Richard Strauss and the Berliner Philharmoniker

Richard Strauss in 1888
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

The relationship between Richard Strauss and the Berliner Philharmoniker began several years before the composer first conducted the orchestra in a performance of his tone poem In Italien. The winter of 1883/1884 was spent by the then 19-year-old in Berlin, establishing the network which laid the foundations for his phenomenal career as a composer and conductor. He made the acquaintance of Hans von Bülow, the then head of the Meiningen Hofkapelle, and the concert agent Hermann Wolff. The former became his mentor, the latter provided him – as Strauss reported to his father – “with concert tickets, and can also have my compositions performed, something which he also, I believe, wants”. Thanks to the Wolff tickets, Strauss regularly attended the concerts of the Berliner Philharmonische Orchester which was then only in its second concert season. It did not made a good impression on the young composer: “The orchestra is nothing special […] The ensemble playing was pretty bad,” he wrote in a letter to his father. Four years later, the situation had changed completely. The philharmonic orchestra was then for Strauss the “most intelligent, splendid and freshest orchestra I know.”

Protégé of Bülow and Wolff

At that time, Hans von Bülow had for several months been the musical director of Wolff’s subscription concerts which encouraged the promising young man. Not only did Bülow include his tone poems in the programmes of the orchestra's concerts, he also invited his protégé repeatedly to conduct his own works. However, the first opportunity Strauss had to conduct a full orchestral concert programme was only after Bülow had given up the subscription concerts due to bad health, and Wolff was desperately searching for a successor for the idiosyncratic and glamorous conductor. Several candidates were being considered. On 29 January 1894, Strauss stood in for the ailing Ernst Schuch, and at the same time he received the offer from Wolff to take over as artistic director of the subscription concerts for the coming season. However, Strauss did not meet Wolff's expectations: his concerts did not “spark” as he had hoped. The concert audiences that streamed to Bülow began to fall away, revenue declined, and Wolff, thinking as a businessman, broke off from Strauss – not least because of his exaggerated fee demands. However, Strauss' career progressed at lightning speed and he maintained his connection to the Berliner Philharmonische Orchester, even although from 1898 he worked for the “competition” as principal conductor and later music director of the Berliner Hofoper.

A perennial guest

It was initially concerts of the Wagner Society of Berlin and a highly successful concert tour to France, Spain and Portugal in 1908, which brought him back to the desk of the Philharmoniker, and from 1915-1918, he conducted mainly benefit concerts for victims of the war. Afterwards, his appearances became less frequent: in 1921, 1924 and then again in March 1933 only as a stand-in for Bruno Walter whom the Propaganda Ministry of the newly established National Socialist regime had banned from conducting at short notice. Despite numerous historical studies to date, it is not entirely clear whether Richard Strauss stepped in for Walter under pressure from the new rulers or at the request of the orchestra which urgently needed the revenue of the concert, as Misha Aster suggests in his book Das Reichsorchester. Strauss gave his fee to the orchestra. However, this, as well as the following concerts – the musical opening ceremony for the Reichsmusikkammer, the Olympic Games an the concert for the organization “Kraft durch Freude” – show how much Strauss became embroiled in the temptations and pressures of the Nazi regime in the following years. On 16 and 17 April 1939, the year of his 75th birthday, he conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the last time. The symphonic works of Richard Strauss have remained part of the core repertoire of the orchestra ever since the performance of his Symphony No. 2 in February 1887.

1905: Richard Strauss and the Berliner Philharmoniker
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
With Wilhelm Furtwängler
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
1939: Rehearsal for the last concerts with the orchestra
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)