Author: Gottfried Eberle
ca. 6 minutes

The board of the Gesellschaft der Freunde looking at Hans Scharoun’s model | Picture: Archiv der Freunde der Berliner Philharmoniker

In January 1944 bombs fell on the Berlin Philharmonic Hall in Bernburger Straße, destroying a building with legendary acoustics – these days only an archway remains of the building. The Philharmoniker were without a homestead, and though they were indeed giving concerts until just a few weeks before the war ended, these were in makeshift domiciles.

The vacuum continued long after the war. A cinema, the Titania Palace in Steglitz, became an important venue. But in the long run that could not satisfy chief conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. He dreamt of having a new Philharmonie built; in Erik Reger, founder of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, he found an active fellow campaigner. He published in his newspaper on 25 September 1949 an appeal to found a “Society of Friends of the Berliner Philharmonie” that he began with the sentence: “As a cultural institution of illustrious tradition and international significance, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is a concern not only for Berlin, but rather a matter of the heart for the whole of Germany.” It was also understood this way by the Federal Republic, which had just been founded. For that reason, state leaders Federal President Theodor Heuß and Federal Chancellor Adenauer were prepared, together with Ernst Reuter, governing mayor of Berlin, to become honorary board members of the newly founded society. Richard Strauss, who passed away shortly before, also expressed interest in the honorary board. Many prominent individuals from the worlds of culture, science and business signed the appeal.

Founding of the Societiy of Friends

On 5 October 1949 the Berlin Magistrate granted its approval of the society as a “non-political organisation”. Already the founding appeal recommended against restoring the Philharmonic Hall in Bernburger Strasse: “Reconstructing the Philharmonie at the old location is not advisable for various reasons, including its position at the border of various sectors and in the middle of an expanse of rubble.“ But where to build the Philharmonie? Finding the answer to this question led to a lot of shilly-shallying; only after ten years was a final decision taken. But first the necessary formalities had to be attended to. On 17 October 1949 the constituent assembly took place at which Furtwängler became the chairman of the society and Erik Reger his deputy. Hans von Dresky-Düffe was the treasurer and the musicologist Walter Gerstenberg the secretary. A study group was formed that had its first meeting on 27 October, attended by Ernst Reuter. On 12 April 1950 the society was registered in the register of associations, and on 7 February 1952 granted non-profit status by the Federal Minister of Finance.

They quickly began to collect money. On 25 March 1950 a first lottery was opened; two additional lotteries followed in the next two years, as well as a tombola that was personally opened by Ernst Reuter. He had determined: as soon as the society was able to bring in one million Deutschmark of its own assets, the project would be further sponsored. This target was reached in June 1955. Great artists gave benefit concerts for the good cause. The Italian tenor Benjamino Gigli sang his highest notes, Paul Hindemith took up the viola and also conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra, Pierre Fournier played cello, and the expressionist dancer Harald Kreutzberg twice gave his time and talents. 

Between hopes and fears

But right from the outset there were bitter setbacks. Everyone was hoping that a donation from the Americans to the city totalling DM 5 million could be used for the Philharmonic Hall. But the Senate earmarked that money to build the America Memorial Library at Hallesches Tor. On 9 May 1952 Finance Senator Dr. Haas pledged 2.5 million from frozen assets of DM 7.8 million belonging to greater Berlin; on 30 November 1954 he revoked the commitment, of all days on the day of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s death. Instead, the Federal Government approved 2 million ERP fund money from the Marshall Plan. The orchestra gave a “thank-you concert“ on 12 May 1952 in Bonn.

The first proposed location for the Philharmonie came up at the general assembly on 29 January 1952: the building of what had been the Joachimsthal Gymnasium at Bundesallee 1-12, which had been partially destroyed in the war. For years everyone insisted on this location. The interminable tug of war was about whether to expand, rebuild or build a new building, as well as about financing. On 15 October 1955 the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation made DM 2 million available. And on 30 January 1956 an important decision was taken in the Senate: an entirely new building with seats for 2,000 people was to be built at the Bundesallee. The construction sum was estimated at DM 7 million, of which the society was to raise one million.

The architectural competition

The Berlin House of Representatives decided shortly thereafter to deploy a “Konzerthaus der Berliner Philharmoniker GmbH” as the building owner; the company was founded on 14 August 1956. Senate Councillor Dr. Riedel and, as representative of the society, Wolfgang Rect, a businessman, became managing directors. The society brought DM 900,000 into the company. Its board of trustees decided to hold an architectural competition, the costs of which were borne solely by the society. On 16 December 1956, Prof. Hans Scharoun’s design was awarded the first prize. However, this design no longer fit into the original concept with the Joachimsthal Gymnasium, which is why the SPD brought forward a motion in the House of Representatives in July 1957 for the Senate to scout for better locations. Once again there was a majority vote in favour of the Bundesallee location, but the House of Representatives continued to raise the issue until finally the Senate decided on 5 February 1959 to shift the site to Kemperplatz.

Marking the tenth anniversary of the society, contracts were entered into with Prof. Scharoun and Prof. Cremer as acoustician. And on 6 September 1960 the Senate finally approved the new building for the estimated sum of what had now become DM 13.5 million. On 19 September 1960 Herbert von Karajan laid the cornerstone. A deed with the striking vision is encased within it: “May the completed structure be a meeting point for all Berlin citizens, a haven from day-to-day political life and its turmoil in a reunified Germany in Berlin, a national capital that is no longer divided.” The hope came true only three decades later. The topping-off ceremony was on 1 December 1961. Early in 1962 the society received a donation from the German lottery foundation totalling DM 500,000 to order an organ from Karl Schuke Berliner Orgelbau.

View of the Philharmonie raffle in Steglitz, Schildhornstraße on the corner of Schloßstraße | Picture: Archiv der Gesellschaft der Freunde der Berliner Philharmoniker e. V.

“A meeting point for all Berlin citizens”

On 23 November 1962 the members of the society were able to inspect the shell of the building. A preliminary concert was also held for them on the day before the festive opening on 14 October 1963, at which Herbert von Karajan conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. On 17 December a report from the management board was presented to the members’ assembly on the society’s payments for the new construction of the Philharmonie:

Investment in Konzerthaus GmbH    DM 900,000
Construction subsidy   DM 100,000
All seating   DM 420,000
Architect’s fee   DM 70,710

A proud record. Nonetheless, by the end of the year, the number of members in the society had declined to 280. And among the ranks of the board there was a proposal to disband the society. At the same time there were definitely further tasks for them, especially building the Chamber Music Hall. The society applied itself with renewed energy to that task. It would take another twenty-five years until the Kammermusiksaal was completed, but now it stands next to the Philharmonie. Today it is no longer on the edge of West Berlin, a stone’s throw from the Wall, but rather at the heart of the reunified city. And both buildings, centres of the highest culture, are due to a great extent to an indomitable will of the people, as manifested in the “Society of the Friends of the Berliner Philharmonie e. V.”