The Orchestra

Foto: Felix Broede

Staatskapelle Weimar 1491 - today

The Origins

The Staatskapelle and the classical city of Weimar are a historically grown connection that has an impact far beyond Germany. Nationally and internationally, it enjoys a central cultural significance as a guarantor of quality in the dialogue between tradition and modernity.

The Staatskapelle Weimar is one of the oldest and most traditional orchestras in the world, with roots going back over 500 years. In 1491, the first predecessor ensemble of today's Staatskapelle was founded by Elector Friedrich III. (the "Wise") founded the vocal-instrumental Ernestine-Saxon Court Orchestra as a thoroughly representative ensemble for the time. Entrusted with both ecclesiastical and courtly-ceremonial tasks, it can be considered one of the most important European court chapels before 1500. It was at the Elector's disposal in the various residences of his great country - including Weimar - and also accompanied him on his travels, for example to the Imperial Diet. Under Elector Johann, Weimar became the main residence in 1531, and the chapel, strengthened especially in the instrumental area, experienced its first period of splendor, which, however, was severely dampened by the crushing defeat of the Ernestines in the Schmalkaldic War in 1547.


Consolidation despite ups and downs

After several small ensembles, there was not an effective new beginning until 1602, when parts of the chapel moved from the secondary residence of Altenburg to Weimar. From then on, the Saxe-Weimar Chapel was firmly established, and its acknowledged good performances, which mainly included music for the Weimar Castle Church as well as dance and table music, soon attracted musicians of high standing to Weimar. In 1615/16, Johann Hermann Schein (later Leipzig's Thomaskantor), one of the most important German composers of the time, was court kapellmeister here; around the premiere of a commissioned composition, there was intensive cooperation with the Dresden court kapellmeister Heinrich Schütz with the Weimar chapel from 1647, and Adam Drese stood for a significant expansion of the repertoire horizon and for intensified contacts with Italy from 1652 to 1662.

After the death of the art-loving Duke Wilhelm IV in 1662, the chapel, which in the meantime had grown considerably, was dissolved, and his grandsons reestablished it in 1683, again as a small formation, but one that was now steadily growing in size and quality. During these decades, Georg Christoph Strattner (from 1695) and the violin virtuoso Johann Paul von Westhoff (from 1699), two other renowned musicians, each for a few years, shaped the work of the chapel.

Finally, Johann Sebastian Bach (1708-1717), the most important name of that era to date, crowned the chapel's history: young and full of verve, Bach was on the threshold of fame in Weimar, first as court organist, then also as court concertmaster, and composed much of his organ music as well as cantatas and concertos here. He contributed significantly to the growing renown of the court orchestra in Weimar and far beyond.


Music and theater for all levels of society

After the court orchestra was dissolved again in 1735, it was the culture-loving Duchess Anna Amalia who reestablished the ensemble as a musical institution in "Classical Weimar" in 1756 - now with increased importance, since in addition to concerts, theater music (quite unusual for the time: open to audiences of all classes) began to play a growing role. Temporary acting troupes as well as an own amateur theater performed operas together with the court orchestra, the texts of which were by Wieland or Goethe. Even though the financial means were small, music and musicians in Weimar experienced an increased appreciation. When a separate comedy house was founded in 1780 and finally a court theater under Goethe's direction in 1791 on the same site (the location of today's German National Theater), the operas of Mozart, whom Anna Amalia and her Weimar entourage, as well as the audience, greatly admired, took center stage early on. The court orchestra was enlarged and restructured in the course of this.

With the Hereditary Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, Weimar once again had a ruler who promoted the arts, who further strengthened the importance of the city of culture and contributed to its further development. The court conductor August Eberhard Müller (1810-1817) and above all the Mozart pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1819-1837) were famous piano virtuosos who, as skilful orchestral educators at the head of the chapel, enhanced the Weimar concert scene and attracted aspiring young musicians to the small town on the Ilm. A first series of regular "standing concerts" was established in the hitherto word-dominated Weimar on Hummel's initiative in 1822, permanently, albeit for a long time on only a small scale and repeatedly against resistance, then from 1829.


The Liszt era

The great role played by music in general and the court orchestra in particular in Weimar in the meantime is evidenced by the commitment of Franz Liszt, who - after individual, highly acclaimed Weimar concerts from 1842 - worked as the "exceptional court conductor" from 1848 to 1858. During this period, Liszt's conducting and teaching activities made Weimar a veritable "Mecca of music" that attracted musicians from all over Europe. Liszt initiated, often against enormous opposition, premieres of numerous contemporary works by colleagues still controversial because of their modernity, including Hector Berlioz, Peter Cornelius and Camille Saint-Saëns. In 1849 Liszt realized the performance of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" in Weimar, whereupon the composer, who was still wanted as a wanted man at the time, entrusted him with the premiere of his "Lohengrin" - a work which then saw the light of day for the first time in Weimar in 1850. Last but not least, Liszt himself became an orchestral composer in Weimar, composing his symphonic works first and foremost for "his" court orchestra - works in which he now also presented music as an "art of ideas" with more than just entertainment value.

Even though Liszt eventually withdrew from his Weimar post because too many obstacles were placed in the way of his lofty ideas, subsequent kapellmeisters such as Carl Stör, Eduard Lassen and Carl Müllerhartung were able to profit from the network he had established as well as from the size and quality of the orchestra, which Liszt had once again increased. From the 1863/64 season, the Hofkapelle finally played a series of regular subscription concerts, which soon became very popular, in addition to various individual concerts, and in 1895 Eduard Lassen became the first conductor in Weimar to be awarded the title of "Generalmusikdirektor". The "Orchestra School" established in Weimar from 1872 (the first in Germany!), which later became the "Franz Liszt" Weimar Academy of Music, was also a late implementation of original Lisztian plans.


A breath of fresh air with Richard Strauss

In addition to the various Weimar conductors who were at odds with each other in the Liszt succession, Richard Strauss provided a breath of fresh air from 1889 onwards. Until 1894, he was engaged as second Kapellmeister in Weimar - undoubtedly long since on his way to higher offices. With youthful élan, idealism and the highest technical demands of his compositions, he helped the Hofkapelle to a considerable qualitative upswing in those years. Strauss conducted the premiere of his own first opera "Guntram" (1894) in Weimar as well as the premiere of Humperdinck's "Hänsel und Gretel" (1893). In addition, his orchestral works "Don Juan," "Macbeth," and "Death and Transfiguration" also first saw the light of day through the Weimar Hofkapelle. In the context of the meetings of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein (ADMV), founded by Liszt in Weimar, the court orchestra also played a prominent and widely respected role with numerous performances of contemporary works.

Conflict-ridden years followed for the position at the head of the chapel, but also its renewed enlargement to then 56 musicians in 1907. In the context of the political turnaround from the Empire to the Weimar Republic, the Weimar Theater, where the National Assembly met from February 6, 1919 and adopted the "Weimar Constitution" on July 31, was named the German National Theater of Weimar. The orchestra, now under the sponsorship of the Free State of Thuringia, was called the Weimar State Orchestra from September 1919.


The 20th century

Interesting new approaches, further numerous first performances, but also growing anti-Semitism and radical völkisch voices directed against the avant-garde characterized the following years. In connection with the seizure of power by the National Socialists (in Thuringia as early as August 1932), the non-renewal of the general music director Ernst Praetorius is not least of all; his successors Ernst Nobbe (1933-1936) and above all Paul Sixt (1936-1945) then placed the theater and chapel entirely at the service of the Gleichschaltung as an important cultural center of Nazi Germany. The program during these years was largely traditional and oriented "in service to the public"; in addition, however, the orchestra allowed itself to be misused, among other things, for special concerts for the Waffen-SS in the neighboring Buchenwald concentration camp. The Jewish musicians had already been banned from their profession in 1935 and thus excluded from the orchestra, and most of them did not survive the Third Reich. On February 9, 1945, the German National Theater in Weimar was almost completely destroyed in a bombing raid. However, the Weimarhalle, newly built in the immediate vicinity in 1930-32, remained undestroyed and became the starting point for new hope and artistic activity after the end of the war. The Weimar Theater was reopened as early as 1948.

In all existential distress, but with a feeling of genuine liberation, a new era began for the Staatskapelle under the direction of the highly esteemed GMD and chief conductor Hermann Abendroth (1945-1956), who can be considered one of the most important German conductors in the first half of the 20th century. He quickly led the orchestra back to considerable size and to new artistic heights, and the programmatically diverse subscription concerts under his direction experienced enormous popularity. It was during this period that the Weimar Staatskapelle earned its status as one of Germany's leading orchestras, a status it still holds today. Under Abendroth's successor Gerhard Pflüger (1957-73), the orchestra continued its consistent work with an increased focus on 20th century music. Increasingly, important guest conductors and soloists from Germany and abroad came to Weimar for concerts. The first radio broadcast of a concert by the Weimar Staatskapelle was in 1961, and musical theater (under the direction of opera director Harry Kupfer from 1966 to 1972, among others) was and remained of great importance during this period, with both classical-romantic and contemporary repertoire.

Under Rolf Reuter, the Staatskapelle undertook its first foreign tour to Italy in 1979; during the second tour to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1982, four musicians committed Republikflucht, which also put the chief conductor Peter Gülke under great pressure to justify himself, so that in 1983 he also remained in the West. The Swiss Oleg Caetani filled the gap as permanent guest conductor until 1988, when Hans-Peter Frank took over the chief position.
The political changes and the reunification of Germany brought with them not only new opportunities for international guest performances, but also the necessity of repositioning the orchestra. The GMD, chief conductor and today's honorary conductor George Alexander Albrecht (1996-2002), who also led the Staatskapelle through the "City of Culture" year 1999 and cemented the high quality standard anew, contributed significantly to this. He was succeeded by Jac van Steen (from 2002), Carl St. Clair (from 2005) and Stefan Solyom (from 2009). From 2016 to 2019, Kirill Karabits was in charge of the musical flagship and only A orchestra of the Free State of Thuringia.


The Staatskapelle Weimar in the present

Strengthened to nearly 100 musicians after 1990, the Staatskapelle Weimar focuses in both opera and concert on the combination of a conscious cultivation of its great traditions with innovative aspects and a constantly expanding repertoire. In its hometown, it is and remains the core of the rich "Weimar cultural network".
Numerous CD recordings impressively reflect the orchestra's diverse repertoire from Mozart to Liszt, Wagner, Strauss and Furtwängler to the modern era. The highly acclaimed "Alpine Symphony" under Antoni Wit (NAXOS, 2006) was awarded the "Editor's Choice" of "Gramophone Magazine". Under Kirill Karabits, the most recent CD production focused on Franz Liszt's Weimar oeuvre. The highly acclaimed first recording of his opera torso "Sardanapalo" (2019) received, among others, the "Editor's Choice" of the "Gramophone Magazine" and the Diapason d'Or. The live recording of a performance of Prokofiev's "Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution" in cooperation with the Kunstfest Weimar, also under Karabits' direction, was awarded the ICMA International Music Prize in 2019, among others.
Since 2003, the institution of a "Composer in Residence" has brought a number of outstanding contemporary composers to Weimar for regular collaboration with the Staatskapelle, including Christian Jost, Aribert Reimann Wolfgang Rihm, Krzysztof Penderecki, Valentin Silvestrov and Mark-Anthony Turnage.

The diverse concert program of the Staatskapelle in its hometown of Weimar consists of a top-class symphony concert series, special concerts, film and chamber concerts, a wide range of concerts and music education programs for families and schools, and summer open-air concert nights. Internationally renowned soloists and conductors of the highest caliber are among the regular guests of the orchestra, which is in great demand far beyond the city of classical music. In recent years, tours and guest concerts have taken the orchestra to Japan, Israel, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Austria and Switzerland. In the 2009/10 season, the Staatskapelle Weimar toured Germany for 14 days with violinist David Garrett, among others. In the spring of 2018, the orchestra toured 17 cities in the United States for four weeks with a total of 18 concerts under the direction of Kirill Karabits. The Staatskapelle Weimar is also a regular guest at Germany's major concert halls, such as the Gasteig in Munich, the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, the Meistersingerhalle in Nuremberg, the Cologne Philharmonie, the Berlin Philharmonie, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, and at major festivals.

In addition to its extensive concert activities, the orchestra, which currently consists of 95 musicians from 14 nations, also guarantees the continuation of the opera tradition at the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar / Staatstheater Thüringen at the highest level. The Staatskapelle Weimar plays a major role in ensuring that numerous opera productions at the DNT Weimar attract attention and interest throughout Germany. Most recently, these included, above all, the ring in weimar (2006-2009), the rediscovery of Paul Dessau's "Lanzelot" directed by Peter Konwitschny (2019), and various world premieres, including Siegfried Matthus' "Die unendliche Geschichte" (2005) and Ludger Vollmer's "The Circle" (2019).