Berlioz and Brahms, Bartoli and Rattle: Names from Baden-Baden's rich musical history and names that grace the festival city's musical life today. Past and present – in Baden-Baden one often flows into the other. Music undoubtedly is an important branch of the city’s cultural life – albeit not the only one. It also includes architecture of the Belle Époque, museums, extensive parks as well as the historically grown bathing culture.

It all began with the Romans, who discovered the thermal springs on the edge of the Black Forest and developed this spot into a most comfortable spa centre – predominantly for their soldiers. After withdrawing from Germania, they left the settlement of Aquae to rot. Thanks to the work of archaeologists, the remnants of the roman baths can now be viewed in their original location in the bath quarter. On top of the antique fundaments, the splendid Friedrichsbad was built in Renaissance style in 1877, where guests of today can relax in the original ambience of the past.

Trinkhalle © Christoph Wurzel
Trinkhalle
© Christoph Wurzel
pr

Baden-Baden owes its rich musical culture to visitors' desire for entertainment after a restful bath. From the beginning of the 19th century onwards, the small spa town soon grew to be one of Europe's musical and literary centres. After the turmoils of several revolutions, the small town near the border offered many Frenchmen tranquil refuge. Nobility and moneyed aristocracy appeared, indulged in bathing pleasures, discovered – this is the Romantic period! – the surrounding Black Forest with its then untouched nature and in the evenings were hungry for other amenities such as gambling, which had just been prohibited in France.

It was a French entrepreneur who saw the chance of giving Baden-Baden exclusivity with a casino. Jacques Bénazet and his son Edouart had representative buildings erected such as the classicistic styled Kurhaus, whose magnificent rooms host the casino halls, a ballroom and a concert hall. In its vast gardens, the impressive Trinkhalle and Wandelhalle were built in 1842.

Theatre © Christoph Wurzel
Theatre
© Christoph Wurzel

Under the aegis of the Bénazets, regular summer concerts were given in Baden-Baden, attracting all popular artists of the time. Paganini and Liszt celebrated successes; Meyerbeer presented his operas and Offenbach is said to have strutted through the Kurgarten dressed in all the colours of the rainbow. Musical life soon outgrew the concert hall and a real theatre was built in the style of the French Baroque. Hector Berlioz, who had conducted the summer concerts for many years, composed a new opera specifically for the occasion and the small theatre was opened with Béatrice et Bénédict in 1856. Today the building serves as drama theatre for a dedicated ensemble and as a platform for scholarship students of the Berliner Philharmoniker presenting small operatic rarities during the Easter Festival. In April 2017 the theatre will see La tragédie de Carmen, a chamber version of Bizet's classic.

Musical life, vibrant at least in the summer months, continued to draw artists and intellectuals of all stripes to the Oos, who often settled there permanently and had glorious villas built that characterise the face of the city to this day. The most spectacular personality amongst them all certainly was Pauline Viardot-García, singer, composer and younger sister of the even more famous María Malibran. Like a princess, she resided in Baden-Baden for seven years and attracted everybody who is anybody to her Court of the Muses. The high nobility of the time kept company in her representative villa, the most renowned musicians, writers and painters came together in her musico-literary salons. Among them was the poet Ivan Turgenev, who made Baden-Baden known in Russia, and soon a small, Russian intellectual colony developed. Dostoevsky, too, was part of that circle for some time and was overcome by such a strong addiction to gambling that he dealt with it in his novel The Gambler. The gilded bulbous spire of the Orthodox church built at that time still gives the townscape a picturesque element today.

Studio in the Brahmshaus Museum © Brahmsgesellschaft
Studio in the Brahmshaus Museum
© Brahmsgesellschaft

Thanks to Pauline Viardot, Clara Schumann also came to Baden-Baden and bought a little house outside the busy city centre to be able to teach piano uninterruptedly. From 1863 on, she lived there for the next 15 years. She also attracted many visiting musicians to the city, amongst them of course Johannes Brahms, who not only loved her, but also the seclusion of the countryside. He spent several summers in a rented house in the nearby Lichtental. It is the only surviving dwelling of Brahms, whose two rooms have been lovingly made into a small museum by the busy Brahms Society Baden-Baden. As visitor numbers are usually limited, staff often use a visit for a private lecture focussing on Brahms and Clara Schumann. The rest of the house hosts a small flat in which young music scholarship students can spend three weeks to work.

Brahms took extensive walks in the surrounding woods, performed in the Kurhaus and composed several works, such as the String Sextet Op.36 and the Horn Trio Op.40. In reverence of this important guest, the Brahms Society organise Brahmstage (Brahms Days) every other year, presenting chamber and orchestral concerts by top-class musicians, with a next instalment in October 2017. An important musician of the modern era has even lived in Baden-Baden for a long time and developed his broad musical activity from there: Pierre Boulez, who died in and was buried in the city earlier in 2016.

Museum Frieder Burda © Christoph Wurzel
Museum Frieder Burda
© Christoph Wurzel

When Brahms walked into town from his holiday apartment, he would come along a scenic, tree-lined road, today called Lichtentaler Allee, at the bottom of which lie the city's museums. The building of American architect Richard Meier, housing the Museum Frieder Burda with its changing exhibitions of modern art, certainly is the most extraordinary among the four. It is fascinating as one can view the art within and at the same time throw an unhindered glance into the park-like avenue without. Thus, art and nature correspond in a wonderful way.

Wandering on, past the Kurhaus and Trinkhalle, along a shady boulevard lined by lime trees, a visitor soon reaches the centre of Baden-Baden's musical culture of today, the Festspielhaus, where strands of the musical past intertwine with the present. On over 100 occasions every year, works are performed of those composers who once were guests themselves in Baden-Baden, played by the stars of the music business of today. Almost every concert is worthy of being part of a festival, but particular festivals are put on several times a year; the Easter Festival is the most exciting of then, when the Berliner Philharmoniker take up quarters for ten days and perform chamber music in the numerous halls of the city, or concerts and opera with full orchestral forces in the hall of the Festspielhaus.

Hall in the Festspielhaus © Myrzik und Jarisch
Hall in the Festspielhaus
© Myrzik und Jarisch

In the past 18 years, the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden has played its way up into the top league of concert halls. On its programmes you will find the names of the most prominent artists of the day and music of all genres and periods (even though modern pieces go a little short). Ballet companies, too, are regular guests, and light muse is provided in the form of operettas. There is choice aplenty, and those who would like to enjoy all of Baden-Baden cultural life had better bring time to spare: the city may be small, but what it has to offer is huge.

 

Translated from German by Hedy Muehleck.