The history of the Gewandhaus Orchestra

The earliest roots of the Orchestra can be traced back to the year 1479, in which the City Council first appointed three musicians - Kunstpfeifer ("artistic pipers") - as municipal employees. This small ensemble remained in civic service until 1840, by which time their number had increased to seven. The musicians played a central role in Leipzig's cultural life, performing at functions in the City Hall, providing the musical accompaniment for services in the city's churches and participating in theatre productions, as well as forming a part of the orchestra of the Große Concerte ("Grand Concerts").

This concert enterprise was founded in 1743 by a society comprising both nobility and regular citizens alike - the first venture of its kind in Leipzig. The original "Große Musicalische Concerte" were held in the more spacious of homes of Leipzig society. The concerts' popularity soon, however, necessitated the hire of a hall in the hostelry "Zu den drei Schwanen". For over thirty years, this inn played host to those citizens of Leipzig who could afford the society's substantial annual membership fee, from which the musicians were renumerated. The original orchestra comprised sixteen musicians, half of whom were professionals (the Kunstpfeifer), half students of the city's university.

The year 1766 saw the opening of the Komödienhaus ("Comedy Theatre"). This theatre employed no musicians and ensemble of its own, rather hosting itinerant theatrical and operatic troupes, for which the Leipziger Stadtmusiker were engaged as orchestra. As time passed and the demands of the theatrical productions increased, the orchestra was to be ever more frequently bolstered by the musicians of the Große Concerte. So began the gradual symbiosis of Leipzig's concert and theatre orchestras.

At this time, the Gewandhaus, the trading house of the city's textile merchants, had no use for a substantial part of the upper floor of the building. On the initiative of the Mayor, this space was converted into a concert hall. In November 1781, the first Gewandhauskonzert took place. The audience consisted of the members of the society which had promoted the concerts in the inn; the 32-man orchestra comprised the musicians who had given the Große Concerte, the majority of whom were, by this time, also employed regularly by the theatre. The orchestra of these Gewandhaus Concerts, therefore, soon came to be known as the "Gewandhaus and Theatre Orchestra".

In 1786, the musicians of the Gewandhaus- und Theaterorchester signed a reciprocal agreement, in which the organisational, disciplinal and artistic affairs of the Orchestra were ordered, as well as the founding of a pension fund for the members. This constitution included, for instance, measures to ensure the "good reputation of the Orchestra", as well as the communal pledge "to stand, all for one and one for all." This solidarity contract can be regarded as the genesis of the Orchestra as an independent body.

In 1789, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart travelled to Leipzig in order to give a concert in the Gewandhaus. The hall was, by this time, well established as the centre of Leipzig's concert life and would remain so for the subsequent 100 years.

Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto received its first performance in the Gewandhaus in 1811 and the first complete cycle of his symphonies worldwide was to follow in the 1825/26 season - during the composer's lifetime.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy's celebrated tenure as Gewandhauskapellmeister (conductor and music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra) began in 1835. His "Scottish Symphony" and Violin Concerto in E minor were both premiered in the Gewandhaus. Mendelssohn conducted the first performances of symphonies of Robert Schumann and of Franz Schubert's "Great" C major Symphony.

In later years, both Richard Wagner's "Meistersinger" Prelude and Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto were first presented to the world in the Gewandhaus, conducted in both cases by the composers themselves.

This period saw the development of the Gewandhaus- und Theaterorchester's additional role as orchestra of the city's churches. The musical provision for the services held in Leipzig's two principal churches, St. Thomas and St. Nikolai, was the responsibility of the Thomaskantor (Cantor of St. Thomas's), who also embodied the position of Civic Music Director. The Thomanerchor (St. Thomas's Choir) sang in both churches, accompanied by the Stadtmusiker. Here too, however, were the musical demands to increase; from 1789, the City Musicians were augmented by seven members of the Gewandhaus and Theatre Orchestra. During the following years, members of the Orchestra became increasingly involved in the realisation of the churches' musical requirements until, in 1840, the Gewandhaus- und Theaterorchester was officially declared the "civic orchestra" by the City Council. The performance of sacred music has, since this time, formed a staple part of the Orchestra's duties.

In 1868, a new opera house was opened in Leipzig. This theatre was able to accommodate significantly more ambitious, more elaborate stagings than the erstwhile Komödienhaus (remodelled as "City Theatre" in 1817). At this time, the Gewandhaus- und Theaterorchester numbered 58 musicians, a strength which was not sufficient, firstly, to satisfy the orchestral requirements of the larger-scale operas now being staged and, secondly, to fulfil these increased duties adequately in addition to its symphonic commitments in the Gewandhaus. The ensuing conflict between the theatre and Gewandhaus managements was resolved by the City Council's decision to augment the Orchestra to a total of 72 players.

As time passed and the 19th century ran its course, the concert hall in the Gewandhaus became increasingly unable to cope with the demands placed upon it by the Orchestra's steadily burgeoning public. Following several measures over the years to increase the audience capacity, the management of the Gewandhaus eventually bowed to the necessity of erecting a new concert hall. Following two-and-a-half years construction, the "New Gewandhaus" was inaugurated in December 1884.

The Neues Gewandhaus witnessed the tenures of Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter, among others, as Gewandhauskapellmeister, as well as playing host to the likes of Johannes Brahms, Peter Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg and Richard Strauss conducting their own works. Anton Bruckner graced the New Gewandhaus with an organ recital. The new hall was also the scene of the Gewandhaus Orchestra's first audio and film recordings.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra undertook its first foreign tour during, of all times, the First World War. Prior to this, the Gewandhaus directorate had been thoroughly opposed to such ventures, "due to the risk that our illustrious orchestra, which has, heretofore, served only noble causes, could descend to depths, such as those occupied by a philharmonic orchestra in Berlin with its commercial undertakings. Should the orchestra members begin to travel, they will very well take to the variety this affords and demand its recurrence." On receiving an invitation from Switzerland in 1916, however, the City Council and Gewandhaus approved the enterprise, "on the grounds that it represents an artistic cultural mission of great significance." Two further visits to Switzerland were to follow before the colossal undertaking of a first extensive tour of Europe in 1931. The political developments of the ensuing years were, sadly, to prevent the Orchestra capitalising on its newly-established reputation beyond Germany's borders. The Gewandhaus Orchestra would have to wait until 1951 to represent Leipzig abroad anew.

Both the Neues Theater and the Neues Gewandhaus had been destroyed by bombing during the war. Since the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1945, opera performances and concerts had taken place in temporary, sometimes somewhat makeshift locations in Leipzig.

Following the opening of the city's new opera house in 1960, Leipzig would have to wait a further two decades for the construction of a new concert hall for the Gewandhausorchester. The "New Gewandhaus" (named, as its predecessor, Neues Gewandhaus) opened its doors to the public in 1981 - the only dedicated concert hall to be built in the GDR (former communist East Germany). Overwhelming credit for the realisation and success of the project must be given to the Gewandhauskapellmeister of the day, Kurt Masur.

Masur's successor, Herbert Blomstedt, led the Orchestra - now numbering 185 musicians - into the 21st century, before handing the baton on to Riccardo Chailly.

Much has changed in Leipzig during the past decades - one thing, however, remains constant: the Gewandhausorchester performs in the Gewandhaus, in the Leipzig Opera and, together with the Thomanerchor, in St. Thomas's Church. The combination of symphonic, operatic and sacred repertoire continues to imbue the Gewandhaus Orchestra with an artistic profile of unparalleled diversity and richness.


Claudius Böhm

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