Times are changing – The world of German orchestra

There are over 130 professional orchestras in Germany—more than in any other country. It is an enormous challenge to preserve this orchestra density.

Bundesjugendorchester Bonn 2018 Bundesjugendorchester Bonn 2018 | Copyright: Selina Pfruener The Germans are the world champions of orchestra – in particular, publicly financed theatre, concert and radio orchestras provide structure and a face to Germany's music life, giving it a sound that projects far and wide. Whether it's still the old "German sound" that is produced by conductors and orchestral musicians who hail from all parts of the world is a question often asked. Many observers were eager to note that even the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle would have altered its specific sound of old musical tradition, if not lost it all together.

Times are changing. The process of transformation influences musical interpretation, as well as a so-called Klangvorstellung (conception of sound). However, Germany's unique and rich orchestral landscape has so far remained intact, as can be seen on a special map of Germany: there are five orchestra conurbations – the Rhine/Ruhr region, Thuringia and Saxony, the Rhine/Main zone, the city of Munich, and the German capital, Berlin. The majority of the over 130 professional orchestras (including some 80 theatre orchestras, 30 concert orchestras and 13 radio orchestras) with their roughly 10,000 members are well distributed about the country. But the many chamber orchestras and special ensembles for New Music and Old Music, such as the Bremen Chamber Philharmonic, Concerto Cologne, the Munich Chamber Orchestra and the Ensemble Modern, also help populate the German orchestral landscape – as do the ensembles composed of up-and-coming talent, like the Federal Youth Orchestra and the German Youth Orchestra or the many amateur orchestras and ensembles of various abilities and formations.

A Look at the Historical Context

The fact that no other country can muster such a wealth of orchestras reflects history, the political history of Germany. The orchestral diversity originates from the 18th and 19th centuries, when Germany was divided across countless territories. Focussed in their centres, court theatres and orchestras arose that became state or municipal institutions of the bourgeoisie after the demise of absolutism. Cultural ambitions remained intact and were manifested in state and city funding for music. After German reunification in 1990 the particularly high concentration of state-run orchestras in East Germany was trimmed to meet economic realities: the dissolving and merging of orchestras and ensembles became inevitable.

Since the middle of the 19th century the rise of civic concert life encouraged orchestras to adopt a repertory canon consisting of a mixture of classical, romantic and classic modern music, a formula that persists today. Traditional symphonic music ranging between Beethoven/Brahms and Mahler/Shostakovich provides the basis for music making. Music by Modern Era composers of the early 20th century (Stravinsky, Bartók, Schönberg, Berg, Prokofiev, Ravel) is more strongly established in concert programmes than the new music of living composers, of whom Hans Werner Henze and Wolfgang Rihm are most often performed. The fascination with virtuosos largely dictates the resulting concert repertoire.

Public radio stations play a special role in the German orchestral landscape. They operate a total of 13 orchestras, including the large radio symphony orchestras (in Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Baden-Baden/Freiburg, Saarbrücken and Munich) and several smaller radio orchestras. The initial plan was to focus on contemporary music intended for broadcasting – even in proper concert series like Munich's Musica Viva. But these ensembles increasingly succumbed to the pressure to compete with large international orchestras in terms of repertory and prestige. Their globally networked principal conductors are helping meet this challenge and, through the help of orchestra tours and recording sales, are fortifying their artistic merit and their international renown.

What will the future bring?

Since 1952 orchestras in Germany have been organised under the German Orchestra Association (DOV), initially in cooperation with the German Salaried Employees' Union. The association's role includes the regulation of working conditions, performance rights and collective bargaining. In 2002 the DOV concluded a cooperation agreement with the service sector trade union ver.di. As a matter of principle, orchestras in Germany are officially classified according to LUISA size and salary level. Depending on its size, each orchestra is given the distinction of A, B, C or D. For a century the Berlin Philharmonic has ranked first among the so-called A-orchestras in terms of quality and international prestige. Other A-orchestras include the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Munich Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Bamberg Symphony. The reputations of all these orchestras are enhanced by internationally known principal conductors, boasting names such as Simon Rattle and Christian Thielemann, Valery Gergiev and Daniel Barenboim, Andris Nelsons and Roger Norrington.

Fact: in the "Land of Music", orchestras, along with opera houses, play the starring role. However, the survival of today's orchestras in Germany is no sure thing. Considering the financial crisis and tight public coffers, whether and in what compromised condition the orchestras manage to survive are questions only the future will tell.