Is Hamburg Europe's New Music City?
With a commitment to old school and the new, Hamburg establishes itself as continental Europe’s Music City
Dressed in all white from head to toe, British electronic group Metronomy took the stage. Magenta and violet lights bounced off their white instruments as the crowd nodded their heads to the beat. this wasn’t the first time an incredible international act graced the stages of Hamburg, Germany’s Grosse Freiheit 36, however. As one of the largest and most famous clubs in Hamburg’s Red Light District, Grosse Freiheit 36 has welcomed everyone from Kylie Minogue to David Bowie. It’s smallest stage, the Kaiserkeller, has some serious bragging rights as well — ever heard of a pop group from England called The Beatles? No big deal or anything, but the Fab Four played here too.
Beyond those magical years in the early 1960s, when The Beatles cut their teeth in Hamburg’s clubs — the city had already been establishing itself as a tastemaker on the world’s stage for centuries. In fact, Hamburg’s influence on music dates as far back as the 17th century when it became home to Germany’s first public opera house, Oper am Gänsemarkt. Today, the port city’s rich music scene includes three professional orchestras, several distinguished soloists, chamber ensembles and numerous artists whose styles range from jazz and indie rock to hip hop.
For a taste of just about every kind of music out there, head to the iconic Elbphilharmonie, an $850 million symphony hall and architectural wonder that hosts programs, festivals and concerts spanning electronic, opera, flamenco, Afro-Cuban, chamber orchestras and everything in between. There is truly no shortage of programming. Situated along the River Elbe, the Elbphilharmonie offers a dizzying 1,300 events annually. Apart from an impressive (and packed) programming schedule, the Elbphilharmonie is also worth a visit for its stunning wave-like glass façade, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, as well as its public viewing platform, the Plaza, which offers panoramic views of the city and port. The Elbphilharmonie also houses several bars, conference and event space for up to 2,000 guests, a cafe, a restaurant and the 205-room Westin Hamburg.
Music-lovers of today can’t truly experience the depth and breadth of Hamburg’s music scene without paying homage to the world-renowned composers who lived and worked here including Johannes Brahms (born in Hamburg in 1833) and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (who was more popular in his day than his father Johann Sebastian Bach). At the Composer’s Quarter, a cooperation of tiny but informative museums, visitors will find a new exhibition dedicated to Hamburg-born Gustav Mahler as well as an exhibition that details the career of the prolific 19th century composer Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy and her equally talented younger brother Felix. As a female composer, Fanny was limited by the social constraints of the time and had little support from her family. A letter written to Fanny by her father in 1820 coldly states that while music will perhaps become Felix’s profession, “for you, it can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing.” Gain further insights into the headspaces of musical geniuses by browsing original librettos, music scores and concert programs. While you’re there, take a close look at a reproduction of one of Bach’s clavichords — you’ve probably never seen a stringed keyboard instrument quite like this before.
Music changes with the times and often speaks the truths we don’t always have the courage to say. There’s a certain catharsis that happens at a live performance — it’s as if, for a brief moment in time, the artist speaks directly to you. Moments like these come steadily to those who attend Hamburg’s Reeperbahn Festival. Each fall, some 600 concerts and performances take place in clubs, backyard bars, the baroque-style St. Michael’s Church and even within the confines of a cramped school bus.
This year’s festival included a surprise performance by English rock band Muse — but the focus was, and always has been — on up-and-coming artists of all genres, many of whom play Reeperbahn Festival in hope of finding representation and elevating their careers. This year proved to be the biggest celebrations on record, attracting 45,000 visitors to Hamburg over the course of a few days. The 2019 edition is slated for Sept. 18-21, with early bird tickets starting at approximately $120 for four days of music. Europe’s largest club festival also hosts a full program of panels and events in the fields of fine art, film and literature.
With a commitment to preserving classical music as well as nurturing emerging artists, Hamburg continues to establish itself as continental Europe’s Music City. Whether you’re a Beatles fan, a lover of classical music or a just your everyday hipster seeking the next breakout band, Hamburg’s rich music heritage will surely strike a chord.