Rich history, superlative music and weekly Espresso Concerts with complementary caffeine fix – the Konzerthaus is a German concert hall that delivers a singular experience, presented in a Neo-classical fashion. Situated in the Gendarmenmarkt, the concert hall accompanies German and French cathedrals, it is not only a major tourist attraction but also has a unique cultural significance in the realm of the orchestra. 

Here’s a look at the landmark building that has withstood two centuries worth of evolution and continues to be a crown jewel in the purview of Berlin’s architecture.

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Zägel, J. (2009). The Concert House at the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin-Mitte, built 1818 to 1821 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel as Royal Theatre. [Photograph] (Wikimedia Commons)

1. History over the centuries

A building that has stood for different things over many decades and reconstructions, it has held cultural and political significance from the very start. The following periods depict chronological shifts in name, facade and identity of the Konzerthaus, also indicating the turmoil that the city of Berlin underwent in synchronous.

1776 to 1801 – Französisches Komödienhaus or the French Comedy House 

Commissioned by King Frederick II, the French Comedy House was envisioned as an activity space for the French court actors at the Gendarmenmarkt. The hall with four tiers for 1000 spectators had a narrow façade adorned by three statues of the Muses upon the gable. 

The simple architectural style with Rustique ornamentation and a plan based on the opera house typology was evocative of a classical temple and showcases the importance that cultural and artistic pursuits held in the German high society. The building fell into dilapidation between 1778 to 1786 when the French Comedy House suspended performances. 

Following its revival, Wolfgang Mozart attended “Belmonte and Constanze”, a rendition of his opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio”.

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Fechhelm, C. (1788). View of the Berlin Gendarmenmarkt with the French cathedral and the French comedy house. [Painting] (Collections of the Märkisches Museum, Berlin)
1802 to 1817 – German National Theatre 

Friedrich Wilhelm II commissioned renovations of the French Comedy House and presented the building to the Döbbelin German actors’ troupe, besides generous endowments and award recognition. Designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, Director of the Royal Office of Works, the hall seated 2000 spectators and its roof form lead to it being referred to as “Koffer”, meaning trunk. The German National Theatre was thus formed, with its opening performance on January 1st, 1802.

The premier “Undine” by ETA Hoffmann in 1816 was among the various significant events of the time that propelled the National Theatre of Berlin to widespread acclaim. However, the building succumbed to a fire in 1817, a massive setback for the royalty and the artistic milieu alike. 

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Schneider, W. (circa 1815). Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin. [Photograph]. (Kiepenheuer Verlag, Leipzig und Weimar 1983, p. 215)
1821 to 1918 – Königliches Schauspielhaus 

The destruction by the fire, however, did not stifle the building’s identity. Designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, it opened its doors once more in June 1821 as Königliches Schauspielhaus and much of its exterior is resonant in the present-day Konzerthaus. The references from classical architecture were fleshed out in every detail, from soaring columns to the statue of Apollo upon the roof. 

The sandstone façade was a fitting preface to the bourgeois drama theatre, equipped with a concert and ballroom available for private renting as a means to keep up the maintenance costs. Needless to say, fire safety measures were taken in light of previous incidents.

In 1826, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered in the Great Hall to much acclaim. Following this, guest appearances at the Schauspielhaus included renowned personalities like Genoese violin virtuoso, Niccolò Paganini, and Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso, Franz Liszt. Besides operas and several premiers, it also housed the Prussian National Assembly, making it equally significant in the socio-political landscape.

The smaller hall attracted a slew of artists and visitors owing to its much-lauded beauty. 

In November 1871, a monument commemorating Friedrich Schiller’s 112th birthday was unveiled.

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Brückels, M. (2009). The Schiller memorial at Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin. Sculptor: Reinhold Begas (1831-1911). [Photograph]. (Kiepenheuer Verlag, Leipzig und Weimar 1983, p. 215)
1919 to 1945 – Preußisches Staatstheater Berlin  or Prussian State Theater 

Preußisches Staatstheater Berlin was the adopted name following the conclusion of the First World War, as the Weimar Republic’s leading theatre. Artistic Director Leopold Jessner and his polarising approach questioning the bourgeois preceded Gustaf Gründge’s era of acclaim, with the war unfolding in the background. 

In May 1945, arson by the SS units sent the building crumbling for a second time, and while much of the interiors were destroyed, the walls remained intact. The Staatstheater would remain in this destitute state and the Gendarmenmarkt turned into farmland in the aftermath of war.

1984 to 1992 – Schauspielhaus

In 1997, the reconstruction of the theatre as a concert hall commenced, preserving Schinkel’s exterior design and retrofitting the interiors with state-of-the-art facilities. architects Ehrhardt Gißke, Klaus Just and Manfred Prasser created a classical temple, with the neo-classical style echoing in each element – from the structure to the details. On 1st October 1984, the building reopened after 39 years.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was celebrated with a rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a chorus of “Ode to Freedom”, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

1994 – Konzerthaus Berlin

Artistic Director, Frank Schneider, encouraged the renaming of the Schauspielhaus as the Konzerthaus Berlin in 1994. 

2. A Look Inside The Konzerthaus Berlin

Entrance Hall

The enchanting façade leads into an equally opulent entrance hall with marble finishing and ornate décor. The hall houses the offices and cloakroom, and lined with red carpets are the staircases to the north and south wing.

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Runge, S. (2013). The Entrance Hall [Photograph] (Konzerthaus Berlin Archive)
The Great Hall

Widely renowned as one of the top five concert venues of the world, the near unparalleled sound quality of the Great Hall of the Konzerthaus is a mix of geometry and clever use of ancillary systems. 

The “shoebox” styled Great Hall is long, narrow and tall; a form that gives rise to reverberations that afford each of its 1700 listeners a veritable “surround sound” experience. The shape is a passive acoustical feature that is further complemented by the use of sound enhancing devices. 

The reflectors above the stage divert the ceiling-reflected sounds away from the performers, while the steerable Meyer Sound CAL columns provide state-of-the-art music reinforcement that blends into the architecture seamlessly. Beam-steering technology allows precise vertical directivity and down-tilt angles. The Jehmlich concert organ with 74 registers and 5,811 organ pipes makes for a remarkable aspect of the opulent interiors of red and gold. 

Fourteen chandeliers and thirty bust statues of renowned composers over the ages enhance the ceiling and the entire volume of space beneath.

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Runge, S. (2013) Great Hall [Photograph] (Konzerthaus Berlin Archive)
The full capacity of the Great Hall requires a considerable air conditioning system, which mustn’t hinder the sound quality during the performances. This is achieved by a displacement ventilation system wherein the floor vents supply the air that is subsequently extracted by the ceiling outlets. The ventilation fixtures are not only significant to the air supply system but also bring aesthetic appeal to the interior design. 

Hall area: 486 m²
Concert seating: 1412 seats

The Small Hall

Similar in shape to the Great Hall, this space hosts chamber music concerts and school classes for the Konzerthaus Junior Programme. While much smaller in size, the pastel tones of the Small Hall make for a distinctly delicate interior.

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Runge, S. (2013) Small Hall [Photograph] (Konzerthaus Berlin Archive)
Hall area: 224 m²
Concert seating: 386 seats

Werner Otto Hall

Designed by architect Peter Kulka, the Werner Otto Hall sets a contrasting modern stage within the historic walls. The flexible “black box” is composed of 132 independently moving platforms and hosts contemporary performances.

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Runge, S. (2013). Werner Otto Hall. [Photograph] (Konzerthaus Berlin Archive)
Hall area: 338 m²
Concert seating: 255 seats

Ludwig van Beethoven Hall

The ornate interiors are composed of white marble finishing and Ionic columns reminiscent of their classical inspiration, complete with murals and gilded mouldings. Talks and pre-concert gatherings are hosted in the Beethoven Hall, providing refreshments during concert breaks at the Great Hall’s southern parquet level.

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Runge, S. (2013). Ludwig van Beethoven Hall. [Photograph] (Konzerthaus Berlin Archive)
Hall area 219 m²

For receptions: up to 250 people

Carl Maria von Weber Hall 

Characterised by the refreshing olive-green tones, the Hall is named Carl Maria von Weber whose opera premiered in the 1821 National Theatre. Similar in design and function to the Beethoven Halls, the Corinthian colonnade and opulently embellished space is at the North parquet level of the Hall.

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Runge, S. (2013). Carl Maria von Weber Hall. [Photograph] (Konzerthaus Berlin Archive)
Hall area:  256 m²
For receptions: up to 250 people, Up to 120 seats at round tables, Row seating up to 150 seat.

Music Club

The 80-seat venue is an intimate space for staged productions, post-concert discussions by the artists and children’s performances.

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Runge, S. (2013). Music Club. [Photograph] (Konzerthaus Berlin Archive)

3. Konzerthausorchester

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Nielinger, C. (2008). Konzerthausorchester Berlin in the Great Hall. [Photograph] (Wikimedia Commons)
In 2006, the house orchestra was renamed as the Berlin to solidify the link between the orchestra and the concert hall. Led by principal conductor Christoph Eschenbach who was appointed in 2019, the orchestra performs over a hundred concerts every season. Their rich legacy spans over 65 years since they were founded as the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester, including not only some significant in house performances but also several international tours. 

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Loeschner, F. (2014). “Right in the Middle” from above [Photograph] (Konzerthaus Berlin Archive)
Following renovations in 2012, the Great Hall lends itself to a more flexible layout allowing the Konzerthausorchester to experiment with several new formats that hope to indulge the listeners. For instance, “Mittendrin” or “Right in the Middle” series of 2014, the Great Hall was rearranged to seat the audience between the musicians to experience the performance more intimately. 

The members of the orchestra were lauded in 2013 with the “Classic Music without Borders” ECHO Classic award for the album “Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons”. The 2016 “Welcome among us” concert invited refugees in Berlin and the helpers of the orchestra for a special rendition that included Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Allegro. The orchestra’s dedication to music and culture is equalled by their commitment, instil appreciation for it in all individuals alike.

4. Kurt Sanderling Academy

In 2017, the Kurt Sanderling Academy of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin was founded and named after the pioneer and principal conductor. The orchestra even has a YouTube channel to air live events during the pandemic and continues to make great strides to further the musical culture and promote budding prodigies. The fourteen musicians in the academy have the unique opportunity to implement their learnings by partaking in tours and concerts.

The Konzerthaus Berlin is a testament to its resilience, having risen from the ashes like a phoenix but twice. 

Nurtured by pioneers in both architecture and music, the concert hall is among the most culturally significant pieces of history that are leading the way into the future. The beauty of the building is best concluded in the words of the celebrated German poet and playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, at the 1821 inauguration of the Schauspielhaus:

“So it was right! Just as desired by my might – And yet I fear its splendour; What I yearned for, demanded and ordered, Now stands and surpasses my will a hundred times!”

Author

Sagarika Latwal is an architect based in Bangalore exploring creative outlets and entrepreneurship within the industry. An armchair expert in art history, film and - oddly enough- ornithology, she is in constant search of hidden ideas to inform her designs. With her inclination towards architectural journalism, she hopes to make the beautiful complexities of architecture accessible to all.

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