Times of crisis

The Berliner Philharmoniker in exceptional circumstances – a look back in history

The destroyed Philharmonie, 1944
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

“We are staying at home” was the slogan for the people in Germany in mid-March. In the face of the corona pandemic, drastic measures had to be taken to stem the spread of the virus: with the closure of shops, restaurants, schools, museums, theatres, opera houses and concert halls, strict contact bans, and with most of us having to work from home, the sudden lockdown dramatically changed our normal way of life. Much has been relaxed again in the meantime, but cultural activities as we knew them are still not possible. As is required by the Senate of Berlin, the Philharmonie Berlin will remain closed until 31 July. The Berliner Philharmoniker have not been permitted to give public concerts for over four months – a unique event in the history of the orchestra.

A world in upheaval

Around a hundred years ago, the world was struck by a similarly large pandemic: the so-called “Spanish flu”, which originated in the USA and – according to historians – was brought to Europe by American soldiers in the early summer of 1918. The people there were weakened by the deprivations of the First World War, soldiers and civilians alike. The continent was then undergoing a process of political and social upheaval on an unprecedented scale. And yet: the people’s appetite for concerts was great. Throughout the war, the Berliner Philharmoniker’s concert activity actually increased, as there were many charity concerts in addition to the established concert events, including concerts for the benefit of war widows and orphans, war aid and war welfare. As late as September 1917, the Knappsche Rückversicherungsverband, a reinsurance association, confirmed to the Philharmoniker’s trumpeter August Geulen, chairman of the orchestra’s widows and orphans fund, that the fund was in “splendid” form despite losses in the share price, and that an allowance for widows would be able to be paid out. For the period after the war, it was predicted that prices would rise and that pensions would also increase. How wrong could they be! By 1924, the orchestra had lost all its pension fund assets during the years of hyperinflation. But in the winter of 1918/19, when the second wave of the “Spanish flu” also raged in Berlin, people were struggling with completely different problems: the war had been lost, the German Empire crushed, and various political parties and movements were fighting for a new order. There was the November Revolution, the Spartacist uprising, general strikes, plus food and coal shortages.

Difficult concert conditions

In view of these other challenges, the Berlin city council paid little attention to the new kind of influenza which also killed so many young people. While Dresden and Vienna, for example, decreed so-called “flu holidays” and temporarily closed the theatres and concert halls, no such measures were taken in Berlin – to the great relief of the concert organisers. In the newspapers of the time, the subject was hotly debated, but for the reporter of the Signale der musikalischen Welt, however, joy prevailed that “at a time when we need the consolations of music more than at any other, this last refuge is not also spoiled by a police ordinance. Of course the musical Berliners are still suffering enough from the terrible flu. At least two out of three singers cancel their concerts [...] Even the conductors are affected by the flu...” (30 October 1918). Berliner Philharmoniker concerts were also affected by such cancellations. The conductor Felix von Weingartner, for example, had to cancel the opening concert of his seven-part concert series with the orchestra due to his flu, and Arthur Nikisch, then chief conductor of the Philharmoniker, stepped in at short notice.

At that time, artistic life was under attack on various fronts: the artists could not get to their performance venues because transport systems collapsed in the turmoil of the post-war period. There was a lack of locomotives and coal. Some courageous people even discovered the aeroplane as a means of transport. The coal shortage meant that the venues could not be heated, and during the general strike there was no electric light and public transport did not run. Not to forget that during this period of political unrest, the fate of the entire bourgeois concert scene hung in the balance. But on the other hand, as we learns from the reports, Berliners continued to enjoy going to concerts. “As desperate as Germany’s and Austria’s political situation may seem at times, especially according to the daily newspapers, one thing is certain: even the revolution with its terrible Spartacist nonsense has not yet been able to deal the death blow to musical enterprise” (Signale from Jan 1919). And so concert life continued for the Berliner Philharmoniker in the crisis winter of 1918/19 – albeit under difficult conditions.

Total destruction

The Berliner Philharmoniker were well connected in their city. They cooperated with various cultural institutions, gave concerts at the Sing-Akademie and the Volksbühne. However, their base was the Alte Philharmonie in Bernburger Straße, a former roller skating rink which was converted into a magnificent concert hall soon after the orchestra was founded. Even during the Second World War, the orchestra’s concerts were popular and well attended. They offered Berliners a break from the dreariness of everyday war life. The ever-increasing bombing of Berlin affected the concert events more and more. In 1943, the Staatsoper was partially damaged and the Staatskapelle, which was actually the Philharmoniker’s competition, found a new venue for its concerts in the Philharmonie. In August 1943, Gerhardt von Westermann, intendant of the Berliner Philharmoniker, reports that eight of the orchestra’s musicians had been completely bombed out. Again and again air raids disrupted the rehearsals and concerts. The latter no longer took place in the evening but in the afternoon. On the morning of 30 January 1944 – according to the duty log of one of the orchestra members – there was a run-through of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, later, at 4 p.m. the concert performance, and then between 8 and 9 p.m. the Philharmonie was completely destroyed by a bombing raid. “31 January, no more duties,” wrote the musician. However, the break only lasted a short time: the Philharmoniker played again in Potsdam on 5 February. This was followed by concerts in the Staatsoper, the Berliner Dom and the Beethoven-Saal. In the spring and summer of 1944, the musicians had a busy travel schedule, touring to Norway, Spain, Portugal, Paris, and Baden-Baden. In December 1944, the film Philharmoniker, produced by Tobis-Filmkunst and directed by Paul Verhoeven, was released. The film tells a fictional love story set in the relatively real everyday life of the Berliner Philharmoniker and in which the orchestra and some of its conductors took part.

Collapse and new beginning

Germany was heading for a catastrophic defeat. Giving concerts in Berlin became more and more difficult. The orchestra still regularly gave concerts for the armaments industry and the Wehrmacht. But in the last days of the war, the musicians were threatened with being drafted into the “Volkssturm”, the German last line of defence which was staffed by conscripting males between the ages of 16 and 60 years who were not already serving in some military unit. Almost at the last minute, the members of the Philharmoniker received a certificate stating that they were indispensable. According to his memoirs, Albert Speer supposedly lobbied for it. On 16 April 1945, the Berliner Philharmoniker performed for the last time before the Russians captured Berlin. Six weeks later, things started up again in a new environment: on 26 May, 18 days after the end of the war, the orchestra gave its first concert in peacetime. It took place in the Titania-Palast with Leo Borchard at the podium. He had been appointed artistic director by Berlin’s city administration, and was accidentally shot by an American soldier in August 1945. Just as after the First World War, people were hungry for culture. Hundreds stood in front of the sold-out venue, hoping to get a returned ticket.

Unlike today, most people had no technical entertainment media available to them at home apart from the radio or perhaps the gramophone: no television, no internet, no live streaming. None of the modern amenities that made it much easier to “stay at home” during the past weeks were available at that time. Thanks to its Digital Concert Hall, the Berliner Philharmoniker have been able to stay in touch with their audience during the corona lockdown. A wonderful, but also necessary substitute – for never before in the history of the orchestra has there been such a long period without concerts in front of a public audience as now.

1916: programme leaflet for one of the many charity concerts given by the Berliner Philharmoniker during the First World WarSuffering from the Spanish flu: the conductor Felix von Weingartner1919: Spartacist uprising, street battles in Berlin
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Alfred Grohs)
1945: programme for the first concert after the end of the Second World WarTitania-PalastLeo Borchard