Musical Hamburg

Few cities can match Hamburg's musical pedigree, so it should come as no surprise that when the city was looking for an iconic architectural showpiece, it settled on a concert hall. The catalogue of classical music giants from Hamburg is truly extraordinary, while a very different cast of musical geniuses – the Beatles – also left their mark on the city.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788)

The third son of the more-famous Johann Sebastian Bach, CPE Bach was born in Weimar but would later go on to spend much of his working life in Hamburg. Prior to arriving in Hamburg he was a part of the royal orchestra of Frederick the Great in Berlin and was considered one of Europe's finest players of the klavier (an ancient keyboard instrument similar to the piano). He is often credited with influencing the work of masters such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

In 1768, Bach succeeded his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann, himself one of Europe's foremost composers, as director of music in Hamburg. It was while in Hamburg that he expanded his compositorial repertoire to include choral works for St Michaelis Kirche and it was also here that he composed his best-known work Die Israeliten in der Wüste (The Israelites in the Desert). His later choral works are similarly admired and one, Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt de Jesu (The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus) was conducted by Mozart when performed in Vienna in 1788. In the same year, CPE Bach died in Hamburg. He was laid to rest in St Michaelis Kirche.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)

Felix Mendelssohn, one of Hamburg's favourite musical sons, was born here in 1809. His connection with the city essentially ended at the age of two, when his family moved to Berlin to escape persecution by Napoleon's French forces, although he returned often to his city of birth in later life. As a teenager, the talented young Mendelssohn met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who compared the young prodigy to Mozart; Mendelssohn later set some of Goethe's poems to music. Later, composer Robert Schumann described Mendelssohn as 'the Mozart of the 19th century'. Although his Jewish origins led to his reputation suffering in Germany during the anti-Semitic 1930s and 1940s, his five symphonies and numerous other works, which included concertos, oratorios, piano music and chamber music, are rightfully considered to be masterpieces.

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

If Hamburg's musical establishment had to identify their most beloved musical identity, there's a fair chance that most of them would choose Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). Born in Hamburg and baptised in the St Michaelis Kirche, Brahms would go on to become one of classical music's so-called 'three B's' – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

The young Johannes came from fine musical stock – his father had first arrived in Hamburg as a bit-part musician, and went on to play double bass for the Hamburg Stadttheater and the Hamburg Philharmonic Society. Brahms played in his first concert at age 10, and composed his first piece, a piano sonata in G minor, just two years later.

Brahms' reception in the city of his birth wasn't always a success. He was turned down for the role of conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic in 1862, a position he longed for but never gained – by the time it was offered to him 30 years later, he turned it down due to other commitments. He was both friend and contemporary of the renowned composers Antonín Dvořák, Gustav Mahler and Johan Strauss II, and he spent much of his professional life in Vienna.

His magnificent body of work has many highlights, including all of his symphonies and his much-loved Piano Concerto No. 2. In all, he composed two serenades, four symphonies, two piano concertos (No. 1 in D minor; No. 2 in B-flat major), a violin concerto, and a concerto for violin and cello, as well as a large body of chamber and choral music. Of the latter, A German Requiem is considered among his finest works. Sadly many of his earlier works were lost – Brahms was such a perfectionist that he destroyed most of his early compositions.

In 1889, eight years before his death from cancer, Hamburg named Brahms an honorary citizen of the city.

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)

Born in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) to a father who was a coach driver and an innkeeper, Mahler did not appear destined for musical greatness. But he began playing piano at the age of four, and was accepted into the Vienna Conservatory at 15. His early professional years were devoted to conducting, as he worked his way up the ladder of increasingly prestigious concert halls and state operas; he composed only in his spare time, and it was only later that his fame as a composer grew.

It is believed that an archive of Mahler's earliest compositions was destroyed during the WWII bombing of Dresden. Of what remains, the first symphony was completed in 1888. His growing reputation saw him take up the post of chief conductor at the Hamburg Stadttheater – he was known as a brilliant but demanding conductor, both respected and feared by his orchestra. Until then, his compositorial output was minimal, but he conducted his own First Symphony in Hamburg in 1893. His Second Symphony, which debuted in Berlin two years later, announced his arrival as a composer of renown. He would go on to compose ten symphonies.

The Beatles

It was the summer of 1960 and a fledgling band from Liverpool had been assured a paying gig in Hamburg, if only it could come up with a drummer. After a frantic search, Pete Best joined John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe in August that year.

The Beatles opened on the notorious Grosse Freiheit to seedy crowds of drunks. After 48 consecutive nights of six-hour sessions, the Beatles’ innate musical genius had been honed. The magnetism of the group that would rock the world began drawing loyal crowds. But complications ensued when an underage George was deported in November, and Paul and Pete were arrested for attempted arson. All escaped the German authorities and returned to England. There, as ‘The Beatles: Direct from Hamburg’, they had their Merseyside breakthrough.

In 1961 the Beatles returned to Hamburg. During a 92-night stint, they made their first professional recording. Soon manager extraordinaire Brian Epstein and the recording genius George Martin arrived on the scene. The Beatles began their career with EMI; Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr, a more professional drummer; Stuart Sutcliffe quit the band; and they went on to fame and fortune.

Sidebar: The Beatles in Hamburg

  • Indra Club
  • Kaiserkeller
  • Gretel & Alfons
  • Star Club Memorial
  • Beatles-Platz

Sidebar: Classical Music Landmarks

  • Johannes Brahms Museum
  • Komponisten-Quartier
  • Elbphilharmonie
  • Staatsoper
  • Laeiszhalle

Hamburg's Architecture

Hamburg's city centre was all but destroyed during WWII, but a few pockets of old Hamburg survive. The city's churches showcase a range of architectural periods, but it's down by the waterfront that Hamburg's very own architectural style shines through. The Unesco World Heritage–listed dockland warehouses of Speicherstadt are quintessential Hamburg, while adjacent HafenCity is home to some dazzling contemporary structures.

Hamburg Gothic & Neo-Gothic

Thanks to WWII, there's not a whole that survives in Hamburg from the heyday of Gothic architecture, which arose in the 12th century and lasted until the 16th century, but its influence is still strong in the city.

Hamburg in the 17th century looked much like most other German towns of the era. A defining feature was gabled houses in the Gothic style, either half-timbered or built from local stone, lining cobblestone thoroughfares. A few outposts remain, among them Krameramtswohnungen, near St Michaelis Kirche; somewhat-gentrified Deichstrasse; and the houses that surround the Johannes Brahms Museum in Neustadt.

Traditional Gothic characteristics, more often seen in Germany in churches and other religious buildings, include ribbed vaults, pointed arches and flying buttresses, all of which combine to allow greater height and larger windows. In Hamburg, other features that are in evidence everywhere are neo-Gothic gables and cornices, especially in Speicherstadt, which represents the highpoint of the style in the city. Neo-Gothic was the dominant architectural form in Hamburg in the 19th century, when Speicherstadt was built, and its association with the port area and its trading warehouses was mirrored in many cities across the Hanseatic League.

Unesco recognised Speicherstadt's ground-breaking architectural imprint in 2015, including within the citation the buildings of Hamburg's so-called Kontorhaus District, just north of the port area in the Altstadt. One of Europe's first purpose-built office building developments, the Kontorhaus District is dominated by the Chilehaus, a leading example of German expressionist architecture. Its resemblance to an ocean-going liner is a reminder of the sea's indelible role in influencing Hamburg's civic architects. Chilehaus is situated alongside other so-called Backsteingotik buildings (Backstein refers to a specially glazed brick; gotik means ‘Gothic’), such as the stylistically similar 1927 Spinkenhof building across the street.

Renaissance to Baroque

The Renaissance rumbled into Germany around the mid-16th century, bestowing southern German cities with buildings bearing ornate leaf-work decoration and columns. In northern Germany, the geographic reach of the Hanseatic League ensured that the style reached the area earlier than many other places in Europe, although very little survived the various fires that afflicted Hamburg during the century, or the devastating Allied bombing campaign of WWII.

Throughout Germany, as the power of feudal rulers grew in the 17th and 18th centuries, they invested heavily in grand residences. This was the age of baroque, a style that merged architecture, sculpture, ornamentation and painting.

Although little Baroque architecture has survived in Hamburg, there are two splendid exceptions. The Rathaus is one of Germany's most beautiful, and even though it was only built in the 19th century it evokes a wonderfully medieval civic building and is considered a masterpiece of the Baroque or neo-Renaissance style. The other example is the St Michaelis Kirche – what you see today is a 1906 replica of the 18th-century original, which burned to the ground. The exterior is far more muted than the facade of the Rathaus, but the white-and-gold interior is considered classic Baroque.

The 20th Century

The early 20th century was a time of great prosperity in Hamburg, and it was during these decades that important and grand civic buildings began to take shape. The Hauptbahnhof was unveiled in 1906, when the stately homes of wealthy merchants began to appear around Binnenalster and Aussenalster, as well as along the Elbe waterfront in Blankenese. These mansions bequeathed to Neustadt the grandeur and patrician facades that are still so characteristic of the area today. The structures built on the elegance at play elsewhere in the neighbourhood, adding residential beauty to the stately 19th-century commercial structures along Colonnaden, just north of Binnenalster, and the grand and supremely stylish Alsterarkaden. The heart of this district is the small Mellin Passage, which has a decidedly Art Nouveau feel to it. Die Bank, an upmarket restaurant, is the city's foremost example of that German offshoot of Art Nouveau, Jugendstil.

By the 1920s, with neo-Gothic very much in favour, architects returned to the city's roots by with the use of traditional dark, red bricks.

If the first half of the 20th century was distinguished by pleasing architectural styles that were influenced by the aesthetic of elegance and by themes that arose from the region's heritage as a northern German port city, the middle years of the 20th century, especially into the 1970s, saw functionalism triumph. In these somewhat bleak years for Hamburg's architecture, numerous old buildings were torn down and replaced by unappealing but inherently utilitarian architecture.

Contemporary Hamburg Architecture

Thankfully the era of predominantly functional architecture has well and truly passed, and the city's architects are once again keen to incorporate traditional motifs or sea-going themes in regenerating and beautifying the city's streetscapes. The most obvious example is the Elbphilharmonie, one of Germany's most beautiful buildings and a dazzling addition to the port area. It incorporates a typical Hamburg port warehouse, on top of which rests an altogether more contemporary structure, evoking ocean waves through its extraordinary curved glass panels.

The Elbphilharmonie crowns the old docklands area known as HafenCity, a new city quarter with futuristic architecture. There's a special focus on sustainable construction, with an award-winning standout being the Unilever building, which makes clever use of innovative LED lighting, a cooling double-layered outer shell and rooftop heat exchangers.

Other important contemporary architectural landmarks in Hamburg include Dockland, which resembles a ship moored at the docks, and Tanzende Türme, the 'Dancing Towers' at the eastern end of Reeperbahn.

Architecture and urban planning aficionados should also flock to the nearby island of Hamburg-Wilhelmburg, home to a showcase of innovative, eco-sensitive buildings, including the striking new home of the State Ministry for Urban Development and the Environment.

Sidebar: Elbphilharmonie's Inspiration

Elbphilharmonie's architects, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, claim to drawn their inspiration for the project from three very different structures: the Ancient Greek theatre at Delphi, sport stadiums and tents.

Sidebar: Functionalism's Highpoint

The figurative and actual highpoint of Hamburg's Functionalist period is the Fernsehturm (Television Tower or Heinrich-Hertz-Turm), which at 271.5 metres high is still Hamburg's tallest building. It was built in 1968.