Berlin’s Ode to Freedom

9 November 2020

For a lover of classical music, Berlin is one of the most rewarding cities in the world with three opera houses and the world-famous Berlin Philharmonic. The city’s fascinating and turbulent history has both quelled and sparked creativity, not least for those who fought for freedom of expression through music.

No doubt you have heard of Felix Mendelssohn, the German composer, pianist, and conductor, but what about his sister? Fanny Mendelssohn was born on the 14 November 1805 in Hamburg and the family moved to Berlin in 1811. The siblings were incredibly talented pianists and were encouraged to perform and compose by their parents, but everything changed after Fanny’s 14th birthday. Papa Mendelssohn returned from a trip with gifts for his children: for Fanny, a necklace, and for Felix, the writing implements to compose his first opera.

The painter, William Hensel, said he wouldn’t marry Fanny unless she carried on composing. Every morning he put a piece of blank manuscript paper on her music stand. She wrote about 500 pieces, and six of her songs were published under Felix’s name, which led to an awkward encounter with Queen Victoria. When Mendelssohn performed for her, she requested her favourite song ‘Italien’. Felix had to explain that that song was written by his sister. Only in 1846 did Fanny publish a collection of her own music. She died suddenly the following year, six months before her brother.

In the 1920s, Berlin resonated with the music of contemporary composers. The new democratic republic meant that censorship was out, and creatives were pushing the boundaries of what was possible in art, movies and in music. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck premiered on 14 December 1925 at the Berlin State Opera and was the first full-length atonal opera. Berg put a great deal of his wartime experience into it, including the wordless chorus of the sleeping soldiers in Act Two.

Classical concerts and opera rubbed shoulders with the cabaret scene, which was influenced by numerous black musicians including Sidney Bechet, a clarinettist and composer who acted in several German films. Kurt Weill was convinced that musicians should be forging the future and was determined to bridge the gap between classical music and popular song. Ironically his The Threepenny Opera (a collaboration with Bertolt Brecht), meant as an attack on the evils of capitalism, became a huge commercial success. First performed at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928, it was performed over 4,200 times across Europe within a year. Not only did it become a musical film in 1931, the infamous ‘Mack the Knife’ was even used in a McDonald’s advert!

In June 1980 WNO became the first British opera company to perform in East Germany, appearing in Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig. The two performances at Komische Oper Berlin sold out the day the tickets went on sale. Elektra, with which the visit opened, received a twenty-minute ovation. It was, recalled one WNO member, more like a pop concert than a performance of opera. Less than 10 years later the Berlin Wall was torn down. Leonard Bernstein’s historic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony ‘Ode to Freedom’ on Christmas day 1989 at Konzerthaus Berlin has long become almost as legendary as the revolutionary moment that it celebrated.