Spring 1882: When Benjamin Bilse announces the intention of taking his already underpaid orchestra on the train to Warsaw in fourth class for a concert, that's the last straw for 54 of his musicians. Calling themselves the "former Bilse Kapelle", they decide to declare their independence. But at first the young ensemble has economic problems of its own to confront, and it isn't until the Berlin concert agent Hermann Wolff takes over its organization in 1887 that a stable basis for the future is finally established. He changes the name to "Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester", turns a renovated roller-skating rink into the first "Philharmonie" and seeks out the best conductors of the day for his musicians.
Hans von Bülow has already formed a first-class ensemble from his Meiningen Court Orchestra when he takes over the Berliner Philharmoniker. In only five years at the helm he lays the foundation of those special musical qualities that from now on will be indissolubly linked with the orchestra's name. Bülow's successors, on the other hand, come to stay. Arthur Nikisch, who takes up his post in 1895, goes on to influence the orchestra's style decisively for the next 27 years. He once writes: "It can be asserted without hesitation that in a first-rate orchestral body every member deserves to be described as an 'artist'," and with this creed he encourages the Berlin musicians to develop a sense of themselves as "soloists". That quality still represents one of the Philharmonic's unmistakable trademarks.
When Nikisch dies in 1922, the orchestra unanimously chooses Wilhelm Furtwängler to succeed him. The young conductor builds on Nikisch's achievements. His idiosyncratic beat and his impassioned, inspired music-making demand from the musicians an extremely high level of autonomy and sensitivity. Furtwängler's philosophy emphasizes the timelessness of great works of art, and thus his greatest affinity is for the Classical and Romantic masters. He and his Berlin orchestra become legendary interpreters of the works of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. At the same time Furtwängler expands the repertoire to include contemporary pieces by Schoenberg, Hindemith, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.
The National Socialist dictatorship and the war do irreparable damage to the German cultural landscape - including the Berliner Philharmoniker. The regime's maniacal racial policy leads to the loss of valuable musicians, and the orchestra finds itself isolated from the international exchange of soloists and conductors. Meanwhile there is also an attempt to turn Germany's representative ensemble into an instrument of official cultural politics. Nevertheless Furtwängler and the orchestra manage to salvage its artistic substance through the war.
But the comparatively rapid turnover of conductors in the early post-war period speaks for itself. The Philharmonic under Leo Borchard already gives its first concert on 26 May 1945 in the Titania-Palast, a converted cinema, but in August, through a tragic mistake, Borchard is shot and killed by an occupying soldier. Chosen to succeed him is a completely unknown young Romanian, virtually straight out of the Berlin Music Hochschule, where he has been studying. But the orchestra's judgment proves itself to be acute: Sergiu Celibidache arouses great enthusiasm with his vivid personality and widely varied programmes until 1952, when the orchestra's leadership is officially returned to the hands of Furtwängler. Also coming in the postwar period is the founding in 1949 of the "Gesellschaft der Freunde der Berliner Philharmonie e.V. " (Society of Friends of the Berliner Philharmonie Inc.), which in subsequent decades sponsors the building of the new Philharmonie and continues to provide the hall with financial support.
In November 1954 Wilhelm Furtwängler dies. The following April the Berliner Philharmoniker chooses as its artistic director the man who is to remain with the ensemble longer than any other - Herbert von Karajan. He works with the orchestra to cultivate a specific sound, an unprecedented perfection and virtuosity which lay the groundwork for the ensemble's national and international triumphs - both in the concert hall and through countless recordings.
Moreover, Karajan is able to expand the orchestra's activities in a number of new directions. With the founding of the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1967 the orchestra now has its own major international festival and an opportunity to make its mark as an opera orchestra. A further initiative is the Orchestra Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker (Orchester-Akademie der Berliner Philharmoniker), in which young and talented instrumentalists are trained through practical experience to meet the stringent demands of a top-flight orchestra. The construction of the new Philharmonie also takes place during the Karajan era. Since October 1963 the orchestra has made its home in the concert hall designed by Hans Scharoun, (to which a chamber music hall is added in 1987).
After nearly 35 years as the orchestra's artistic director, Herbert von Karajan dies in July 1989. His successor is far from being an unknown quantity: Claudio Abbado conducted the Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, and since then he has earned the musicians' highest esteem. He's not an orchestral trainer in the manner of his predecessors. What's most impressive about Abbado is the sheer force of his conviction and artistic presence.
Abbado's programmes bring a pronounced shift of emphasis. Each cycle of concerts now has a thematic focus - for example, "Faust" or "The Wanderer" or "Music is Fun for All". This conceptual modernization corresponds to a significant rejuvenation of the Philharmonic itself. Well over half of the current membership joined the orchestra during this time.
In February 1998 Claudio Abbado announces that he will not renew his contract beyond the 2001/02 season, and in June of the following year the Berliner Philharmoniker, by a wide majority of votes, elects a new chief conductor.
In its appointment of Sir Simon Rattle, the orchestra gains one of the most successful conductors of the younger generation. A whole host of innovations accompany this step. Of particular significance is the conversion of the orchestra's formal organization into a foundation of public law - the "Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker" (Berlin Philharmonic Foundation) - under the aegis of the city-state of Berlin. This move establishes an up-to-date framework allowing new creative freedom and financial stability for a body of players that currently has 129 full-time members. Further support for the foundation comes from the involvement of the Deutsche Bank as main sponsor. During the 2006.07 season the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation is organizing a total of 140 concerts, of which 99 are concerts of Berliner Philharmoniker. In addition, there is the educational project Zukunft@BPhil, which is of special importance to Sir Simon Rattle and the orchestra as a means of creating new forms that will bring music and music education to the widest possible public. As Sir Simon has described his intentions: "Zukunft@BPhil should remind us that music isn't a luxury but a fundamental necessity. Music should be a vital and essential component in the life of all people." For the orchestra in its nearly 125-year history, this signifies an expansion of its cultural mission, something to which the Berliner Philharmoniker now dedicates itself with its typically wholehearted sense of commitment.