The Berliner Philharmoniker in the Schlüterhof of the Berlin Palace

A historical review

(Photo: Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V. / eldaco, Berlin)

In 2014 and 2016, the Berliner Philharmoniker welcomed the start of the new season with two concert events: the season opening concert in the Philharmonie, and an open-air concert at the Kulturforum. This very new tradition of presenting the programme of the opening concert a day later in the open air will be continued by the orchestra this year with a performance in the Schlüterhof of the Humboldt Forum in the rebuilt Berlin Palace. Under the direction of Kirill Petrenko, their chief conductor designate, the Philharmoniker will perform Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and tone poems by Richard Strauss. At the same time, the Philharmoniker are reviving at this location their earlier “Schlossmusiken im Schlüterhof” (Palace concerts): another of the orchestra’s traditions which is actually quite charming – but in this case, its ambiguous historical context cannot be overlooked.

A summery musical treat

Under the title “Schlossmusiken”, the orchestra presented a series of six or seven concerts at the Berlin Palace every summer between 1933 and 1940 as part of the “Berliner Kunstwochen”. How did this come about? In 1929, attempts had been made to make Berlin a festival city, with numerous opera performances to attract foreign visitors. But the concept of the festival did not take off. According to the critic of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, it lacked “events of a decidedly local significance”. One idea of this festival was to make the historic castles of Berlin performance venues and, according to the reviewer, “to combine this festival setting with major performances true to the original style” of the location. The festival concept was continued the following year but in a slimmed-down version, in the more modest format of the “Kunstwochen”. However, what did increase were the number of concerts in the Berlin Palace, which soon became – as the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik wrote in 1932 – the “main attractions of the Kunstwochen”. And with visitors having the opportunity to hear first-class music performances for a mere 60 pfennigs, the Palace concerts also served a social purpose.

Historic style in a historic setting

Initially, it was only the Staatskapelle and the orchestra of the Städtische Oper and their chief conductors who appeared in the Schlüterhof. The Berliner Philharmoniker were added from 1933. For the first two years of the “Schlossmusiken”, Erich Kleiber – at that time general music director of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden – conducted the Philharmoniker before he fled to South America in 1935 due to the political conditions in National Socialist Germany. In the years following, Hans von Benda, who had been entrusted with the artistic management of the Philharmoniker from 1935, took over the direction of the concerts. But also Leo Borchard, who engaged in the resistance in the 1940s and for a short time acted as interim leader of the orchestra after the war, conducted here. In order to fit in with the historic ambience of the palace courtyard, the music performed at these concerts focused on works of the Baroque and the First Viennese School. This programming was particularly important to Hans von Benda, scion of a family of composers dating back to the Baroque period. And he programmed many unknown musical gems, including works by Claudio Monteverdi, Johann Hermann Schein, King Frederick II of Prussia and Henry Purcell. Although the programmes of the open-air concerts reveal no ideological character, they do however have to be seen within the context of the National Socialist dictatorship.

Fortunately, when the Berliner Philharmoniker returns this season to the Schlüterhof after 78 years, the concert can be viewed in a very different light: situated within the reconstructed Hohenzollern Palace, the purpose of the Humboldt Forum – not least as a consequence of the dark periods in German history – is to be a place for egalitarian dialogue between cultures and to create spaces for encounter and exchange.

“Schlossmusik” in the Schlüterhof 1938 Timpani player Paul Kretschmer 1934 Programme note 1933