He learned his craft from the bottom up: Benjamin Bilse, born in 1816 in the Silesian town of Liegnitz, received his training as a town musician at the age of 14, during the course of which he learned “the practical handling of almost all orchestral instruments.” He then set out into the world, including to Vienna, where he played violin in the orchestra of Johann Strauß the elder. In 1842 he returned to his hometown, where he conducted the town band. Bilse proved to be a good conductor and marketing strategist. He improved his ensemble’s artistic standard, ensured that young people were qualified to play with them by giving gifted young people without means music lessons free of charge, and toured extensively with his orchestra.
When he left Liegnitz in 1865, because the town council intended to reduce the musicians’ fees, the orchestra had already borne his name for a long time: Bilsesche Kapelle. In 1867 Benjamin Bilse and his musicians took up residence in Berlin and became both an artistic and a society institution with the concerts they held daily in the Konzerthaus at Leipziger Strasse during the winter season. People went to Bilse to hear good music, but also to initiate marriages. Bilse made use of various programme structures, catering to both intellectual and popular taste. Besides works of great masters and popular pieces, he enjoyed presenting the creations of young, unknown composers.
The secession of the 54 founding members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1882 was a major professional setback for him. Though he did put together a new orchestra, he left Berlin three years later, returning to his native town of Liegnitz, where he died in 1902.
Hermann Wolff, who was born in Cologne in 1845 and lived in Berlin from the age of 10, combined various talents in one: entrepreneurial spirit, business acumen and musicality. He had excellent contacts, knew many artists and had a sure feeling for promising composers. In short, he possessed all the prerequisites to become one of the most important and influential concert agents of his day. In 1880 he opened his own “Concert Bureau” in Berlin; from then on he dominated the music market of the time. No one else in his line of work had so many innovative ideas and such entrepreneurial spirit.
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra also profited from his business acumen. Not just that [Hermann] Wolff procured the most famous soloists and best conductors of his day for them, as well as engaging the services of Hans von Bülow and Arthur Nikisch as musical heads of the subscription concerts he mounted, he was constantly showing the orchestra new ways out of existential crises. His “philharmonic dinners” were legendary: Sunday meals to which he and his wife Luise, who had been an actress, invited the most important musical personages to their home. When Hermann Wolff, who had been so restless and driven, died surprisingly at the age of 56 on 3 February 1902, Luise Wolff took over the concert agency and managed it as he would have done.
Erich Sachs joined the business as a partner during the First World War. The agency continued to dominate the market. The end came for the Jewish company when the National Socialists seized power. Luise Wolff initiated the liquidation process in 1934 in order not to be subject to the repressive measures of the new rulers. She died in 1935 at the age of 80.