Berliner Philharmoniker (= Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester) (The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) has played the leading role in Berlinís musical life for some 119 years. The orchestra was founded in 1882 by 54 ambitious musicians in revolt against the autocratic rule of the miserly Benjamin Bilse, in whose ensemble they had played; now, they took their fates in their own hands. Financial difficulties threatened the young orchestra with dissolution on numerous occasions. In 1887, concert agent Hermann Wolff assumed management of the orchestra, securing its existence, and engaging Hans von Bülow, the best, most modern, and in his working methods, most uncompromising conductor of the period. In a brief five years Bulow laid the foundations of the orchestra's manner of playing. Among guest conductors coming to Berlin were Hermann Levi, Hans Richter, Felix Mottl, Felix Weingartner, Ernst von Schuch, the composers Johannes Brahms and Grieg, and the composer-conductors Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner.
Peter Tchaikovsky, a frequent guest of the Philharmonic Society, enthused after a concert: "The splendid Philharmonic Orchestra in Berlin possesses a special quality, for which I can find no more appropriate expression than elasticity. They have the capacity to adapt themselves to the dimensions of a Berlioz or a Liszt, and of reproducing with equal mastery the variegated arabesques of the former and the thunderous cannonades of the latter - yet they are able to exercise the restraint called for by the gentleness of a Haydn.... The members of the Philharmonic Orchestra do not work in the theaters and are therefore not worn out and exhausted. Moreover, they are a self-governing body, they play for their own benefit and not for an entrepreneur who takes the lion's share of the profits for himself. The coincidence of these favorable and exceptional conditions naturally contributes to the harmony of the artistic performance..."
Hans von Bülow was succeeded by Arthur Nikisch in 1895. Nikisch, originally a violinist, was a conductor of quiet, economical gestures. During the 27 years of his directorship, he provided a commanding artistic continuity. Nikisch enlarged the repertoire, advocating Bruckner with some vehemence, indulging his preference for the works of Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, and Franz Liszt, and for "contemporary" works by Strauss and G. Mahler. Among the soloists of the Nikisch era were pianists such as Ferruccio Busoni, Wilhelm Backhaus, Alfred Cortot, and Edwin Fischer, violinists such as Jacques Thibaud, Carl Flesch, Bronislav Huberman, Jascha Heifetz and Adolf Busch, the cellist Pablo Casals, and famous singers from Maria Ivogun to Heinrich Schlusnus.
In 1923 Nikisch was succeeded by Wilhelm Furtwängler, a young conductor who distinguished himself in many ways; through his temperament, his passion, his posture, almost that of a philosopher, a visual reflection of his interpretations, and unforgettably, his extraordinary conducting technique. Wilhelm Furtwängler's repertoire consisted of the classics and the romantics. His interpretations of L.v. Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner were definitive. Among contemporary composers, he was closer to the late romantics than to the pronounced modernists. That does not mean, however, that he failed to promote the works of Paul Hindemith, Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky or Arnold Schoenberg. The orchestra survived the era of the National Socialist dictatorship better than was to have been expected.
It is astonishing how quickly musical life was rebuilt in a Berlin which had been reduced to rubble after the debacle of 1945. The Philharmonic Orchestra, having given its final concert before the capitulation in April, performed again at the end of May, with little loss of membership, under Leo Borchard. Following Borchard's sudden death, an unknown and inexperienced 33-year-old Rumanian named Sergiu Celibidache was engaged as principal conductor. Here was a man of temperament, fire and fanaticism, certainly a complex personality. His concerts in the municipal hall in Zehlendorf, in Titania Palace, and later in the Academy of Music, bore the mark of the extraordinary.
The isolation resulting from National Socialist cultural policy was rapidly overcome. Internationally renowned soloists (to begin with, violinist Yehudi Menuhin) and conductors came to Berlin once again. The orchestra toured in West Germany and abroad. Wilhelm Furtwängler returned in 1947, becoming principal conductor again in 1952. After his death in 1954, the members of the Philharmonic Orchestra elected Herbert von Karajan as principal conductor and artistic director in 1955. Over the subsequent 3 decades, Herbert von Karajan attained a singular perfection in his manner of performance, leaving his unmistakable stamp on the orchestraís quality of sound. Concerts, tours and innumerable recordings (for which the musicians of the Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester are metamorphosed into the Berliner Philharmoniker) testify to this world-famous partnership. With the foundation in 1967 of the Easter Festival in Salzburg, the Philharmonic now had its own music festival of international renown.
Since October 1963, the orchestra's home has been the Philharmonic Hall at Kemperplatz, designed by Hans Scharoun, and extended in 1987 by the adjoining Chamber Music Hall. The orchestraís membership have continued to retain certain special status features. Although employees of the state of Berlin, the musicians still constitute a "free orchestral republic" (Wilhelm Furtwängler) which is self-governing and retains powerful rights of self-determination.
In April 1989, Herbert von Karajan resigned, terminating his long-term partnership with the orchestra. He died in Salzburg on 16 July 1989. In a general assembly taking place on the 8th of October 1989, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra elected Claudio Abbado as its 15th principal conductor. He assumed his new position with the 1990/91 concert season.
Claudio Abbadoís arrival marked a shift of emphasis. The music of the 20th Century now occupied a prominent position in programs alongside classical and romantic works. There were annual thematic cycles with a particular focus. The first cycle was based on music inspired by the lyrics of Hölderlin, to be followed by "Faust", Greek Antiquity, Shakespeare, Alban Berg and George Büchner, the Wanderer, and finally, Tristan and Isolde: the Myth of Love and Death" and "Music is Earthly Delight", based on the conclusion of Verdiís Falstaff. The motto for the season 2001-2002 was "Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit" - Parsifal cycle. Also new are annual performances of operas in concert version, among them Rossiís ll viaggio a Reims, Mussorgskyís Boris Godunov, Richard Straussí Elektra, Verdiís Othello, Alban Bergs Wozzeck, Schubertís Fierrabras, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, and in November 2001 Wagner's Parsifal.
In February of 1998, Claudio Abbado announced that he would not be renewing his contract as artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra beyond the 2001/2002 season. On June 23, 1999, the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra decided, by a large majority, to hire Sir Simon Rattle to succeed Claudio Abbado as their new principal conductor and artistic director, beginning with the 2002-2003 season.