latter years of the decade. This will be potentially among the most interesting artistic projects of the decade.

All this activity went to demonstrate that among today’s conductors, Rattle must be unique in the breadth of the repertory he performs at such a high level. To him Boulez and Bernstein are as important as Brahms and Beethoven. He has enthusiastically embraced the insights of period-instrument performance, and as a result has gone where many mainstream conductors fear to tread, into the operas of Rameau and back to the passions of Bach. Similarly, at the other end of the spectrum, he is as at home with the adventurous new music of Thomas Ades and Mark-Anthony Turnage as he is with the popular 20th-century traditions of Gershwin and Duke Ellington. His stylistic enthusiasms are many and varied.

Rattle’s election to the Berlin Philharmonic (a full three years before he actually took up the post at the end of Claudio Abbado’s time there) was a sensation, but not perhaps a surprise to those who had watched his development closely. It was a powerfully optimistic decision on the part of the orchestra, which knew that it had to change and develop rather than simply recreating its past. Rattle has already had many challenges there, working with the orchestra to change the structure under which they operate so that the artistic planning, touring activity, recording and media work is all co-ordinated centrally. He has already had funding battles with the city of Berlin before he signed his contract in 2001, and because Berlin is not a rich city it is difficult to assume that the way forward will be easy at all times.

But artistically, the challenge is a fascinating one. A previous intendant of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Elmar Weingarten, reflecting many similar views, describes the marriage as ‘a risk, because Simon a really British conductor and the orchestra is really very, very German –and I want to stress I value both things very highly!’. On the other hand, Rattle’s teacher and mentor John Carewe describes it as ‘the best thing that’s happened to the musical world in years. By choosing Simon they are going to be the flagship for performance worldwide for many, many years…wherever he goes things change for the better. This is really powerful.’

Whatever the challenges turn out to be, the world will be watching and listening. Simon Rattle is a musical force of nature, and he now has a huge stage on which to perform. It cannot be anything but important for the future of music: thrilling and probably a touch dangerous. It is safe to predict that the interaction between Rattle’s unique, varied musical gifts and the great performing traditions of the Berliner Philharmoniker will be one of the most characteristic and most exciting features of our cultural life at the beginning of the 21st century.