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Music

How Germany became a classical music mecca

Around 130 publicly funded professional orchestras, over 80 permanent opera companies and billions in subsidies: Germany's unique musical landscape has created a global hub for classical music.

Goethe, Schiller, Kant and Schopenhauer have contributed to Germany's international reputation as a "country of poets and thinkers." Similarly, composers such as Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms have given their homeland a reputation of musical genius.

Among them, Ludwig van Beethoven is arguably the world's most famous classical composer. For his 250th anniversary in 2020, orchestras around the world, and particularly in Germany, will be performing his works across the country — and especially in his birthplace, Bonn. 

Germany is a mecca for classical music thanks to its high density of orchestras, theaters and choirs that are also well-supported by the public sector.

"The further away I am from Germany, the more I feel the admiration for the country," says Christian Höppner, general secretary of the German Music Council. "In Brazil, for example, the perception that Germany is a 'land of music' is way stronger than in neighboring countries."

As the umbrella organization for musical life in Germany, the German Music Council represents the interests of around 14 million musicians.

Christian Höppner (DW/Jan Röhl)

Christian Höppner of the German Music Council

Unique orchestral landscape

According to statistics from the German Orchestra Association, in 2018 there were 129 publicly-funded orchestras across the country, with around 10,000 members. Orchestras such as the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden or the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig are among the best in the world.

Meanwhile, renowned chamber orchestras and special ensembles for old and new music — such as the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Concerto Köln or the Ensemble Modern, as well as youth ensembles such as the Federal Youth Orchestra (top picture), the State Youth Orchestra or the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie — are not even included in the figures.

The Semperoper, the opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden (picture-alliance/imageBROKER/A. Pollok)

The Semperoper, the opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden

A record-breaker in terms of opera companies

Germany is also a world leader when it comes to music theater: The country has more than 80 permanent opera companies, almost as many as the rest of the world combined.

Most of the approximately 560 opera houses worldwide operate according to the so-called stagione system, which means that they do not have their own permanent ensembles but rather hire singers or entire productions for a certain time period.

Critics often ask whether Germany needs so many subsidized orchestras and opera houses. But for Christina Höppner, "there can never be enough." The head of the German Music Council advocates cultural diversity, in which every orchestra and every theater is unique.

While Höppner agrees that there should be transparency about concert house attendances, he does not believe in designing programs based solely on sales figures and public demand.

"We want to generate demand and arouse the public's curiosity for the unknown," he said, "which I also see as an important task of those cultural institutions." 

Watch video 12:03

Musica Maestra in Germany

Strong support from the state

Achieving this cultural diversity demands financial support. Germany's public sector subsidizes culture more than any other country in the world. In 2019, over €10 billion ($11 billion) went to support cultural institutions, including over €3 billion in music and musical theater alone.

The federal government's cultural budget was €1.6 billion in 2019, but this is only around 15% of total cultural funding, the rest coming from Germany's municipalities and federal states. Almost 50% of the public grants are paid by local governments. In addition, there is money from the EU and the private sector, including individuals and foundations.

In the US, the cultural sector is almost entirely privately funded. In the UK there is a basic public service that covers about 30-50% of the sum invested in culture.

"For us, education and culture are public services and are therefore largely publicly financed," explains Höppner of German cultural funding. "Private funds are always connected with interests," he adds, pointing out that wealthy donors in the US often have their say in programs. In Germany, parliaments control the funding but not the content.

A diverse scene of music festivals

Another special feature of the German music scene is its many festivals. In just three decades, from 1980 to 2010, the number of music festivals almost quadrupled, according to the German Music Information Center (MIZ) in Bonn. There are currently over 500 festivals in Germany.

Almost a third of all classical music festivals focus on so-called serious music, ranging from festivals for contemporary music such as the Donaueschingen Festival that was founded in 1921, to the renowned Ruhr Piano Festival, or the Spannungen chamber music festival in Heimbach in the Eifel region.

Forty events are devoted to music theater across Germany — from the large-scale Munich Opera Festival or the Ruhrtriennale, to the exotic Rossini Festival, which is dedicated to bel canto in Bad Wildbad in the Black Forest.

Visitors from all over the world

Traditional and new festivals are enjoying increasing popularity: 73,000 visitors from Europe and overseas came to Leipzig for the Bach Festivalin 2019. The legendary Bayreuth Festival, dedicated to Richard Wagner, is attended by over 62,000 people every year — many Wagner fans have to wait years before they finally get a ticket to the event. The Rheingau Music Festivaland the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival are among the most important and most popular classical music festivals in northern Germany.

For Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th anniversary, the Bonn Beethovenfest will take place twice in 2020, in the spring and the fall. The specially founded Beethoven anniversary company, BTHVN2020, supports 250 projects across the country and is managing a budget of €30 million.

The Germans, a nation of music-lovers?

The Germans love classical music, according to statistics: Of the almost 83 million inhabitants, around 14 million people play an instrument or sing in a choir. One or more instruments are played in every sixth German household.

The queues at music schools and daycare centers with a musical focus are long, says Höppner. According to the Association of German Music Schools, there are almost 1,000 public music schools across the country, attended by almost 1.5 million children and teenagers.

And Germans generally enjoy listening to music. According to the German Music Council, 33% of Germans like classical music. In comparison, according to surveys, that only applies to 10 to 17% of the population in the US, and about 15% in the UK. Only Russia and Japan have a comparable proportion of classical music lovers as in Germany.

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