Hellmut Stern: Conscience of the Philharmoniker

An appreciation

(Photo: Collection Hellmut Stern)

 For 34 years in the orchestra (1961–1994), and for decades thereafter, violinist Hellmut Stern was the conscience of the Berliner Philharmoniker – a jocular witness of history whose extraordinary biographical odyssey, from Berlin via China, Israel, America and back to his native city, conditioned a world view – and a view of music – grounded in an indelible sense of curiosity, responsibility and justice. On 21 March he died at the age of 91.

“One of the most fascinating people I have ever met.” Fergus McWilliam, his horn-playing colleague, vividly remembers his first encounter with Hellmut Stern. “I was on my first tour with the Berliner Philharmoniker, in 1985. This man of diminutive stature but astonishing energy stopped me on the street corner. He spoke in charming English and said, ‘Come with me, we are going to talk about the life of a Philharmoniker.’” “I expected,” McWilliam continues, “he would tell me about musical traditions, about decorum, about how to succeed in my trial period with the Berliner. But Stern wanted to discuss the real meaning of being a Philharmoniker – a consciousness of the orchestra’s political history, its robust internal political dynamics, its fragile yet essential character as an autonomous Orchesterrepublik.”

From Berlin to China

Born to a musical family in Berlin-Friedenau in 1928, the experience of Kristallnacht at the age of ten shocked Stern, who had never considered himself and his parents anything other than a typical working-class German family. Yet, as Jews, the Sterns were forced to flee Hitler’s Reich and journey as refugees to China, where Hellmut’s parents found work as music teachers in Harbin, Manchuria. There, in the shadows of Stalin, Hirohito and Mao Zedong, Stern spent the war years, attending a Soviet-run Russian school while learning Mandarin from the locals. In the process, he demonstrated not only a remarkable gift for languages, but also a sensibility for contrasting cultural mentalities that formed part of his unique cosmopolitan outlook. Most importantly, in Harbin, despite the harshest of conditions, the teenage Hellmut’s musical talents grew. After ten hard years in Asia, in 1949 the Sterns emigrated to the freshly-established State of Israel.

Member of the Israel Philharmonic

To support his parents in their new land, Hellmut played piano in bars and nightclubs. Throughout his life, he rejected the distinction between “serious” and “entertainment” music. It was, after all, a popular music “gig” in the lounge of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that led to a fateful encounter with Hellmut’s namesake (no relation), the great American violinist Isaac Stern. The latter facilitated an audition for Hellmut with the Israel Philharmonic, which he won, joining the first violin section of the orchestra in 1951. The Israel Philharmonic not only gave the young man his first experience as an orchestral musician, it also provided his introduction to the world of orchestral politics. Much like the Berliner Philharmoniker in its origins, the Israel Philharmonic was a musical cooperative, run by the players themselves. “It was hugely chaotic,” Stern remembered, “and we were in constant financial peril, but the experience convinced me of the importance of musicians governing their own fate.” Despite this stimulating environment, life in Israel was difficult for Stern and his elderly parents.

Orchestra musician in the USA

In 1956 the family moved to the United States, where Hellmut quickly absorbed the language and found employment with orchestras in Chicago, Rochester and St. Louis. America represented another decisive lesson in musical culture, where Stern found orchestral players of great technical standard, yet musicians who were seemingly paralysed between the tyranny of all-powerful conductors and the intransigence of the equally domineering Musicians’ Unions.

Return to Berlin

After 23 years as a wandering cosmopolitan, in 1961 Stern summoned the courage to venture back to Germany. For all its sentimental appeal, Berlin in 1961 was not the vibrant metropolis of Stern’s youth. The generation of Germans who had authored his family’s devastating exile was still present in public life. And, just days after his successful audition for the Berliner Philharmoniker in July 1961, the Berlin Wall was built, caging the western sectors of the divided city. Yet, filled with delight at his triumphant homecoming and enthused by the artistic qualities of the orchestra and its Chief Conductor, Herbert von Karajan, Stern was determined to bridge the isolated Philharmoniker with the spirit of their – and his own – pre-war cultural roots.

Personal relationship with Karajan

While his musicianship earned him a promotion to Vorspieler [principal player] in the First Violins, it was the inner life of the orchestra that Stern found most engrossing. “Hellmut understood culture in political terms,” recalls Stern’s long-time Philharmoniker colleague, the double-bass player Rudolf Watzel, “which was logical in light of the pain of his exile and his various experiences around the world.” Fuelled by those experiences, Stern became a prominent voice in orchestral politics. Stern enjoyed a warm personal relationship with Karajan for many years and, as both Chairman of the Orchestra and a member of the Philharmoniker’s Council of Five, was instrumental in several of Karajan’s most ambitious artistic initiatives: the creation of the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1967, and the founding of the Orchestra Academy in 1972.

Reform of the orchestra

Beyond these accomplishments, other issues were far more contentious. “When it came to matters he believed in,” says Watzel, “Stern was never afraid of being unpopular.” So it was in 1967, when he initiated a reform of the orchestra’s salary structure, abolishing a complex hierarchy to create a single tier of Philharmoniker. The result was a decisive improvement in financial and artistic conditions for most musicians, but also cost Stern re-election as Chairman. Similarly, when it came to the question of women in the Philharmoniker, Stern was outspoken. “Hellmut Stern was a convinced democrat,” says Philharmoniker violinist Madeleine Carruzzo, “and he fought to allow women in the orchestra – it was self-evident to him. When I won my audition [as the Philharmoniker’s first woman in 1982], Hellmut came to me and said, ‘This is a historic moment.’” “It was only in retrospect,” Carruzzo shares, “that I understood what it meant for him too.” In the early 1980s the relationship between the orchestra and Karajan soured. Never shy of a just fight, Stern was at the forefront of a series of escalating conflicts concerning the collective rights of the orchestra and the prerogatives of Karajan and his artistic and commercial interests. “Stern’s last years in the orchestra,” comments McWilliam, “were dominated by a mission to assure the musicians’ sovereignty.”

Symbolically poignant visit

Following Stern’s re-election to the Board in 1990, this struggle eventually led to a new orchestra constitution, codifying the rights of the orchestra to participate in, and where possible rule on, decisions ranging from programming and touring to administration and auditions. These principles laid the groundwork for the creation of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation a decade later. Also in 1990 Stern was the architect of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s first tour to Israel. Not only was this symbolically poignant visit, in McWilliams’s words, “one of the most meaningful things the orchestra had ever done”, for Stern personally it completed a veritable circle of life – from the first stirrings of his consciousness as an artist-citizen during his days with the Israel Philharmonic to the apex of his career with the Philharmonic of his hometown, uniting people, cultures and epochs. Even after retiring from the Philharmoniker in 1994, Stern continued sharing his story with young people and testifying to the intrinsic interconnectedness between music and politics, art and society, culture and history. “Artists as employees”, Stern would say, “is a contradiction in terms.”

Bridging of contradictions

All his life, Stern strove to bridge the seeming contradictions of his identity – German and Jew, Berliner and citizen of the world, serious musician and popular entertainer, socialite and loner, collectivist and moral actor. With wit, tenacity, creativity and humour, he moulded those human complexities – and those of his times – into an irresistibly compelling mosaic. And for his beloved Orchesterrepublik, as Watzel says, “he forged conditions for us to develop as an orchestra – and for us to better understand and express ourselves.” There could be no greater tribute to the man who had become the conscience of the Philharmoniker.

Misha Aster
The Canadian political scientist, historian and dramaturg Misha Aster is the author of the book
“The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945”

(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)With the parents on the crossing to Shanghai, December 1938Winter 1939/40 in HarbinFrom China to Israel with the Wooster Victory, 1949Hellmut Stern in Tel Aviv, 1953During a rehearsal with Herbert von KarajanAs chairman of the orchestra board with Daniel Barenboim2008: Celebration of the 100th birthday of Herbert von Karajan with Madeleine Carruzzo