One for all und all for one

A brief look back at the rich history of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester reveals an orchestra that is more than the sum of its parts.

Holger Noltze

The slogan “One for all and all for one” may initially remind us of football but it is in fact taken from Alexandre Dumas’ timeless novel The Three Musketeers, which was written before the invention of football as a sport. These words express the individual’s unconditional commitment to the collective and his (or her) willingness to subordinate the particular to the general. This beautiful idea can be applied with arguably even greater justification to music-making as part of an ensemble. In football it is ultimately only the goals that count, so everything depends on the player who scores those goals. Fencing, too, could be said to be first and fore-most a solo discipline. But making music together involves a deeper truth: indivi-dual excellence must be acknowledged as part of a greater whole. Players must be able to listen and, where necessary, step back from the limelight. It is this abili-ty that marks out the true artist within the collective. Indeed, it is this that decides the quality of a body of musicians – not that this precludes either the appeal or the principle of contrapuntal polyphony. This principle has always been a promi-nent feature of the long and glorious history of what is now the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, formerly known as the Munich Hofkapelle and, five hundred years ago, as the Munich Kantorei. The appointment of that brilliant master of polyphony, Ludwig Senfl, as musicus intonator in 1523 marks the beginning of one of the world’s longest orchestral histories. Although Duke Albrecht V may have had a reputation as a man who suffered from melancholia, it was his artistic un-derstanding and farsightedness that inspired him to appoint the cosmopolitan Flemish composer Roland de Lassus – known in Italian as Orlando di Lasso – as tenor secundus at his court in 1556. By 1563 Lasso was the maestro della musica di camera and the Kantorei’s principal composer. As the master of a new vocal and instrumental style of composition, he opened up the prospect of a new sym-phonic approach to music that still lay far in the future. In short, there is a long line linking this period with Wagner’s ideal of the sort of sonorities that are found in his later music dramas. The Munich Hofkapelle has had the honour of premiering not only Mozart’s Idomeneo but also Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – a work that changed the course of musical history – and his Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
But the orchestra was also instrumental in bringing about a shift in attitudes to middle-class culture. The Academy Concerts that were established to promote symphonic music date back to 1811. Over two centuries later, the orchestra is still organizing these concerts. After all, the players are able to perform not only ope-ras. They began with a symphony in D major by an as yet relatively little-known composer by the name of Beethoven. The list of the conductors – some of them among the greatest practitioners of their art – who have headed this special and long-standing artists’ collective, which since 1918 has been known as the Bayeri-sches Staatsorchester, is a lengthy one and extends from Franz Lachner, Hans von Bülow, Hermann Levi and Richard Strauss to Bruno Walter, Hans Knapperts-busch, Georg Solti, Rudolf Kempe, Joseph Keilberth, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Zubin Mehta, Kent Nagano, Kirill Petrenko and, most recently, Vladimir Jurowski: an almost intimidating roll of honour stretching back over five centuries and starting out with Orlando di Lasso.
A further long-standing aspect of the orchestra’s activities has been its travels in the form of extended tours across Europe and to Asia. Its special interplay of venerable tradition and its desire to embrace the new may be heard in the world’s great centres of music, including Carnegie Hall, the Elbphilharmonie and Lucer-ne’s Culture and Congress Centre. For the eighth year in a row and the tenth time in all, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester has recently been named "Orchestra of the Year“ in a poll conducted among fifty international music critics for Opernwelt magazine. It is no surprise, therefore, that the orchestra has sought to document its successful performances on its own label, Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings. Its very first releases were showered with prestigious prizes, including no fewer than four Gramophone Awards. Its work in preserving the past through the medi-um of recordings has met with an entirely positive response.
We should not forget that with music-making, too, the truth is to be found “on the field”. The individuals who make up the team must learn to submit to a single figu-re. At least for as long as the music is still playing.