48 Hours in Hamburg

Source: Quora

Those of us hailing from the USA and Australia are often fascinated by the variety of national and regional identities over western Europe’s comparatively small geographic area. In the States, although it may feel as though we have at least a half dozen different countries within our national borders, there is still something of an overarching feeling of “homogenous nation,” one not equivalent to the European identity, although countries on the European side of the pond are comparable in size to various United states. If you overlay a map of the USA over that of Europe, much of the western and (southern) central parts of the latter fit within the area of the lower 48, with a bit of eastern Europe as a bonus.

So, when low flight prices gave Dave and me the idea to travel from one side of Germany to the other (roughly the distance across Montana) it was a no-brainer to hop on that 1.5 hour flight for a long January weekend in the north, finally granting us the privilege of experiencing some of the beautiful instruments that Hamburg has to offer… with the unexpected bonus of sunny weather.

The principal churches (Hauptkirchen) in Hamburg, all of the “Evangelical” Lutheran persuasion, have been part of the fabric of the city’s spiritual and political structure for nearly 500 years. Hamburg embraced Lutheranism during the reformation, officially on May 15, 1529.* Since then, these five churches (Sankt Petri, Sankt Nikolai [now rebuilt, although the former building’s tower still stands at its original location], Sankt Katharinen, Sankt Jakobi, and Sankt Michaelis) have shared the history of this city for half a millenium through plague, war, French occupation, fire, urbanization, Nazism, British occupation, flood, the Iron Curtain, and German reunification and have all been built, destroyed, and built anew alongside the city. Hamburg, a metropolitan center of trade, sprawls along the banks of the Elbe, crowned by the six church towers of the five Hauptkirchen and one former Hauptkirche.

*In Germany, one registers either as Evangelische (Lutheran Protestant) or Katholische (Catholic) or neither so that the government knows to where (if anybody) to send your “church tax.”

Sankt Jakobi topped our list of churches to see first. This 1689-93 Arp Schnitger organ is one of the largest of its kind in northern Europe, at 60 stops over four manuals and pedals, and is a pilgrimage point for most organists (and organbuilders). It has survived in the current form partially thanks to Hans Henny Jahnn, who “rediscovered” it early in the interwar period and organized events that exposed the German organ scene to this instrument (in service of the Orgelbewegung) and funded his own restoration of this instrument. Although the front pipes had been taken down and melted in World War I, the windchests and all internal pipework were removed and saved before the church was completely destroyed in 1943 bombings of Hamburg. The last decade of the 20th century saw Jürgen Ahrend reconstruct the 1689-93 Schnitger in the new 1963 church building, giving us the privilege of seeing, hearing, and playing it today.

Incumbent Kantor Gerhard Löffler sensitively performed a program demonstrating those glorious Schnitger reeds, after which I spent an extraordinary two hours exploring the instrument, reveling in the sonorities and in that sensitive Ahrend action! Those sounds followed me through dinner and into my dreams…

A curious 1950 console from the 1961 Kemper organ in Sankt Jakobikirche is stored and visible for intrigued organ enthusiasts as one ascends to the organ loft. With incredibly detailed carved heads on the drawknobs, this Spieltisch (German for console, literally translated as “playtable”) is equally fascinating for both woodworker and organist!

The next morning featured a trip to Sankt Michaelis (affectionately nicknamed “Michel”), which is an exceptional example of an Hanseatic baroque church built explicitly in Protestant style (rather than built by Catholics and used by Protestants post-Reformation). A colleague has fondly called the interior a “cupcake” because of the beautiful gilding-encrusted interior and white walls. Under a single roof are instruments by G. F. Steinmeyer & Co (1960-2, residing within the 1912 case of the former Walcker organ), by Klais (a Fernwerk in the ceiling, from 2009), and by Marcussen & Søn (1914), all unified and playable from a single remote console in the gallery. Additionally there is a two manual organ by Freiburger Orgelbau Hartwig & Tilmann Späth called the “C.P.E. Bach organ”, a continuo organ built in 2017 by Klop, and a 1917 Johannes Strebel organ, installed in the church’s crypt in 2008 within a new case by Späth (and titled the “Felix Mendelssohn organ”).


To say this is a “wealth of organs” is an understatement. The diversity of sound, style, and actions made my morning there a joy-filled education – even if I was only able to play three of the available seven (!) instruments on this visit. Klais did a brilliant job in restoring the pneumatic action of the 1914 Marcussen & Søn instrument to its state prior to a dramatic alteration in the 1950s, and the extremely stable temperature and humidity in this gigantic room (seating 2,500) allows the surround-sound effect made by playing the Marcusson, Klais Fernwerk, and Steinmeyer organs together from the remote console to be absolutely thrilling.

Kantor Manuel Gera brilliantly demonstrated the instruments in the nave and showed us around inside the cases… and also gave me the joy of a last-minute invitation to play for the daily noonday service, which features approximately 15 minutes of organ music, a prayer, and a hymn. There’s something special about beautiful music filling this light-filled room that has withstood fire, war, lightning, and ongoing renovation to this day. The architecture and instruments still inspire and brighten the lives of all with the good fortune to visit!

For a total change of pace, we wandered towards and along the Elbe River, stopping to marvel at the striking, wavelike façade of the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s concert hall, and finding excellent coffee throughout the Speicherstadt. For those who, like me, treasure exploring new places by walking, the Speicherstadt is a must-see (must-wander?). Meaning the “City of Warehouses”, this is the largest warehouse district in the world and the extraordinary jumble of historic buildings from the late 19th- and early 20th century features Neo-Gothic red brick façades and charming details. At least half-destroyed in Operation Gomorrah, the 1943 Allied bombing of Hamburg, the Speicherstadt has been painstakingly restored and many of the buildings are still used as they were originally intended: as warehouses. This is a quiet part of the city, at least on a Saturday afternoon in January, and the buildings facing each other across rivers and canals in a city where there are more bridges than in Venice, Amsterdam, and London combined.

From meditative wandering in the Speicherstadt, we visited a sobering place: the former Hauptkirche St. Nikolai, a late 19th-century neo-Gothic church designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and destroyed alongside much of the city of Hamburg in the previously mentioned Operation Gomorrah. Its unmistakable spire, crypt, and wall- and column-less nave now comprise a memorial dedicated “to the victims of war and tyranny between 1933 and 1945.” An elevator brings visitors to a viewing platform at the top of the tower, which had served as an orientation marker for Allied bombers. There, carefully composed descriptions and comparative photographs reveal how parts of the city were destroyed and rebuilt.

The crypt below the nave is a museum detailing history of World War II and especially focusing on the 1940 Coventry Blitz, the 1940-1 London Blitz, and the July 1943 Operation Gemorrah, when Hamburg was destroyed through bombings that lasted 8 days and 7 nights and caused one of the worst firestorms of the war.  Throughout the museum was an extraordinary sense of self-awareness, especially in the written descriptions. There was a feeling of desperation that this all be known so that the terrible events leading up to the need for the bombing and subsequent destruction of this city never happen again. Even the tower itself is a constantly visible admonition against repeating history, since it remains as a “finger of warning” to any who might try to wreak such destruction against other humans again.

Mere sentences on this blog cannot encompass the feelings of being faced with horrors on this scale, and the importance of learning about them in order to prevent them. While reading and seeing such things weighs heavily on the heart and soul, remembering and working against such darkness is an essential part of being human.

Two months after our visit, Dave and I are still digesting all that we learned at the Sankt Nicholai Kirche, and yet, on that Saturday afternoon, time necessitated that we make a hard turn away from internal musings to visit somewhere jarringly more touristic and significantly lighter: the Miniatur Wunderland, residing in the Speicherstadt and so heavily advertised that it is impossible to ignore.


This model railway has over 15,000 meters of track, more than 4,000 buildings, nearly half a million human figures and LEDs, 1,300 trains, and takes up almost 1,500 m2 of floorspace. That’s almost 16x the floorspace of Dave’s and my apartment here in Germany, and the railway is still expanding (unlike our apartment). Construction began in 2000 and now sections include miniature recreations of recognizable vistas from almost a dozen countries/locations, including Hamburg, central Germany, Venice, South America, Scandinavia, Provence, the USA, and Austria. While I’m not normally one for overly-advertised tourist traps (and this has been “voted the most popular tourist attraction in Germany”), it was undeniably impressive. There were little jokes in the form of Adam and Eve appearing in an apple delivery line, the entire cast of Star Wars exploring one of the hillsides, and Staus (German traffic jams, a legendary headache for anybody driving here). Designers showed off their prowess with the Scandinavian exhibit using real water and a working lock to transfer boats between sections of the exhibit and with an airport that had planes that took off, disappearing into the distance, and landed before taxiing to various parking spots. I took too many photos to post here without overloading the server, but I’m glad to share at least a few!

I’m still not sold on going to tourist traps, but this was worth seeing – especially with my (only slightly) train-obsessed husband!

For our final morning in Hamburg, we visited the fourth of the five Hauptkirche: Sankt Katharinenkirche (I was fortunate to visit the fifth Hauptkirche, Sankt Petri, during a visit in 2016, but Dave will have to wait for the next trip to see that Beckerath organ!). The base of Sankt Katharinen’s spire (from the 13th century) and the outer walls (from the mid-16th century) survived World War II and the church was reconstructed in the 1950s. Heinrich Scheidemann and Johann Adam Reincken were both organists here and Johann Sebastian Bach played the organ during his visit to Hamburg while auditioning at the Jakobikirche. Famously, according to Bach’s student and biographer Johann Friedrich Agricola, the great Bach was delighted with the organ — especially with the speech of the two 32′ stops, a Principale and a Posaune (Agricola, Musica Mechanica Organoedi). Although all but 1,016 pipes from the organ were destroyed along with the interior of the church in World War II and a new organ by Kemper (now removed) was built and installed in 1962 (using half of those remaining historic pipes), Flentrop Orgelbouw carefully recreated the instrument, researching the work of the nearly half dozen builders whose work had comprised the former organ (1605/6 Scherer, 1631 Fritzsche, 1647 Stellwagen, and 1671 Besser [who built those 32’s that Bach reportedly admired]). This gigantic labor of love and historical inspiration was completed in 2013, at least partly made possible through the parish’s raising of over $3.2 million euros for the work.

A fascinating study in recreation, this instrument, coaxed into existence on the basis of so much history, made for a poignant visit. So much of this city has been re-created, so many of these instruments have been made available to us, allowing us to learn from them, and we all have a responsibility to give back to this imposing history through our living and our music-making.

48 hours were all we could spare for Hamburg during this visit, but we next rented a car for an even quicker (22-hour) foray into western Denmark. However, that will have to wait for the next post, since this one is already too long…

Wishing you all a warm, safe, and healthy start to Spring spring,