The German Orchestral and Theatrical Landscape

The orchestra scene in Germany remains unique in its density and diversity. This overview provides information about current developments and trends. As well as tariff regulations and management structures, it describes the structural changes that have led to massive cuts since the 1990s.

Our thanks to the German Music Information Centre for kindly giving reuse permission.

  • Orchestras, Radio Ensembles and Opera Choruses

    The German landscape for theatres and orchestras remains unparalleled worldwide for its density and diversity. And while Germany may long have surrendered the positions of leadership it once enjoyed in other areas, e.g. in isolated branches of research and science, or in educational policy, internationally the image of Germany as a nation of culture remains extremely distinct.

  • Historical outline

    The orchestra considered the oldest in Germany is the orchestra of the modern-day Hesse State Theatre (Hessisches Staatstheater) in Kassel, which was founded when, in the year 1502, Hessian Landgrave Wilhelm II admitted a certain Henschel Deythinger to serve as a trumpter to the royal court in Kassel. This trumpeter, together with eight additional brass players, formed the Court Orchestra of Kassel, one of the first independent ensembles of instrumentalists, under a single conductor. This established the basis for the formation of the cultural institution known as the orchestra.

    Indeed, the first roots of German and European chamber music and orchestra culture date back to the 14th century. Renowned traditional orchestras such as the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, the Staatskapelle Weimar or the Mecklenburgische Staatskapelle Schwerin, were formed in the 16th century; still others were assembled in various German courts during the 17th and 18th centuries. The founding of court and church ensembles was followed, during the 19th and 20th centuries, by the development of a bourgeois orchestra culture. Since the 1920s and following the Second World War, in East and West alike, this landscape was broadened with the addition of radio ensembles and other community and state orchestras.

  • Overview

    Today, the German landscape of professional, publicly financed orchestras, with 129 orchestras of cultural significance is essentially built upon four pillars: First, there are the 81 theatre orchestras that for the most part serve the operas, operettas and musicals at city and state theatres. Here, the spectrum ranges from major, internationally acclaimed opera houses in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart or Munich, to the smaller stages in Lüneburg, Annaberg or Hildesheim. The second pillar consists of 29 concert orchestras (including a civilian wind band) that perform quite predominantly or exclusively in concert halls. The uncontested leader here is the Berliner Philharmoniker, followed by a host of other internationally significant orchestras, among them the Münchner Philharmoniker, the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, to name just a few of the largest among their ranks. The third pillar consists of eight chamber orchestras financed with public funds which, as a rule, work all the year purely as string ensembles without woodwinds or brass sections of their own. These include the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, the Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn or the Münchner Kammerorchester. Finally, the fourth pillar involves the radio orchestras of the ARD stations and of Rundfunk Orchester und Chöre GmbH (ROC) Berlin: 11 radio orchestras and radio symphony orchestras, along with four big bands and seven radio choruses remaind.

    Generally speaking, all of the above-mentioned concert, radio and opera orchestras are collectively referred to as orchestras of cultural significance or professional orchestras, playing as they do, as defined in the slightly stale wording of the applicable laws and wage agreements, music predominantly judged to be serious. The deciding criterion, however, is likely to be the fact that these orchestras all chiefly have public funding (from tax money or radio and TV licence fees), with fixed staffing levels throughout the year, and a performance schedule that excludes purely popular or march music.

    Mention should also be made here of other professional ensembles and chamber orchestras that either work as project orchestras (usually as civil-law associations) with a permanent group of independent musicians or that, in some cases, receive more substantial public subsidies and work with permanently employed musicians. Groups of the first category include, for instance, the Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, the Bayerisches Kammerorchester Bad Brückenau, and Concerto Köln; the second category includes the Georgisches Kammerorchester Ingolstadt.

    Professional orchestras also exist under police, federal police and armed-forces sponsorship. For the most part, however, these formations are active in wind bands or big bands. Individual orchestras are also repeatedly assembled to perform for the duration of a particular production in the areas of commercial musical companies. Most of these can be found in Hamburg, Berlin and Stuttgart. Finally, the ranks of orchestras in health resorts, which until the 1970s constituted an important rung on the career ladder for music students and young professional musicians, have been reduced to a scarcely perceptible number. To cut costs, many health resorts now employ small combos – usually from Eastern Europe – for just a single season.

  • Salary provisions, classification in pay groups and orchestra sizes

    The TVK (Collective Agreement for Musicians in Orchestras of Cultural Significance), applies across the board for most opera orchestras and individual concert orchestras. This blanket salary situation for orchestras is the only one of its kind worldwide, but due to partial cancellation of isolated salary provisions in 2005 the situation is currently unstable. As a rule, for radio ensembles the special salary provisions of the various individual public-law broadcasting companies apply instead. Many concert orchestras have their own wage agreements which are based on the TVK, yet these contain terms specific to the localities involved, along with special provisions for concert tours. Six of the eight chamber orchestras and a few other professional orchestras have no wage agreement in place; there, the wage and working conditions are usually laid out in the individual musicians’ employment contracts. Occasionally, though, this can lead to problems if general amendments need to be enforced.

    In the TVK area, which is to say among community- and state-level orchestras, a distinction needs to be made in view of remuneration and ranking: whereas the opera orchestra is broken down into pay groups according to the number of authorised positions shown (referred to as a membership size scheme [Kopfstärkeschema]), for concert orchestras the musicians are grouped, and their pay determined, according to a separate classification contract (concert orchestra wage agreement) or under an individual wage agreement specific to the orchestra in question (e.g. for the Berliner Philharmoniker and Münchner Philharmoniker, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig). For most concert orchestras, however, the basic orientation is towards the wage groups found in opera orchestras.

    The parties to the wage agreements for the radio ensembles are the respective broadcasting companies and the German Orchestra Union [Deutsche Orchestervereinigung (DOV)], in its capacity as union and professional association of orchestra musicians and radio chorus singers. The TVK, supplemental industry-wide collective agreements, and any orchestra-specific collective agreements for community- and state-level orchestras are, as a rule, concluded by the DOV with the German Theatre and Orchestra Association [Deutscher Bühnenverein (DBV)] as an employers’ association, provided the orchestra sponsor is a member of the DBV. If the employer is not a DBV member, the wage agreement is concluded directly with the DOV. Occasionally there are cases in which the employer, although a member of the DBV, has nevertheless concluded a special wage agreement with the DOV (Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Dresdner Philharmonie, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Münchner Philharmoniker, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Ludwigshafen).

    The opera orchestras are assigned to pay groups A to D, depending on their membership and the number of positions. Opera orchestras with not more than 56 positions at their disposal are assigned to the lowest remuneration category, pay group D. Pay group C applies to orchestras with between 56 and 65 positions; group B for 66 or more, and from 78 pay group B/F (where F stands for footnote as the bonus paid is indicated in a footnote to the pay scale). For 99 positions or more, the opera orchestra is placed in pay group A. For ensembles of between 99 and 129 positions, a variable footnote bonus can be paid (pay group A/F2), while for opera orchestras of 130 positions or more payment of a footnote bonus is mandatory (pay group A/F1). This is the uppermost pay group. There are thus seven pay groups in all. What decides an ensemble’s grouping is not the number of positions that are actually filled but rather the number of positions shown in the budget and the staff appointment scheme. This is why there are a few orchestras that, for example, employ slightly fewer than 99 musicians and yet are classed in pay group A. In some cases, an ensemble is classed in a higher pay group by means of a unilateral sovereign act on the part of the sponsoring entity.

    For decades, the grouping of opera orchestras according to mere size and not in accordance with their artistic abilities has not been without controversy. The argumentative counterexample can be found in the five West German chamber orchestras which, although no larger than 14-21 musicians, nevertheless always remunerate their musicians under pay group A.

    Topping the pyramid of salaries at German professional orchestras is the Berliner Philharmoniker, closely followed by the Münchner Philharmoniker and the big radio symphony orchestras in Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart and Hamburg. At the second tier – yet still, for the most part, ranking above pay group A/F1 – are such orchestras as the Staatskapelle Berlin, Deutsches Symphonieorchester Berlin, Bayerisches Staatsorchester München, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Dresdner Philharmonie, Bamberger Symphoniker, the Philharmoniker Hamburg as well as other radio symphony orchestras and radio orchestras. The other community- and state-sponsored opera and concert orchestras are then spread out across the aforementioned TVK pay groups, although certainly the occasional orchestra can be found which pays its musicians at levels below pay group D.

    As a standard of comparison for the pay groups of the TVK orchestras, the following should be considered: The salary of a musician in a B orchestra is roughly equivalent to that of a non-tenured teacher at a primary school, in an A orchestra it to that of a secondary school teacher, in an A/F1 orchestra to that of a professor at a music academy. As a rule, the musicians in a professional orchestra are in an indefinite yet terminable employment relationship; they are not employed as civil servants. Civil servant musicians can still occasionally be found in police and federal police orchestras, although here, too, fresh engagements have been limited for several years to simple employment relationships.

  • Structural changes – dissolutions, mergers, changes in legal form

    While the number of theatres and orchestras first grew in 1990, in the wake of German reunification, this was soon followed by a wave of adjustment and consolidation. As a result – primarily in the newly formed German states – large numbers of theatres and orchestras were merged with one another, scaled back or eliminated entirely. This occurred for financial reasons – particularly in view of the limited transition financing provided by the German federal government. In the case of orchestras, this fate was met not only by small orchestras in a handful of rural areas, or on the theatre stages in the eastern section of Berlin; rather, it also affected larger orchestras in erstwhile regional capitals of the former DDR, including Schwerin, Erfurt, Potsdam or Suhl; as well as individual radio orchestras of the former DDR broadcaster in Berlin and Leipzig.

    Parallel to this special development in the newly formed German states, however, there were also grave structural adjustments in the states of what had been West Germany – primarily in North Rhine-Westphalia – from the closing of the Music Theatre in Oberhausen in 1992 to the insolvency of the Philharmonia Hungarica (Marl) in 2001 and the liquidation and insolvency of the Berliner Symphoniker in 2004, which now only work as project orchestras. The first all-German stocktaking in 1992 identified 168 publicly financed concert, opera, chamber and radio orchestras; since then, 39 ensembles have been dissolved or merged. At the close of the 2006-2007 performing season, the Philharmonische Staatsorchester Halle was merged with the Halle Opera House orchestra to create the Staatskapelle Halle. This gave rise to an ensemble with 152 positions, Germany’s second-largest orchestra after the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. Currently, however, debate is ongoing over a further reduction in the size of this orchestra. At the 2007-2008 performing season, the Rundfunksinfonieorchester Saarbrücken merged with the Rundfunkorchester Kaiserslautern to create the Deutsche Radiophilharmonie, based in Saarbrücken.

    The number of identified positions for musicians has dropped, from 12.159 in 1992 to 10.037 in 2008, with a loss of 2.122 or some 17 per cent. Of this reduction, 1.660 of the positions eliminated had been in the newly formed German states and former East Berlin, with the remaining 462 in the states of former West Germany and former West Berlin, whereas a slight increase was registered there for the first time since 1992.

  • Changes in legal form

    The upheaval of the 1990s was also marked by a privatisation boom – with its main focus to be found in the newly formed German states. This owed primarily to the fact that, in many cases, state structures of the former German Democratic Republic, especially the districts, for example, were eliminated and not replaced. Several newly constituted districts, in particular, felt that sole sponsorship of theatres and orchestras was a financial burden too heavy to bear. Here and there, this led to the formation of public-law authorities (e.g. the Thüringer Landestheater Eisenach-Rudolstadt-Saalfeld [a network which has since been dissolved], the Nordharzer Städtebundtheater Halberstadt [Saxony-Anhalt], or registered associations [e.g. Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha/Suhl, Theater Zeitz]), but in the vast majority of cases it led to the establishment of private limited liability companies [GmbHs]. Since 1990, in the area of professional orchestras, throughout Germany there have been 34 private limited liability companies established, 27 of them in the states of former East Germany. This trend peaked around the mid-1990s. The wave of privatisation and outsourcing of orchestras from public budgets, however, was not enough to parry the general cost increases in the human resources and material costs areas.

    Alongside this development, since 1990 there have also been 13 owner-operator ensembles established in which orchestra operations remain legally subject to influence through public financing, yet the ensembles enjoy greater independence and more flexibility. Prominent examples of this legal form are the Gewandhaus and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. The private-law registered associations did not always last long and frequently led to the establishment of private limited liability companies. One problem with this would appear to be that, as a legal form, the registered association does not provide adequate tools with which to operate an orchestra that frequently has a budget in the millions and a membership mixing natural and legal entities (the latter are usually communities). Volunteer association boards in particular are frequently confronted with considerable legal, financial and liability questions that can, at times, become overwhelming. The insolvencies of the sponsor associations in Marl (2001), Zeitz (2003) and the Berliner Symphoniker (2004) may be proof of this phenomenon.

  • The foundation as a new legal form

    Recently, the legal form of the foundation as a sponsor institution (or as a preliminary stage to a sponsor institution) has been used more frequently for theatre and orchestra operations. Thus far, this has been the case in Meiningen, although there the (private-law) theatre and orchestra foundation encompasses the former ducal museums as well; with the Württembergischen Philharmonie Reutlingen; and since 1 January 2002 with the Berliner Philharmoniker (with the latter as a foundation under public law). Since 1 January 2004, the three opera houses in Berlin (Deutsche Oper, Deutsche Staatsoper and Komische Oper) have been managed, with financial start-up assistance provided by the German federal government, as a foundation: the Stiftung Oper in Berlin. This was followed by the establishment of additional foundations in 2004, at the Brandenburgisches Staatstheater in Cottbus, at the Staatstheater Nürnberg and in 2005 at the Bamberger Symphoniker (Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie).

    The advantage of the public-law foundation as the legal form increasingly chosen lies, for one, in the fact that it is generally not susceptible to insolvency, meaning that it must be reliably financed with public subsidies over the long term. This enhances the trust of the staff and the reputation of the institution in public and among (private) financial backers. Since – unlike the North American opera and orchestra foundations, for instance, which are worth millions – the orchestra typically lacks an identifiable foundation capital of its own, as foundations required to rely purely on donations, these institutions remain, as before, dependent on pubic financial subsidies. As a rule, though, donation contracts, with terms of up to five years, provide planners with far greater reliability than is currently available under most of the other legal and organisational forms.

    Now and then, private friends and patrons of the orchestras are no longer organized simply as an association but also opt, by way of replacement or supplement, for the foundation as the form of choice (e.g. in the case of the Mainfranken Theater Würzburg, the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie Herford, Philharmonie Südwestfalen Hilchenbach, Niedersächsischen Staatstheater Hannover, Stadttheater Heidelberg or Theater Annaberg).

  • Management and leadership structures

    It is not possible to offer a standardized description of the management and leadership structures of German professional orchestras. Essentially, these are contingent upon the respective legal and organisational form (1), the type of orchestra involved (opera or concert orchestra) (2), and upon the ties the ensemble maintains with a production or performance facility (3).

    (1) Most community- and state-sponsored professional orchestras have the status of publicly owned enterprises and are incorporated directly in the public budgetary and administrative structures of the legal entities that sponsor them. The director or manager of an opera house or orchestra thus fulfils the role of a department or office head and has relatively limited discretions at his or her disposal. Under what is known as an optimised publicly owned enterprise, usually the management enjoys autonomy in staffing decisions and more flexible budget organisation. Theoretically, the legal forms of the publicly owned enterprise, the private limited liability company and the foundation give managers greater latitude of action and determination; put into practise, however, this largely depends on the specific organisation of the internal structures of the ensemble, the rules and regulations in place, the influence exercised by supervisory bodies, the long-term nature of funding contracts. And it naturally also depends on the qualifications of the protagonists involved.

    (2) If an orchestra is directly integrated into a pure music theatre operation as an opera orchestra (pure opera house), then from an organisational standpoint it is usually run by an orchestra manager/managing director. This is also the case for the larger-scale, multi-category operations, i.e. mostly the large city and state theatres which in addition to music theatre also offer stage theatre, ballet and at times other categories such as children’s and youth theatre or puppet theatre or experimental theatre and have an appropriately large orchestra for the purpose. Overall artistic responsibility for the orchestra rests with the (general) director and the musical director (principal conductor/general music director). In addition to operas, operettas and musicals, the orchestra in a music theatre also normally plays a certain number of symphony concerts each performing season, yet to date it has not been viewed as a category of its own among the typical organisational structures encountered. The organisational problem facing most opera orchestras is the constriction of close involvement in ongoing rehearsals, stage operations and productions within the theatres to which they are appended, with all the incalculabilities and frequent changes in plan at short notice.

    The management and leadership structures of concert orchestras are considerably clearer as these are limited to the organisation of an independent schedule of concert and guest performances, free of other categories or the strictures of stage performances. Typically, an independent concert orchestra is led by a director who is at the pinnacle of the operation and has overall responsibility for artistic, business and organisational matters. Usually one tier lower than the director are the principal conductor/GMD, the general manager and the administration; the third level features all of the other departments (human resources, accounting, ticket sales, dramaturgy – usually accompanied by a press and public relations operation, etc.).

    There are, however, also orchestras that play in music theatres while also maintaining a demanding schedule of concerts as well. The Philharmoniker Hamburg, for instance, works as a publicly operated concert orchestra of the Hanseatic City of Hamburg while at the same time performing under contract to fulfil the orchestra duties of the Hamburgische Staatsoper GmbH. Similar arrangements are also in place, for example, for the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie Koblenz (state-run) in relation to the city theatre there; for the Neue Philharmonie Westfalen (Gelsenkirchen/Recklinghausen), which also performs at the Musiktheater im Revier in Gelsenkirchen; or for the Hofer Symphoniker, which not only performs at the Hofer Theater but also operates a music school of its own as well. Here, the management enjoys all of the benefits of the complete flexibility and independence of a concert orchestra, combined with the contractual safety of specific music-theatre productions.

    (3) If a concert orchestra maintains direct ties with a concert hall as the venue’s orchestra in residence (e.g. Berliner Philharmoniker with the Berliner Philharmonie, Konzerthausorchester Berlin with the Konzerthaus Berlin, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig with the Gewandhaus), then the tasks of pure orchestra administration are compounded by the addition of all of the services and organisational structures of concert-hall operations and the hiring out of the venue to third parties. In this case, the orchestra, as host, enjoys the greatest opportunities for development: priority in planning its own concert series and dates before other visiting orchestras in the same hall; freedom to plan chamber, special event and sponsored concerts; carrying out workshops; additional revenues from rentals and events. This ideal state, it might be added, applies to all of the large and medium-sized concert orchestras in the USA, but only in isolated instances in Germany.

    The radio ensembles (with the exception of the two orchestras and two choruses of the ROC Berlin and the SWR Big Band) are directly linked with the production and broadcasting structures of their respective broadcasting companies. The management of the radio station usually includes an ensemble department – depending on the number of ensembles involved. These departments feature orchestra managers or directors who, with their own small staffs, are responsible for organising rehearsals, productions and concerts by the individual ensembles, while other departments within the broadcasting company help with all of the other cross-sectional tasks, such as human resources administration, payroll accounting, ticket sales, etc. Many radio music halls and studios can no longer accommodate modern-day concert performances before large audiences. Consequently, the radio symphony orchestras – the larger ones in particular – must turn to local concert halls elsewhere in their metropolitan areas. On the other hand, radio ensembles backed by large broadcasting operations enjoy the kind of – not always optimally used – editorial and promotional logistics operations of which other ensembles can only dream.

  • Orchestra financing and flexibility

    German professional orchestras are financed primarily through public subsidies, particularly subsidies provided by state and local government, or through radio and TV licence fees. The box-office returns and the orchestras’ own resources vary widely from one category to the next (music theatre, concert, etc.) and from one region to the next. On average, they account for approx. 17 per cent of the budget – and are frequently below yet in some cases above this level. An orchestra cannot increase its own resources at will, either. Limited hall seating and parking capacity, the smaller catchment areas for certain orchestras, affordable ticket pricing to which the public is accustomed, and a historically rooted expectation of state sponsorship on the part of the populace all act to prohibit short-term, sustained increases in revenue and an excessive increase in the price of concert admission.

    In most orchestras, the issue of augmenting the ensemble’s own resources is additionally thwarted by the legal (and budgetary) situation. To the extent that an orchestra – regardless of whether the ensemble’s legal sponsorship is private or public – is not subject to the restrictions of what is referred to as budgeting (and to date this is the case for a mere handful), any surplus earnings and the potential formation of reserves can lead to a cutback in public subsidies for the coming budget or fiscal year.

    Compared with other countries, e.g. the USA, there are also provisions in the laws on commercial competition that prohibit theatre and orchestra sponsorship organisations from availing themselves of direct marketing activities on a broader scale. Currently, the comparatively much smaller staff size of orchestra administrative offices is an impediment to the staff and marketing activities that are actually urgently needed if new segments of the concert-going public are to be reached. As a rule of thumb, one can assume that a German concert orchestra that does not operate its own concert hall devotes a level of no more than ten per cent of its artistic staff to management and administrative tasks (meaning that there are approx. ten administrative staff for every 100 musicians, and at times even fewer than ten). In comparison, elsewhere the staff size (full- and part-time) – particularly for North American orchestras – usually exceeds the levels of artistic staff. For want of direct public subsidies, the fund-raising and marketing efforts for orchestras elsewhere are far more concentrated. The considerable tax advantages for private donors make patronage of cultural institutions in the USA a public matter as well, albeit only indirectly.

    In Germany, to date, broad-based, voluntary social participation by members of the public in the organisation of professional orchestras that offer serious cultural programming is as unusual as it is, to a large extent, still unknown. Only a few institutions make use of the opportunities that already exist for a freiwilliges soziales Jahr (a gap year taken to do voluntary work in the social sector) in the cultural arena.

    Sponsorship groups and friends’ associations are in existence and perform an important service by broadening the base for a regional appreciation and awareness of culture. However, like sponsoring, they do not play an economically significant role when it comes to orchestra financing. The German tax code currently does not offer sufficient incentives for an increase in sponsoring, donation or patronage – benefits that to date could only serve to support isolated projects or events. Given the strained federal budget situation, indications by the German federal government are that further relief in this area will not be forthcoming in the near future.

  • Numbers of events and concert-goers, box-office returns and total budgets

    The theatre and concert figures currently available reveal that the cultural statistics in Germany are still victim to considerable defects and gaps. The theatre statistics of the German Theatre and Orchestra Association [Deutscher Bühnenverein (DBV)] fails to take into account, for one, the events and attendance figures for the 12 radio orchestras and radio symphony orchestras, other radio ensembles or the Konzerthaus Berlin; in addition, the DBV statistics evaluate figures for ensembles that merely perform as project orchestras, in very small groups or at a semi-professional level. At times, the data collected is incomplete, although statistics on the individual institutions are elaborated in a transparent manner.

    Working – bearing these caveats in mind – from current theatre statistics, the following picture is gained: In spite of the grave structural changes described, and in spite of reductions in size and closings of theatre and orchestra organisations, the number of concert events recorded steadily grew until the 2005-2006 performing season, to a level of 8.428. The trend for concert-goers essentially paralleled the trend in events. Still, after peaking at 3.99 million concert-goers during the 2003-2004 season, the figure dropped again even as the number of concerts continued to grow.

    In an across-the-board and complete survey of all professional orchestras and radio ensembles (big bands excluded) for the 2005-2006 season, the German Orchestra Union [Deutsche Orchestervereinigung (DOV)] counted a total of 12.798 concert events, 5.918 of these symphony concerts (including tours abroad), 1.136 chamber music concerts and 3.747 events for music education (concerts for children and young adults, concerts for school pupils and workshops held in schools). These statistics document the special significance that has already accrued for the new activities for orchestras in the area of music outreach, an area which comprises concerts for children, young adults and school groups, along with workshops. In comparison to the 2003-2004 season, events in this category have grown by nearly 75 per cent and now account for more than 30 per cent of all events. Unfortunately, it was not possible to compile precise figures for the numbers of concert-goers involved as these are not always recorded for school or open-air events or for guest performances.

    As long as there is a continued lack of reliable and complete data for all concert events by sponsors of professional orchestras, by broadcasting companies and by event organisers, it is likely to be difficult to identify any trends in statistics for concert-goers. Even more problematic is the recording, breakdown and incorporation of attendance figures for new concert halls, such as in Dortmund, Essen and Duisburg, and soon in Bochum, and for major German music festivals (Schleswig-Holstein Musikfestival, Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Rheingau-Festival), as these involve appearances by significant German and foreign orchestras, along with numerous other ensembles, and where standardised attendance statistics are not compiled.

    According to theatre statistics, the figures for attendance and capacity utilisation for music theatre events and concerts for theatre orchestras alone (without concert orchestras) have not undergone significant change between the 1993-1994 and the 2005-2006 season and, with average capacity utilisation rates of between 70 and 80 per cent, have remained high with relative regularity.

    The figure totals show that the public spoken and music theatres, like the concert orchestras, are more than mere recipients of donations; instead, they are quite influential community undertakings that, at a regional level, represent a force of supply and demand that in consequence of its production methods creates bonds between highly qualified experts and the location in which they work. This leads, on the one hand, to a direct reflux in inland revenue while, on the other hand, enabling other branches of industry to share, directly or indirectly, in the economic activities of the theatres.

  • The situation of opera and radio choruses and of radio ensembles in general

    The number of opera chorus positions to be filled in German music theatres has also fallen, losing more than 11 per cent since 1993 and currently at approx. 2.900. There is also a serious lack of young talent in this area. Each year, there is a need for approx. 160 new singers in German music theatres (soloists included). Some 300 trained singers graduate from German schools of music and conservatories annually; of these, only approx. ten per cent, or 30, find a lasting job as a professional singer (solo, concert singing, opera or radio choruses). Each year, some 80 to 100 positions continuously go unfilled in opera choruses each year.

    In radio choruses, the number of positions has also continually dropped since 1990; meanwhile, due to a lack of sufficient new hires, in some instances this has led to a structural ageing among the chorus membership. In exchange, there has also been growth in the ranks of professional singers hired by radio broadcasters on a project basis for larger assignments as chorus reinforcements. Radio choruses have, in the meantime, also grown indispensable as concert choirs for symphony-chorus performances by the major community-based orchestras, and for CD productions.

    Ever since several German state premiers published structural reflections in 2003 offering ways of reforming the German radio system that exists under public law, and within the framework of the discussion surrounding an increase in radio and TV licence fees, radio orchestras have also been trimmed down in various locations, although the spectrum of approaches ranges from non-hiring to reductions in size to dissolution and mergers. One feature common to all of the reflections in this regard is that the affected broadcasting companies justified them on the basis of a lower-than-expected increase in radio and TV licence fees, an increase recommended by the Commission created to identify the financing needs of the public broadcasting companies [Kommission zur Ermittlung des Finanzbedarfs der öffentlichrechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten (KEF)]. Particularly hard hit were the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, with a reduction from 71 to some 54 positions, along with the SWR-Vokalensemble Stuttgart. With future annual fees of more than €7 billion, fixed costs for employing the artistic staff on the payrolls of orchestras amount to some €155 million each year, for a share of approx. 2.2 per cent. In 2004, the ARD itself had set the costs for all radio ensembles at €0.36 of the monthly radio and TV licence fee.

    In September 2007, the Federal Constitutional Court strengthened the legal position of the broadcasting corporations and again confirmed the independent regulation of licence fees through the KEF against the attempted intervention of the federal states. The threatening scenario which broadcasting orchestras were facing until a few years ago seems to have reversed into its opposite. Especially the production of music through the broadcasters’ own ensembles is a useful argument in the debate with the EU administration over potentially illegal state subsidies that may distort competition.

  • New orchestral activities – influencing the world of music

    It is a well-known fact that concert and theatre orchestras have a wide variety of ways of influencing the world of music beyond the production of symphony concerts and opera performances. In actual fact, in all orchestras there is a broad spectrum of chamber-music formations which either exist or meet on a project basis to enrich the local and regional concert scene, voluntarily and quite apart from their official obligations. The realms of music schools, the amateur, student, youth and county youth orchestras, not to mention church music, profit in many ways from the involvement of orchestra members. Professional musicians are frequently active as volunteers not just as instrumental teachers but also in their capacity as expert mentors to these non-professional orchestras or as soloists.

    There is also a welcome upward trend in the area of orchestra activities for children, young adults and families. Since 2000, with its Concerts for Children Initiative [Initiative Konzerte für Kinder], the organisation Jeunesses Musicales Deutschland (JMD) has developed extensive activities particularly intended to convey specific and new findings in professional ways of devising concerts for children and young adults. Since then, more and more orchestras have taken up the cause of working with children, young people and school groups; this is shown by the figures now regularly collected (see above comments on events in music education). The Education Project organised by the Berliner Philharmoniker has received an unwaveringly high level of interest. Since autumn 2002, the project has been carried out with financial support by the Deutsche Bank, and both in substantive and media terms the project serves a certain model role. Since 2004, numerous other new activities by orchestras in the schools have been developed and documented as part of the Netzwerk Orchester & Schulen network ( Here, school musicians, orchestra musicians and their associations work together closely at all levels, offering an opportunity for a regular exchange of experiences and for participation in continuing educational events.

    The young ears network [Netzwerk Junge Ohren], with headquarters in Berlin, was newly established in spring 2007. This is a network in which various music associations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have joined forces to work across national boundaries to co-ordinate and further develop activities by orchestras, music theatres, concert halls, as well as by music publishers and makers of music recordings, to expose young people to music ( Every year the network awards the Junge Ohren Preis (young ears prize) for outstanding musical outreach projects within the german-speaking areas (

  • Prospects for the future

    The threat to the institution of the orchestra over the last few years, documented in the figures offered here, is the product not so much of a genuine identity crisis but rather of the increasingly narrow basis for financing offered by the public authorities.

    In the past, public funding was subject to heavy strain – all the more so at the state and local levels – yet these budgets cannot be rejuvenated through efforts to freeze funding levels, or through additional cuts in cultural support. After all, accounting as it does for only approx. one per cent of budget volume, cultural funding is marginal at best. Nor can additional changes in legal forms, or an escape from wage agreements, do anything to alter the structurally ineradicable fact that human resources costs make up approx. 85-90 per cent of budgets in theatres and orchestras. This stands in contrast to the general public budget in which this item only accounts for some 33-40 per cent. If an across-the-board cut is instituted here, the strain upon orchestras and theatres is up to three times the level placed on the budget in general. This phenomenon affects future developments just as much as the question of ways to offset increasing costs – an issue frequently considered a necessary evil in the public sector generally, yet for which theatres and orchestras are often expected to offset on their own initiative. Over the medium to long term, this administrative cost trap can lead to the closure of other cultural institutions and other orchestras. Even if public subsidies are simply frozen at current levels, this inevitably leads to reductions in staff. These institutions have few opportunities to take steps to counteract this on their own: to cushion just one per cent in linear annual growth in labour costs calls for a sustained annual growth in box-office returns of around five per cent. In light of resumed growth in inland revenue at the federal, state and local levels since 2006 as a result of the general economic upturn, one wonders whether the financial circumstances of theatres and orchestras will also improve as a consequence.

    Regardless of these current developments, in future the publicly subsidised music theatres, theatres and orchestras will continue to face increasingly harsh competition over the distribution of public funding. It is evident that the arguments heard in this regard in the cultural and financial policy arenas, pleading for the ostensible need for additional cutbacks, have scarcely changed during the last few decades. Indeed, constant repetition has not made the arguments more sound. For artistic reasons, for reasons relating to musical scores, for reasons of orchestra size, and for reasons of the tasks at hand, there are absolute limits to the staff cutbacks of recent years. Here, too, countermeasures and a change of approach seem required if long-term damage to the cultural substance is to be avoided.

    The German orchestras have high, at times unused potential for development, but they hardly have room to save additional money. What they need is greater latitude in the management area, a considerable professionalisation of management, and greater reliability for planning by means of medium-term allocation agreements that reward, rather than punish, reasonable use of funds and higher box-office returns. Neoliberalism may also espouse the theory that theatres and orchestras must make their own way in the marketplace in the same manner as everything else. Some proclaim economic Darwinism: only what sells will survive. This flies in the face, however, to the historical fact that in every era throughout Western civilisation the highest artistic standard was achieved through subvention funding: whether through the church, the crown, aristocracy or the public purse.

    If theatres and orchestras were perceived by the political arena, by the media, and by the public, as meaningful cultural activities and as small- to medium-sized business enterprises at the same time – enterprises that, given a great level of dedication by qualified experts, generate an urbane quality of life and thus represent hard factors relevant for business location and education, that would be a vast accomplishment. If not, Germany risks losing its pinnacle position as a nation of culture, too.

The author:

Gerald Mertens is an attorney, church musician and Managing Director of unisono Deutsche Musik- und Orchestervereinigung. As editor-in-chief, he is also responsible for the periodical das Orchester. He is a part-time lecturer in orchestra management at the Europa Universität Frankfurt (Oder).


1st March 2008
Update of important figures: June 2018