This job is killing me (at the Philharmonic)

In order to survive in their first decades, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra had to play concerts almost every day during the concert season of October through April. Their four months of summer season in Holland at the seaside was even more rigorous, with concerts twice a day. After reading that the conductor Joseph Rebicek died on the job on 24.3.1904, I consulted Peter Muck’s compendium1Peter Muck, Einhundert Jahre Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester: Bd.3. Die Mitglieder des Orchesters, die Programme, die Konzertreisen, Erst- und Uraufführungen (Berlin: H. Schneider, 1982.) of the first hundred years of the orchestra, and found many other instances of performers whose last day of employment was the same as their death date.


A few orchestra members even died on a day there was a concert.2I would have to do more research to ascertain whether they had been performing that day. Bernhard Breuer (23.3.1857-6.6.1901) was a violinist, concertmaster, and conductor. He died at age 44 shortly after the Scheveningen season began. The clarinetist Paul Bading (22.12.1864-22.2.1904) joined the orchestra in 1888, and died at age 40 on the day of a subscription concert. The cellist Otto Weising (4.7.1853-30.11.1903) was one of the orchestra’s original members going back to 1882. He died at age 50 on the day of the fourth subscription concert. Albert Böttcher (21.1.1859-11.11.1906) was another cellist who had been an original member. He died on a popular concert day at age 47. Yet another cellist, Theodor Stiemke (12.5.1856-28.11.1900) died at age 44, but on a Monday when there was no concert scheduled. The violinist Ernst Ammenn (15.4.1859-2.5.1909) died four days after the popular concert season ended; he was 50 years old. In sum: within a ten year span, there were six players who were 50 or younger when they died on the job.

Desperate times

I admit it: at the back of my mind was “Well, at least they died doing what they loved best.” Ha. In 1905 a book by Paul Marsop (1856-1925) on “The Social Situation of German Orchestral Musicians” appeared.3Paul Marsop, Die soziale Lage der deutschen Orchestermusiker (Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1905). It subsequently was serialized in Die Musik. Marsop exposed the difference between appearance, in which orchestras were called the pride of the nation, and reality, where musicians in excellent orchestras barely had enough money for their daily bread. The book included a budget outlining the salary and expenses from the year 1903 for two orchestra musicians, one from Frankfurt and one from Hamburg. Compared to other figures I’ve seen, a salary of 2000 M. seems relatively decent to me, and those two wealthy cities certainly had prestigious orchestras. The budget pictured below is for a family of four. It includes rent, heating, lighting, clothes, shoes, laundry, taxes, contributions to pensions, and newspapers. There is no money in the budget for a cleaning lady, a holiday, any pocket money, or for emergencies. The Frankfurt position left 1.78 M. per person per day for food, while the Hamburg musician had just 78 pfennigs for food.


Marsop described shockingly deceptive job advertisements, terrible working conditions, the lack of time off, the obstacles to getting married and starting a family, the nomadic life of a traveling musician, the illnesses and injuries incurred on the job, and other aspects that have continued to characterize the profession. Musicians were also required to wear evening dress for performances, but this expensive type of uniform was not provided. They were expected to appear respectable in public, meaning they were banned from activities such as bowling and bicycling (in 1905 at least). Marsop called for musicians to join associations where they could establish a savings and loan fund as a beginning for improving their own situation. He continued to champion musicians’ rights until he died in 1925.

Musical America 1906

The music journal Musical America took up the story in April 1906 with the (typically sensationalistic) headline: “German Musicians in Deplorable State; Orchestral Players in Principal Cities Literally on Starvation Wages. Extraordinary State of Affairs Revealed by Expose of Dr. Paul Marsop–Five Cents a Day for Food!”

In this context, it isn’t surprising that there were musicians who died on the job–they had no alternative.

The average life expectancy for a man in 1900 in Germany was only 46.4 years. However, if he made it to age 40, he could expect to live 24 more years.
Source: Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung

Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung

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5 thoughts on “This job is killing me (at the Philharmonic)

  1. Wow, sounds pretty similar to today’s situation for both musicians and music professors….

    1. Brooke, I don’t even know where to begin with your comment. The fact that you don’t see the enormous gulf between 1907 and 2007 in terms of the overall rise in living standards is astonishing.

        1. Thank you for the hard data, Sanna! It’s the problem with much of today’s activism. It’s not that there is no room for improvement, but the extreme historical short-sightedness and the lack of any appreciation for how far we have truly come, I think actually makes it harder to move forward, because the anger we witness today is based on a very limited context.

  2. Sanna: One thing to keep in mind is overall mortality rates. What were these people dying of? Diet was different as was daily exercise, not to mention the healthcare industry. Did these people even know they were sick?

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