Concert halls and festivals
Let the Music Play – Concert halls and festivals in Germany

There are countless concert halls and festivals for classical music in Germany. Each one reflects its own unique history. Today they try to win over the public through unique programs.

Grosser Saal, Elbphilharmonie; Grosser Saal, Elbphilharmonie; | Copyright: Herzog & de Meuron The concert hall is relatively recent historical phenomenon. Its emergence is linked to the eventual recognition of instrumental music as an art form and to the burgeoning of the middle class. In the 18th century newly established independent concert associations and philharmonic societies began to assume responsibility for musical life in the cities, a role previously held exclusively by the aristocracy and the church. In 1743 Leipzig saw the formation of the Großes Concert society that in 1781 moved into the old Gewandhaus, an exhibition hall for wool and cloth manufacturers. The prestige of the institution grew to a point that in 1884 it opened a new Gewandhaus that functioned as a dedicated concert hall. After its destruction in the war the third Gewandhaus opened, once again dedicated solely to concert performance. With this as a model, civic initiatives in the 19th and 20th centuries refashioned pre-existing spaces into concert halls, such as the Gürzenich in Cologne, already 400 years old at the time of its conversion in 1857, and created new spaces like the Musikhalle in Hamburg, commissioned by the ship owner Carl Laeisz and built between 1904 and 1908.

There are currently more than 30 dedicated concert and philharmonic halls in Germany, focused mainly in Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg, Munich, Stuttgart, the Ruhr and the Lower Rhine. Many cities also use their buildings as conference centres and for trade fairs, and even as venues for sporting events. Even buildings explicitly configured for music can accommodate various other functions. The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden acts as a performance venue but has no ensemble of its own. As a rule, even halls with their own orchestras earn a portion of their income by renting to outside organisations. Moreover, they are trying to develop their own profile as an institution with chamber concerts and evenings of Lieder and piano, including special programmes for children, for people with immigrant backgrounds and for the elderly. For some time now these halls have contributed to the musical enlightenment of school-age kids. During the 1990s institutions such as Berlin's Konzerthaus and Philharmonie dedicated their entire seasons to a single overriding theme, but the current trend is for several themes and small festivals throughout the year.

New halls, new festivals

Established concert halls are faced with mounting competition from alternative venues like "Radialsystem V", the former industrial complex near the Ostbahnhof in Berlin, and Hamburg's erstwhile crane factory "Kampnagel", which offers a podium for open ensembles while appealing to alternative audiences. Nevertheless, additional "classic" concert halls are emerging, even if with some difficulties: such as with the opening of the Elbphilharmonie in January 2017, which cost far more than initially planned and was delayed because of construction stop that lasted a year and a half. Luckily the architect, the owners and the construction companies were able to come to an agreement on the reorganization of the project, which led to a successful completion. 

The development of music festivals in Germany is closely connected with concert life, as municipal associations were among their early initiators. The first music festivals took place in 1810 in Frankenhausen and Düsseldorf, where Haydn and Händel oratorios performed by amateur choirs originally took centre stage. The Lower Rhenish Music Festival, by and large a product of the Düsseldorf municipal music association, took on special importance as of 1818. The current number of music festivals in Germany is difficult to ascertain. According to statistics compiled by the German Music Council, over 300 new festivals have emerged in the past 35 years. As there had previously been far fewer festivals, the present number focussing on classical music may lie somewhere between 300 and 400.

This wealth of festivals has given rise to much diversity. Composer festivals are dedicated to the work of a single composer: Bonn's Beethoven Festival, countless Bach festivals, the Brahms Days in Baden-Baden. Location festivals such as the Kassel Music Days, the Heidelberg Spring Festival and the Dresden Music Festival focus on particular cities while entire regions are highlighted in events like the Rheingau Musik Festival and the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. A relatively recent phenomenon is the interpretation festival, where resident artists play music with various colleagues, such as the pianist Lars Vogt and his chamber music festival "Spannungen" in Heimbach. And sometimes individual instruments take centre stage, as at the Ruhr Piano Festival or the Kronberg Cello Academy. "Rheinvokal" is dedicated to the human voice, while every September the Berlin Music Festival invites orchestras from all over the world. At the MDR Music Summer a broadcasting company transmits concerts all over the rural regions of its service area. Festivals like the Potsdam Sanssouci Music Festival link the significance of its location to more general content such as mythology and landscape design.

Music boosts tourism

If music festivals of the 19th and early 20th centuries were about the emergence of the populace as bearers of culture and the presentation of specific works, the impetus today derives more from economic concerns: through travel and accommodation costs for festival guests, tourism-dependent regions with particularly weak infrastructure are trying to profit from music. Only a few dramaturgical events such as Art Festival Weimar still operate on a purely aesthetic basis or on a cultural-historical theme. The opportunity to hold festivals offering music or artistic forms that deviate from the standard material of the concert season is often neglected. Audiences regularly find only a repeat of the ready-made annual programmes of travelling artists.

Financing for the events is becoming rather varied: local and regional festivals receive support from tourism boards, municipalities and state governments, and often from public radio. But festivals predominantly acquire their funds from sponsors, cultural foundations and private donors.