Author: Frederik Hansse
ca. 7 minutes

12 Cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker | Picture: Stephan Röhl

A remarkable success story began 50 years ago with the founding of the 12 Cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker. In January 2022, they celebrated their 50th anniversary with a concert featuring their finest works and arrangements. Phil has spoken to former and current members of the ensemble.

In July, Rudolf Weinsheimer celebrated his 90th birthday, but when it comes to his 12 cellists, he immediately starts talking with youthful vigour. And he can remember every detail. Take the case of the Emperor of Japan: as the then Imperial Majesty Akihito played the cello himself, he attended every performance of the twelve Berliners in Tokyo. At a concert in Suntory Hall in 1993, Weinsheimer decided to say a few words directly to the Emperor to announce the encore. Instead of the usual Yesterday, they were going to play Kojo no tsuki, a popular folk song about the moon over a ruined castle.

“I had my father-in-law, who was a Japanologist, to put together a few sentences for me and write them down phonetically,” Rudolf Weinsheimer recounts over coffee and cake in his attic flat in Zehlendorf in Berlinn. “I then practised them during my daily sauna visits in the hotel – with the help of the native speakers present.” When the cellist addressed the Emperor, who was sitting at the top left of the hall, during the final applause, the entire audience immediately rose and bowed in Akihito's direction. “Our Japanese manager almost fainted,” says Weinsheimer with a smile, “but the emperor praised me afterwards that he had understood every word I said.”

Playing for crowned heads or important statesmen always filled the founder of the 12 Cellists with pride. And he never shied away from unconventional measures to achieve this. When his daughter discovered German politician Hans-Dietrich Genscher among all the people on the Greek island of Skiathos during a summer family holiday, her father immediately sprinted off and shouted a loud “Hello Foreign Minister!” at the surprised Genscher. After some small talk, Rudolf Weinsheimer managed to secure an invitation for his ensemble to the next OSCE conference.

During the 24 years that Weinsheimer managed the 12 cellists, they became German cultural ambassadors: they played at Augustusburg Castle, at a NATO summit and at a meeting of the World Bank, they accompanied Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker to Sweden, performed on television, at the Arena di Verona – and time and again in Japan, where the glorious dozen from Berlin are particularly highly regarded.

What started off as a chance event had become a global success story. At the beginning of 1972, Rudolf Weinsheimer received a call from Salzburg, from a friend at the Austrian broadcaster ORF who had come across a curious work: a hymn composed by the cello virtuoso Julius Klengel in 1920 for the 65th birthday of conductor Arthur Nikisch. The instrumentation: 12 cellos.

This unusual piece was to be recorded – and the editor thought shrewdly that as the Berliner Philharmoniker would be coming to Salzburg anyway for Karajan’s Easter Festival, the request from ORF would go not to the Vienna Philharmonic but to its German rival.

Weinsheimer was able to interest his section in this side gig, and on 25 March, they performed Klengel’s Hymnus in public at the “Mozarteum” – for their own pleasure and to the delight of their audience. On the way back to Berlin, Rudolf Weinsheimer decided that this one-off event could be the beginning of something bigger. The 12 cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker would become a chamber orchestra with its own repertoire.

Lucky coincidences

Another coincidence helped him: the founder has already told the anecdote a thousand times, but even now his eyes light up again, as if it happened yesterday: he picked up a hitch-hiker in the pouring rain in Dahlem, Berlin – and she turned out to be the daughter of the composer Boris Blacher. When the 15-year-old Tatjana asked how she could thank him, the cellist has the presence of mind to reply, “By persuading your father to write a work for the 12 cellists” – which he promptly did.

When the Salzburg composer Helmut Eder contributed another piece, Weinsheimer was very close to his goal of a full-length programme. Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, written in 1930 for eight cellos, was added to the three original works, plus an arrangement of a suite by the Bohemian Baroque composer David Funck. And so, once again in Salzburg, the first concert of the 12 cellists took place in 1974, in the presence of a deeply impressed Herbert von Karajan.

The musicians sat in a semicircle, on the far left the principal cellists Eberhard Finke, Ottomar Borwitzky and Wolfgang Boettcher then, according to the length of their membership in the orchestra, Peter Steiner, Heinrich Majowski, Gerhard Woschny, Rudolf Weinsheimer, Christoph Kapler, Alexander Wedow, Klaus Häussler, Jörg Baumann and finally Götz Teutsch.

Logistical feats

“This is cello number seven,” Weinsheimer would often come to say when answering the phone. And he made a lot of calls, persistently seeking press coverage, accepting enquiries from event organisers, communicating with composers, and, above all, taking care of the complicated logistics. The 12 cellists can only perform when they are not needed by the Philharmoniker, so their performances can often only be squeezed in between two orchestra rehearsals: on the day of a concert, the twelve leave for their destination in the afternoon, sometimes even by private plane, and the next morning they have to get up at the crack of dawn, because at ten o’clock their colleagues are already waiting again in the Philharmonie.

Each of the twelve has hair-raising anecdotes to tell about tightly calculated schedules and performances they almost didn’t make. Martin Menking, who took over the position of cello no. 7 in 1996 after Rudolf Weinsheimer’s retirement, and with it the management of the 12 cellists, is astonished at the thought that these organisational feats were even possible without computers, mobile phones and Whatsapp groups.

But somehow they were – and their audiences were enchanted every time the sound of their cellos filled the air. Because these twelve cellists can do simply everything: whether soaring as high as a violin or plunging as low as a bass, whether sounding like a creaking door or a musical saw.

In addition to the classical playing techniques, the virtuoso players are also masters of rubbing, scraping, smoky bow slides, scratching, knocking, shouting and harmonics. Above all, however, the cellos can sing with an altogether human voice. Even the simplest melodies are dressed up to the nines – acoustic haute couture, as it were.

Breathtaking sound effects

So there are no limits to the arrangers’ imagination when, from a complex web of individual voices, they conceive polyphonic dialogues with a thousand refined details, subliminal counter-movements and off-stage interjections, with crazy sound effects using mysterious means. But the concerts of the Twelve are not only a feast for the ears, but also CinemaScope for the eye. How organically the numbers are laid out, how fairly the solos are shared between the instrumentalists, is really only revealed when you not only hear the Twelve, but also see them.

At the beginning, they played predominantly new music. “When a city wanted to engage us, I always said: 'We’d love to come, but we have to give a premiere',” says the founding father. And the composition commissions, of course, have to be financed by the inviting cities. For Bonn, for example, Iannis Xenakis composed a brilliant frenzy of sound in Windungen, in which the cellists produce the most outrageous sounds, sometimes even sounding like motorbike engines revving up. “One of our best pieces,” Weinsheimer says with enthusiasm.

When the first record of the 12 cellists was to be presented in 1978 in the German TV programme “Verliebt in Musik”, in which popular singers Caterina Valente and Roberto Blanco also appeared, such daring new music was of course out of the question. “My wife and daughter said, 'Why don’t you take something by the Beatles',” says Rudolf Weinsheimer.

Unbelievably – but true – he didn’t know the song Yesterday that they suggested, but nevertheless commissioned the big band leader Werner Müller to arrange it. “It became a firm favourite,” he says with a laugh, “and from then on we always played it as an encore”. Ronald Reagan is even said to have shed a tear when the 12 cellists played Yesterday during his state visit to Bonn.

For a long time, the cellists were a kind of all-male enclave within the Berliner Philharmoniker: while other sections had accepted female members since the 1980s, it took until 2006 for the first woman – Solène Kermarrec from France – to join them, followed by Rachel Helleur from the UK in 2009. By then, the ensemble had already completely reoriented itself. While Martin Menking, as Weinsheimer's heir, became involved in the administrative work, principal cellist Georg Faust developed new concepts for their choice of repertoire. The new 12 cellists’ baptism of fire was a tango CD, which they unveiled in Buenos Aires in 2000 to coincide with the Philharmoniker’s South American tour.

Imaginative programme development

Since then, the 12 cellists have steadily expanded their programming with stylistic crossovers. For their 30th anniversary, they gave themselves a present with a jazz album featuring trumpeter Till Brönner, and also Sir Simon Rattle – as a rapper!

For the album Angel Dances they worked with gospel specialist Jocelyn B. Smith and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, then French classical and chanson repertoire followed in Fleur de Paris. In 2016, for their ninth CD, they returned to tango because it suits their instruments particularly well: “We cellists are essentially melancholics,” says Ludwig Quandt. “We need sad music to be happy.”

Today, in the year of the 50th anniversary of their founding, the 12 cellists are open, versatile and curious. Rudolf Weinsheimer’s crazy idea, which even his cellist colleagues didn't quite believe in at first, has become a success story that has spanned generations.