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Elbe Watershed (Wikimedia Commons)
Elbe Watershed (Wikimedia Commons)
Click to enlarge

In 2017, the North German Radio Orchestra will have a new home: they’ll move into the Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Hall), now under construction high above the banks of the Elbe River in Hamburg.

The Elbe is one of Europe’s most important rivers. Its source is in the Czech Republic, in the Krkonoše Mountains. It flows from there through Germany to the North Sea at Cuxhaven. Its many tributaries include the famous Moldau.

The city of Hamburg traces its origins to the 9th century. The confluence of the Elbe with the Alster – another of its tributaries – was the perfect place to locate a city.

Not surprisingly, Hamburg became a major European trading center. A vital, bustling industrial region grew up round its port. Even in this grim post-industrial 21st century, even with its once-thriving shipbuilding business in a free-fall, Hamburg is still Europe’s second busiest port.

The Elbphilharmonie will extend Hamburg’s musical heritage out to the Elbe River. But the Elbe has had centuries of links to music, and it can thank Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann for at least part of that.

Telemann moved to Hamburg in 1721 to become the city’s music director. He was in charge of teaching singing, theory, and music history to the boys at the Johanneum Lateinschule (Latin School), and served as composer and music director for the city’s 5 largest churches. (And you thought you had a full plate at work. Imagine all that and classrooms full of adolescent boys too.)

Although he once came close to defecting to Leipzig because of a dispute over his rights to publish his own music, Telemann remained in Hamburg for the rest of his life.

Hamburg’s prosperity was dependent on the trade rolling in and out of its bustling port. With Europe unstable and war-torn in those days, the city developed its own admiralty for defense. Every year Hamburg paid tribute to her fleet with a celebration. Yet another part of Telemann’s endless job was to compose the Kapitänsmusik (Captains’ Music) for that festival. It comprised a sacred oratorio and a secular instrumental piece.

Alas, most of the Kapitänsmusik pieces are lost. Fortunately, a few have survived. Probably the most famous survivor is the one Telemann wrote for the admiralty’s centennial in 1723. It includes the suite Hamburg’s Tides (also called Telemann’s Water Music). If you’re a regular Baroque Era listener, you may remember hearing Hamburg’s Tides.

Although we don’t have a definite date for it – far too few of Telemann’s pieces have come down to us as dated manuscripts – it’s possible that he composed the Alster Overture for another of these Kapitänsmusiken. He also might have written it for a 1725 Hamburg visit by the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg.

The Alster Overture is a mildly chaotic mix of images. Greek mythology kicks in Pallas, Pan and Peleus. Nature and the works of humanity make appearances through the Alster Echo and Hamburg’s church bells. Sailors and nymphs dance through, and a band of village musicians marches by. A swan sings its song and, infamously, a chorus of frogs and crows makes its presence known:

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In 2013, the Elbe River is still a vital part of life, musical and otherwise, in Germany and the Czech Republic. But living near any river has its risks, and earlier this month (June 2013) spring rains swelled the Elbe beyond its banks. The flooding drove several thousand residents from their homes. Ten villages had to evacuate everyone.

The Elbe is back in its banks now. Below you can see how it looks today, courtesy of the webcam at

If you don’t see anything below, maybe your computer or tablet doesn’t understand Flash. See other viewing options here.

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