The Gendarmenmarkt is the most beautiful square in Berlin and its glorious central building, the Konzerthaus, is an architectural gem and the musical soul of East Berlin. It finally rose again from the ashes of wartime destruction in 1984 and has come to embody the courage of the human spirit as well as artistic inspiration. During the ‘Cinema for Peace’ awards at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei wrapped 14,000 bright orange life jackets around the columns of the city’s Konzerthaus to highlight the risks refugees are taking every day to reach Europe by sea.
The Konzerthaus columns wrapped in life-jackets
The Konzerthaus has a fascinating history. Its origins lie in the theatre and in opera and go back to 1776 when Frederick the Great had the ‘Französisches Komödientheater’ built on this site, which had strong associations with the French Huguenot community. Ten years later it was renamed the Royal National Theatre and in 1789 Mozart came to Berlin to hear a performance of his opera, ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail’. In 1802 a new ‘Nationaltheater’ was opened, designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, whose best known work is the Brandenburg Gate. The great German playwright, Friedrich Schiller, attended many performances of his plays at the Nationaltheater and his monument stands in front of the flight of steps leading up to the Konzerthaus. Schiller is surrounded by four allegorical figures; Lyric Poetry, Tragedy, History and Philosophy.
The Schiller monument
In 1817 the Nationaltheater was destroyed in a fire and King Friedrich Wilhelm III commissioned the famous Prussian architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, to create a new theatre in the Greek classical style. The ‘Schauspielhaus’ (‘Playhouse’) opened in 1821 with the acclaimed premiere of Karl von Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’, full of emotional overtones of national identity. 1826 saw the Berlin premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, 1838 the Berlin premiere of Goethe’s ‘Faust I’ and in 1844 Wagner conducted the Berlin premiere of his opera, ‘The Flying Dutchman’ there. During the 1848 Revolution the main auditorium of the Schauspielhaus housed the Prussian National Assembly for several weeks in September, with the Gendarmenmarkt a major arena of political events.
For almost another 100 years the Schauspielhaus continued to enjoy performances of all that was best in German theatre, opera and music. The actor Gustaf Gründgens, considered by many to have sold his soul to the Nazis, was Artistic Director of the Schauspielhaus from 1934 until 1945; the 1981 oscar-winning film, ‘Mephisto’, tells the story of Gründgen’s career. The Schauspielhaus was destroyed in a bombing raid in April 1945. Reconstruction finally started in 1979 and Schinkel’s original exterior design was recreated in careful detail. The main entrance used for most concerts is on the ground floor under the large staircase, just as in Schinkel’s time, where the horse-drawn carriages used to arrive. The interior, on the other hand, is a completely new construction – although its design cleverly gives the impression of the original. The former Schauspielhaus reopened on 1st October 1984 with a gala concert performed by the GDR Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester.
The Schauspielhaus on Gendarmenmarkt in 1910
The ruins of the Schauspielhaus in 1970s East Berlin
East Berlin opened its celebrations of Berlin’s 750th anniversary on 1st January 1987 in the Schauspielhaus and just two years later, Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony there on Christmas Day 1989. Inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, he changed the text of the final chorus into ‘Ode to Freedom’. On 2nd October 1990, the GDR government chose the Schauspielhaus for their celebration of German reunification, with Kurt Masur conducting the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. To reflect its new purpose as a concert hall, the Schauspielhaus was officially renamed the Konzerthaus in 1992 and in 2006 the resident Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester became the ‘Konzerthausorchester Berlin’.
The GDR reunification ceremony, October 1990
The Konzerthaus has hosted most of the world’s most famous orchestras and every summer the Classic Open Air Festival is held on the Gendarmenmarkt, with the Konzerthaus as its stunning back-drop. I have been to many excellent concerts in this building since 1984, but none more moving than the annual New Year’s performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony which seems to have its spiritual home in this concert hall. It has also been interesting to see the changing profile of the audiences at the Konzerthaus over the years. In the late 1980s the concerts were mainly attended by a politically-correct and somewhat reserved section of GDR society. But things are much livelier these days. Gala concerts are packed with vocal fans and a recent piano recital was full of young people whose enthusiasm was rewarded with three encores.
A performance in the grand ‘Großer Saal’
Both the ‘Großer Saal’ (main auditorium) and the ‘Kleiner Saal’ (chamber music hall) of the Konzerthaus are visual feasts, as are the two elegant foyers, the ‘Carl Maria von Weber Saal’ and the ‘Beethoven Saal’, where you can enjoy a drink in the concert interval. In 2003 the modern ‘Werner-Otto-Saal’ was added to the facilities and also the ‘Black Box’ which lends itself to performances of more avant-garde music. To find out more about the Konzerthaus, its programme of concerts and their guided tours, go to their excellent English website. You can also treat yourself to a recent performance by the Konzerthausorchester. Just follow this link to a Guardian article about the concert given on 1st March by top Berlin orchestras to welcome refugees to their city. Or go to the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall where you can also watch the concert.
Ivan Fischer conducting the Konzerthausorchester Berlin at the ‘Welcome to Refugees’ concert