Established in 1781, but with roots back to the fifteenth Century, Leipzig’s Gewandhausorchester is Germany’s oldest orchestra outside the royal court. But whilst their status as one of the world’s longest serving and most eminent orchestras may not be of news to you, we’ve picked out five things that you might not have known about the Gewandhausorchester.
Few, if any, orchestras in the world can claim to be as tied to their home city as the Gewandhausorchester, whose connection with Leipzig goes all the way back to the 15th Century. In 1479 the city’s council appointed three Kunstpfeifer (artistic pipers) as municipal employees, to perform at functions in Leipzig. Incredibly this ensemble would remain in service for four centuries, their numbers steadily increasing to seven musicians.
As well as performing in the City Hall and providing musical accompaniment in city churches and theatres, the musicians would, in 1743, help form the orchestra of the Großes Concert. This group would go on to become the Gewandhausorchester, which, in 1840, was declared the ‘civic orchestra’ by Leipzig’s City Council.
Their connection with the wider city continues today as the orchestra continue to give regular performances at Oper Leipzig (Leipzig Opera House) and Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church), as well as hosting an annual outdoor summer concert in Leipzig's Rosental park, plus the occasional open air performance in the city itself.
It’s fair to day that the performers who made up Leipzig’s mid 18th Century Großes Concert collective weren’t the first musicians to be often be found in the pub - they certainly weren’t the last - but few have been known to spend 34 years in their tavern of choice. The group - forerunners to the Gewandhausorchester - had originally performed in the spacious houses of Leipzig society, but as their popularity grew, so too did the need for a larger more regular home. A solution was found in the hall of the hostelry Zu den drei Schwanen (The Three Swans) where the musicians of Großes Concert duly took up residency for the next three decades.
Zu den drei Schwanen (The Three Swans) in Leipzig, the first home of the Gewandhausorchester
The compound name of Gewandhausorchester, translates as ‘garment house orchestra’, and gives a significant nod to their origins. In 1781, with the orchestra’s numbers and following growing further, thanks in part to their performances within the newly opened Komödienhaus theatre, a new home was sought.
Upon discovering that the upper floor of the city’s expansive Gewandhaus - the trading house of Leipzig’s textile merchants - was being largely unused, Leipzig’s Mayor instructed its conversion to a concert hall, and the first Gewandhauskonzert duly took place in November 1781. The Großes Concert’s orchestra quickly became synonymous with their specially dedicated home, and were soon known across the city as the Gewandhaus and Theatre Orchestra; a name which duly stuck.
It’s not just in their name, that the Gewandhausorchester have clung to tradition. The word Kapellmeister - a compound word to mean ‘choir master’ - is a traditional German term for a person in charge of music making. In most orchestras the term has gradually faded from use, replaced with the more common Dirigent (conductor), or even musical director.
But in the Gewandhaus it lives on; whilst other orchestras may have a conductor, in Leipzig Gewandhauskapellmeister remains the very particular term for the leader of this very particular city’s orchestra.
Despite its modest size, the original Gewandhaus played host to some of the biggest names in music. In 1789, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart travelled to Leipzig in order to give a concert in the Gewandhaus. Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms both conducted the Gewandhausorchester in performances of their work, and from 1835-1847, the Gewandhauskapellmeister was none other than Felix Mendelssohn.
Sadly the Gewandhaus couldn’t keep up with the orchestra’s growing reputation, and its growing numbers. Initially an orchestra of 32 musicians it had grown to 72 players by the late 1800s, prompting the need for a new concert hall. In December 1884, the Neues Gewandhaus was inaugurated and, like its predecessor, it too attracted huge names with Peter Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg and Richard Strauss all conducting their own works here. The new hall was also the scene for the first audio and film recordings of the Gewandhausorchester.
Sadly the Neues Gewandhaus, like much of Leipzig’s historical buildings, would not survive the Second World War, leaving the Gewandhausorchester homeless once again. After many years performing in temporary venues - including, most remarkably, Leipzig Zoo - they were finally rehomed in 1981 with the construction of the current Neues Gewandhaus. The only genuine concert hall to be built in the 41 years of the German Democratic Republic, it’s construction owes much to the persistence and passion of the then Gewandhauskapellmeister, Kurt Masur. To honour Masur's commitment to the orchestra, and the city, the road which leads to the current Gewandhaus is named Kurt-Masur-Platz.
Thanks to the orchestra’s longevity, and its impressive reputation, the Gewandhausorchester have performed a phenomenal number of premieres, so many that a recital of all of them would last for months - something which they have actually put into practice on a tour under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt.
Among the premiered works are Richard Wagner's Meistersinger Prelude (1862) and Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto (1879), which each received their world premieres in the Gewandhaus, conducted by the composers themselves.
The nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven received their first ever performance as a complete cycle, during the composer's lifetime, in the Gewandhaus’ 1825/26 season. During his tenure as Gewandhauskapellmeister, Felix Mendelssohn premiered a number of his works, including his Scottish Symphony and Violin Concerto in E minor. Mendelssohn also conducted the first performances of symphonies of Robert Schumann and of Franz Schubert's C major Symphony The Great.
Andris Nelson makes his London debut as Kapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester in two very special concerts here at Southbank Centre in October. Some tickets for both performances are still available.