Music in Berlin

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Throughout its history, Berlin has been a musical center in Northern Germany. First as an important trading city in the Hanseatic League, then as the capital of the electorate of Brandenburg and the Prussian Kingdom, later on as on of the biggest cities in Germany, it fostered an influential music culture that remains vital until today.

Many important musical figures have worked in Berlin, among them composers like Johann Joachim Quantz, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the Graun brothers, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Carl Friedrich Zelter, Friedrich Heinrich Himmel, Vincenzo Righini, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Spontini, Meyerbeer, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg to name just a few. Moreover, Berlin was recognized as the center for music theory and criticism in the 18th century with leading figures like Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Quantz, and C. P. E. Bach whose treatises were being read all over Europe. Later on, writers like Reichardt, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Ludwig Rellstab, and A. B. Marx contributed to what can arguably be called the origins of German Music Feuilleton[1], whilst Adolf Martin Schlesinger founded one of the leading German music publishing houses. Furthermore, Berlin can be regarded as the breeding ground for the powerful choir movement that played such an important role in the broad socialization of music in Germany during the 19th century.


Up to Frederick II

When in 1701 Frederick III declared himself Frederick I, "King in Prussia", Berlin became a royal residence and subsequently attained more musical prestige. Under his successor Frederick William I (1713-1740), musical life in Berlin lost part of its splendor, due to his focus on the military strengthening of Prussia. At that time the court orchestra was abandoned and music events at the court played only a decorative role.

Frederick II's reign: 1740-1786

Music at the Court

When in 1740, Frederick II came to power, musical life at the court flourished again. Many 18th-century writers have termed his reign the "Golden Age" for music making in Berlin. Although statements like this have to be regarded with care for their obvious intention to glorify the person of the ruler, Frederick's reign was indeed a fruitful time for music making in Berlin. Already at Rheinsberg, where Frederick lived when he was still the crown prince, he had assembled a formidable group of musicians who were to form the core of his Kapelle in Berlin. Among these followers were Carl Heinrich and Johann Gottlieb Graun, Franz and Johann Benda, Christoph Schaffrath, and Johann Gottlieb Janitsch. Once installed as the King in Prussia, Frederick's Kapelle became quickly one of the most admired orchestras in Europe. Frederick who was an accomplished flutist and composer not only employed Europe's foremost flutist, Johann Joachim Quantz in 1741. His Kappelle, headed by C. H. Graun, could also boast with C. P. E. Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach, who joined the orchestra as harpsichordist in 1740 and Johann Friedrich Agricola as the official court composer. By 1750 around 50 musicians were in Frederick's employ.

The principal occasions at which music was played at the court included the daily soirées in which Frederick used to play the flute, and the concerts in the residence of the King's mother, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover at which Frederick's Kapelle had to perform as well. In addition to these regular events, the Kapelle also had to perform in the opera performances during lent.


Frederick, an ardent opera enthusiast, was determined to turn Berlin into an international center for opera, one that could compete with the splendid opera house in Dresden. To this end, Frederick commissioned two opera stages from his architect George Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff. The first in the King's residence, the Berliner Stadtschloß, the second as a completely new opera house, located Unter den Linden, the main artery of Berlin which featured all of the representational buildings of the time. The stage in the Stadtschloß was inaugurated with a performance of Graun's Rodelinda on December 13, 1741. The construction of the new opera house started in 1741 and although not fully completed yet the first performance took place on December 7, 1742 with Graun’s Cleopatra e Cesare. In preparation of the two premieres, Frederick sent Graun to Italy and France in order to recruit singers and dancers respectively. The Königliche Opernhaus, as the new opera house was called, remained the main opera house of Berlin throughout the century and the repertoire given there consisted mainly of Italian opera seria.


  1. Ulrich Tadday: "Diskussionsforen der Musikkritik und ästhetische Manifestationen in Berlin um 1800," paper presented at the conference Urbane Musikkultur in Berlin. Von der spätfriderizianischen Zeit bis ins frühe 19. Jahrhundert, Berlin, March 9, 2007.