When Arthur Nikisch – principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra starting in 1895 – died in 1922, 36-year old Wilhelm Furtwängler applied to become his successor, convincing both the members of the orchestra and the management.
He was a musical personality who built on the accomplishments of his predecessors Hans von Bülow and Nikisch and helped the orchestra continue to expand its renown. Like Nikisch, Furtwängler also considered himself the re-creator of works.
His unconventional conducting technique was fabled: it required great personal responsibility and sensitivity from the musicians. Furtwängler formed the Berliner Philharmoniker into his very own instrument, one that ingeniously realized his interpretation ideas.
Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner were the cornerstones of his repertoire, but he also championed contemporary composers like Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók, Schönberg and Hindemith – not always to the liking of the audience. And starting in 1933 even less in accordance with the wishes of the National Socialist leaders.
In 1934 things came to a head: after the NS government forbade the world premiere of Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler, Furtwängler stepped down from his position as principal conductor. One year later, he returned to the Philharmoniker – he who called himself an apolitical artist, who never belonged to the NSDAP and who spoke up for many Jewish musicians – only as conductor of the Philharmonic Concerts, however, without assuming an official position. Nonetheless, he continued to consider the Philharmonic musicians “his” orchestra.
Unlike his predecessors, he exerted a strong influence on artistic and organisational matters. After 1945 Furtwängler was banned from working. He was cleared in 1947 in a denazification process, and conducted the Philharmonic again in May of that year. However, he officially regained the position of principal conductor only in 1952, two years before he died.
The “Reich’s orchestra”
Even triumphant successes with Wilhelm Furtwängler could not improve the Berliner Philharmoniker’s precarious financial situation. In 1933 the orchestra was in a particularly difficult existential crisis and saw only one way out: transforming into a national orchestra.
The National Socialist leadership willingly took over financing the famous orchestra so as to adorn their events with them. For the orchestra, the years of the Third Reich were a balancing act between complying with cultural-political and ideological guidelines and preserving artistic autonomy.
While they enjoyed a privileged position (the musicians were exempted from military service), they nonetheless repeatedly defied artistic and political pressures from the National Socialist ruling powers.
The concert agency Wolff, a company run by Jews and an important partner of the Berlin Philharmonic from the onset, was not able to withstand the regime’s repressive measures and dissolved in 1935.
On 30 January 1944 the Philharmonie was destroyed during a bombing raid.
The orchestra, now without a home, continued to play: particularly in the State Opera, at the Admiralspalast, in the Berlin Cathedral. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, a new era began for the Berliner Philharmoniker as well.
“Zero hour” and a new beginning
Concert life was quickly resumed after the war ended, despite difficult conditions: the traditional hall destroyed, Furtwängler banned at first from performing and with an insecure material future. But in Leo Borchard, who had conducted them many times since 1933, the Philharmoniker quickly found a conductor for the difficult new beginning. The orchester played in various temporary quarters: in cinemas and community centres, in the Titaniapalast and the Admiralspalast as well as at the City Opera.
The fruitful cooperation between Borchard and the Philharmoniker ended suddenly and tragically when the conductor was accidentally shot and killed one August evening by an American soldier.
That was the moment for the young, unknown and still inexperienced Rumanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache. He was entrusted with conducting the orchestra, and proved to be a “genius with the baton” who conducted the Philharmoniker in a calm artistic manner through the turbulent post-war years – at first hoping to succeed Furtwängler.
Besides this, a new young generation of conductors became frequent guests of the orchestra: Georg Solti, Ferenc Fricsay and André Cluytens. Over the years, the material situation was also remedied. At first supported by the Magistrate of the American sector, the Berliner Philharmoniker became a municipal institution in 1949.
In the same year committed Berlin citizens founded the Society of the Friends of the Philharmonie e.V. (now Friends of the Berliner Philharmoniker e. V.) with the goal of helping the orchestra have its own concert hall once again.