Hrůša & Bamberg: Czech? German? Or …?

Bamberg map

The city of Bamberg, Germany has a long and interesting history — including that of its famous orchestra.

Czechs have often contributed to German culture. And vice-versa. Starting in autumn 2016, Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša adds to the mix as Chief Conductor of Germany’s Bamberg Symphony…or is it actually Czech?

Traditionally, the Bamberg Tonkűnstlerorchester – later, Bamberger Symphoniker – was known for its ″Bohemian sound.″ Now that it will be led by former PKF-Prague Philharmonia Chief Conductor Hrůša (and just in time for the orchestra’s 70th anniversary next March), curiosity about the orchestra’s roots is building.

The Bamberg’s Chief Executive Marcus Rudolf Axt has written an intriguing history, teasing more questions about the orchestra’s provenance. He kindly permitted Opus Osm to excerpt his writing here.

″There were two triggers that made me curious″ about the history, he writes. The first was a German newspaper article dated March 8, 1996. ″Here the author writes of the fairy tale of the Bohemian past, which the musicians apparently used to present themselves as a refugee orchestra after the war,″ but also to feign possession of a great tradition, so they didn’t appear as an unseasoned orchestra.

The second trigger was questions about the orchestra’s Nazi past: ″… an orchestra under suspicion of Nazi involvement? Or a new establishment of scattered Bohemian and Sudeten German musicians who happened to meet in Bamberg?″ Mr Axt asks. He raises a skeptical eyebrow at the idea that ″an orchestra of this quality, of this singularity in its sound″ could be simply the result of a lucky, coincidental meeting of musicians. Or maybe, he suggests, Chief Conductor Joseph Keilberth (1950-1968) brought the old Prague Philharmonic together under a new name.

Frantic, Friendly Search and Research

More and more evidence is emerging. A Czech television producer, a Czech historian searching the Bamberg city archives, a musicologist in Vienna, a historian in Freiburg; the archives of The Czech Philharmonic and archives in Prague, Vienna, and Reichenberg (today, Liberec, Cz), radio and documentary film tracks, the Bayerischer Rundfunk archives, and original Conductor Keilberth’s personal journals are just some of the sources contributing tantalizing bits of information to add to the puzzle, which is still being pieced together now.

concert programs

(L:) 1945 concert program from the German Philharmonic in Prague; (R:) 1946 program from the Bamberger Tonkűnstlerorchester

″Again and again we visited the scene, drove to Prague and, for example, searched second-hand shops for old vinyl recordings,″ Marcus Rudolf Axt writes. A friend of the orchestra contributed concert programs of the German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague from January 1945.

″Even old records, including trial pressings and shellac editions, appeared from collections, from cellars and attics to find their way to Bamberg,″ he says.

What We Know So Far … and What We Need to Find Out

″This much is clear so far: The German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague, established in 1940 by the National Socialists as a counterweight to The Czech Philharmonic, was already active in Reichenberg, today’s Liberec, under the name ″Sudeten German Philharmonic″ at the time of the annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and had come there directly from the orchestra pit of Prague’s New German Opera House after its closing.″

Since the end of the 19th century, Prague had had two opera houses with their own orchestras, he explains, a Czech and a German one. They divided the repertoire between them, but played the great symphonic ″heavyweights″ together. ″This included the premiere of Gustav Mahler’s 7th Symphony in 1908, under the direction of the composer [Ed note: Mahler was originally from the Czech Republic], which the approximately 60 musicians of The Czech Philharmonic and 40 musicians of our predecessor orchestra from the German Opera House brought to life together.″

But it seems more answers lead to still more questions. For example, how did The Czech Philharmonic evolve from the extended orchestra of The Theatre of the Estates? Was it a type of twin of the Bamberg Symphony?


Marcus Rudolf Axt

Even Mozart Has Something to Say About It

Mr Axt continues, ″Especially the Bohemian woodwinds enjoyed the appreciation of Wolfgang Amadeus after the Prague success of Figaro, which had failed in Vienna.

″As a result of the praise in Prague, he received the assignment of composing Don Giovanni. This premiere [Ed note: at Prague's Theatre of the Estates] founded the myth of the Bohemian sound to a certain extent and was the start of a great musical tradition. Names such as Carl Maria von Weber, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer and George Szell stood at the podium in Prague.″ But how many musicians from the German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague were among the founding members of the Bamberg Symphony?

The research continues apace. ″But regardless of the results,″ Mr Axt concludes, ″the sound, the Bohemian musical tradition, has outlived the tide of events through transformations, renaming, emigration. The history of the Bamberg Symphony could therefore be a type of microcosm of the entirety of central European history: courtly beginnings, civil upsurge, multicultural creativity of the turn of the century, war, displacement, and new beginning … .″

And yet another new beginning, as Jakub Hrůša, fresh from Prague’s PKF, begins his tenure as the Bamberg’s next chief conductor.

Jakub Hrůša joins The Bamberg Symphony as Chief Conductor in autumn 2016

Jakub Hrůša joins The Bamberg Symphony as Chief Conductor in autumn 2016

– Original article by Marcus Rudolf Axt, translated from German by Anja Wiest, edited by Mary Matz, Opus Osm editor

Photo Credits: Map: Wikipedia; all other images courtesy of The Bamberg Symphony

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