Paradoxically Popular Art Music

What made Berlin so special as a city for music? Was it true that art music was appreciated more or better than in other cities? Are there material circumstances that account for it, or was it a self-fulfilling prophecy, part of an ideology of German identity?

One aspect of Berlin’s concert life was remarked upon by German and foreign writers alike, which was the broad audience for the concerts designated “popular.”

Once the Philharmonic Orchestra became established in the 1880s, the Berlin Philharmonic’s practice of giving “popular” concerts several times a week for a very reduced price lasted until the 1930s.1According to MGG: first popular concert of the Philharmonic was 17 October 1882; their last concerts were in 1938. These concerts were often performed without rehearsal, and had their own conductor, but the players were the same for these concerts and the ten with the “star” conductor. The initial reason to play so much was to stay financially viable. As late as 1895 the concert agent Hermann Wolff wrote that ticket sales were still falling short of covering the cost to rent the hall. Not only did the orchestra play at least three times a week, but they were often hired by soloists who wanted to play concertos, or by conductors wanting to conduct (the most famous being the double bassist turned conductor Serge Koussevitsky in 1908).

The English papers were fascinated that there was eating, drinking, and smoking at these concerts. The Musical Times remarked on

what is, perhaps, the most extraordinary audience in Europe—men and women from the upper and lower bourgeois classes, who buy their tickets at six schillings a dozen, bring their sandwiches with them, call freely for their beer, and yet sit in perfect silence and listen with calm enjoyment to a three or four hours’ programme, chiefly of Wagner, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.2Musical Times, October 1891.

In 1892 the Musical Herald reported further that during the music the men could “indulge unhindered in the fragrant weed,” while the ladies did needlework:

They are given three or four times a week throughout the winter and ‘Gemüthlichkeit’ reigns supreme. One may hear the best music discoursed by an almost matchless orchestra, and at the same time sit at one’s own little table and take a modest supper, hot or cold: one may even indulge unhindered in the fragrant weed, and stroll through the hall and galleries during the pauses, and all of this (weed and supper excepted) for the small sum of sixty pfennige (about sevenpence). The ladies do not seem to mind the smoke; they are accustomed to it, and no doubt the glorious music compensates them for any inconvenience; then, too, they have their needlework!3E. Seipen, “Berlin, July 1892,” The Musical Herald, Sept 1, 1892; 534; British Periodicals pg. 265.

An American piano student reported back home in 1893 that the Berlin concerts were “not so bohemian as I had imagined them. Smoking is only allowed on Sundays and holidays. Nearly every one drinks beer, and some eat sandwiches and such things.”4Elisabeth Worthington, “A Music Student’s Letters,” Music: a Monthly Magazine 5 (1893-1894): 723. In 1897 another American student wrote that she avoided the Sunday concerts because the ventilation was poor and “the odor of ham, beer and bad cigars was too painfully distracting.”5Edith Lynwood Winn, “Concerning Music Study in Berlin,” Music: a Monthly Magazine v. 12 (1897) 451-61. But she admired aspects of the audience: “I like the simple German gentleman who closes the day of work with an evening’s recreation at the Philharmonie. He enjoys music, and he listens attentively.” She further described the concert as having “fourteen numbers or more,” and “three long intermissions, during which you walk, or eat, or gossip,” which explains another report that the concert was of three to four hours’ duration.

While the British and American visitors were astonished by this atmosphere, it was familiar to Berliners from their past experiences of the daily concerts at the Konzerthaus in Leipzigerstraße.6This is not the same institution or building as the present Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt, although it was in the same vicinity. Known as the “Bilse Concerts,” these were conducted by Benjamin Bilse from 1868 to 1882. Seating was at tables, and it was customary for whole families to attend and enjoy knitting, smoking, and eating sausages as if they were at home.7Henry Vizetelly, Berlin under the New empire: its institutions, inhabitants, industry, monuments, museums, social life, manners, and amusements (London: Tinsley bros.., 1879), vol 2, 275.

Louis Ehlert complained in the 1870s that “the atmosphere of these temples of art bears the unmistakeable incense of a restaurant, and a third-class restaurant at that.”

Bilsekonzert (1871) by Adolph Menzel

The Bilse concerts, in turn, had a predecessor, which was the Liebig Concerts (in Sommers Salon in Potsdamerstrasse), which were known as a location for young men to court their beloved; while she could knit, he would refrain from smoking. For that reason they were sometimes called “betrothal concerts”–a term that was passed down to the Bilse concerts as well.

The American Karl Meyder took over after Bilse was ousted in 1882, and kept to the practice of daily concerts for eight months out of the year. The price at the door for these “Konzerthaus concerts” was 75 pfennigs, but the price could be brought down to as low as 40 pfennigs a concert. Food and drink continued to be served and smoking was allowed except on “symphony evenings.” In 1891 there were also regular “composer evenings” made up of new works.8Neue Musik-Zeitung 12 (1891): 106.

That year the Berlin correspondent for the Neue Musik-Zeitung, Dr. Adolf Glaser, praised Berlin for having low-cost opportunities for hearing classical music and called on other cities to follow this example.9Dr. Adolf Glaser, “Populäre Konzerte in Berlin,” Neue Musik-Zeitung 12 (1891): 75. He further cited the Barth-deAhna-Hausmann Trio’s popular chamber music evenings, and Amalie Joachim’s Liederabend concerts as part of this laudable effort. However, other Berlin critics looked down on the “daily philistine concerts with the cheap entrance fee and the so-called betrothal concerts in Bilse’s Konzerthaus.”10A. Moszkowski, Neue Berliner Musikzeitung (1888); quoted in Muck, 113. W. Langhans in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik also found the eating and drinking distasteful (quoted in Muck, 37). Opinion was strongly divided about whether these entertainments improved or debased concert life in general.

Bruno Walter, for one, considered them part of his musical education: 

My musical education was furthered also by attendance at the popular concerts in Philharmonic Hall. They were led by Gustav Kogel and took place every Tuesday and Wednesday evening. The charge for admission was quite moderate. People sat at tables and were served beer and food. Serving during the music was fortunately verboten. The excellent Philharmonic Orchestra presented practically all the important symphonic works.

Bruno Walter, Theme And Variations: An Autobiography (Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), 31.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “Paradoxically Popular Art Music

  1. Wow, this is really great. And the first time I got an e-mail notification of a new posting, which is much appreciated. Keep ’em coming!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.