An eventful history

The Sinfonieorchester Basel came into existence when the Basler Sinfonie-Orchester merged with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel in 1997. But that's only part of the story. The present-day Sinfonieorchester is the heir to a tradition that goes back more than 300 years. It is a story rich in highs and lows. Larger-than-life personalities and artistic ambitions play their part, and so do institutions, concert halls and money. The name of the orchestra has been changed several times, and more than one sponsor has had to abandon it because of financial problems. But apart from the brief period of the Helvetic Republic, the ensemble itself never disappeared from the scene.

Compiled by Simon Niederhauser



Seal of the Collegium Musicum

Die Abbildung zeigt einen Abdruck des Siegels des Collegium Musicum auf einem Vertrag von 1774. In der Mitte des Siegelabdrucks sind eine Violine und (vermutlich) ein Oboe zu erkennen, die Umschrift lautet: COLL : MUSI : BASILIEENSIS : 1708

Vivaldi, wine and bread

Basel high society founded the Collegium Musicum to foster vocal music as long ago as 1692, but just a few years later the project foundered on the twin reefs of problems with money and finding young talent. The relaunch came in 1708, with the focus on instrumental music. Pieces from Antonio Vivaldi's L'estro armonico – a novelty at the time – are known to have been performed. The Collegium consisted of lay musicians ("dilettantes") who called on professional musicians for support, paying them in bread and wine from the cellars of Collegium members. Rehearsals took place on Augustinergasse on Wednesdays from four to seven o'clock. Membership reached the impressive level of twenty.


The Upper Collegium

Having owned the Augustinian monastery since 1528, the city of Basel put it at the disposal of the University from 1532. It was subsequently used as classrooms and reception rooms. The building was called the Upper Collegium to distinguish it from the (lower) Collegium on Rheinsprung. The Collegium Musicum held its concerts here until 1826, and from 1752 in the "Prytaneum" – which had been specially rebuilt for concert purposes and had seating for up to 400 persons.

Honorary members and ill-bred audiences

In the middle of the 18th century the Collegium Musicum was taken over by a few dynamic music lovers. New scores and instruments were acquired, and occasional financial support was forthcoming from the authorities. From 1752 the Collegium played in the "Prytaneum", a fairly large hall in the Upper Collegium of the University. The orchestra had up to 40 members, one third of whom were paid musicians. The introduction of a subscription system with free ("honorary") members expanded audiences, and the concerts became social occasions. Audiences did not always conduct themselves with decorum, as Basel magistrate Emanuel Wolleb wrote in a satirical pamphlet: "I am thoroughly angry about the ill breeding of our people. It's true: not one in six of them comes to listen to the music. The women come to be seen, and the men come to see them."


Collegium Musicum concert

When Emanuel Burckhardt-Sarasin drew his caricature of a performance by the Basel Collegium Musicum ("a music lovers' concert") in 1790, he was just 14 years old. The teenager showed little respect, making fun of the concert as a bourgeois event. The audience seemed little interested in the music, and the depiction of their faces is not exactly flattering.

The 'Concert-Direktion' sets the tone

The Collegium's financial situation was precarious. Yet again the enthusiastic intervention of music lovers was needed to avert its demise. The management of the Collegium, which now called itself the 'Concert-Direktion', was anxious to raise concerts to a new level. It was only partially successful in this, as we can see from the words of travel writer Christian Gottlieb Schmidt: "There was a great deal of music in terms of quantity, though not much in terms of quality. The ladies and gentlemen of the ensemble were given little encouragement by the audience, which mostly conversed among themselves at a very audible volume - often so loudly that the few true aficionados of music kept having to bang their sticks violently on the floor to get a little peace and quiet." But there was some progress: professional musicians were now paid fixed annual salaries, plus fees for each concert and solo performance.


Johannes Tollmann

The fame and reputation of Johannes Tollmann (1777-1829) as orchestral conductor extended well beyond Basel. Regarded as Switzerland's first director of music, he headed the Swiss Music Festival seven times. In 1822 the Swiss Music Society made him an honorary member.

New broom from Mannheim

Following the Helvetic Revolution of 1798 the Collegium was forced to discontinue its concerts. They were restarted in 1803, and two years later violinist Johannes Tollmann was appointed the orchestra's conductor. Tollmann had made his name in the legendary Mannheim Court Orchestra. In Basel he instituted regular rehearsals and familiarized audiences with the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven – but cleansed of those passages that he thought too ambitious for the audience and the orchestra alike. He directed the orchestra from the leader's stand. Thanks to Tollmann's excellent connections, the city is now frequently visited by great virtuosos – though a comment by Louis Spohr after a guest appearance in 1816 shows that the Basel orchestra could not yet measure up to those of the great metropolitan centres: "Except for four or five artistes, the orchestra consists entirely of amateurs - the accompaniment of my solo pieces was frightful, especially on the part of the wind instruments. Poor Tollmann! I pity him for having to listen to music like that from one year's end to the next. Yet orchestras in other Swiss towns are even worse, he says."


Melchior Berri

Architect Melchior Berri (1801-1854) was responsible for several of Basel's monumental buildings in the first half of the 19th century. Besides the Casino and the Theater am Blömlein (see 1834), Berri – who was fascinated by the Renaissance – also designed the Museum on Augustinergasse that currently houses the Museum of Natural History. It stands on the site of what was once the Upper Collegium, where the Collegium Musicum held its concerts until 1826.

Casino mark I

Requirements had grown, and the hall in the Upper Collegium could no longer satisfy them. "Low-ceilinged, quick to fill with fumes, it is often too small – forcing people to stand in the crowd for hours. Its construction is not acoustically effective, the doors are very close to the orchestra, the staircase is very disturbing, cloakroom and refreshment spaces are pathetic" – in the words of an 1822 appeal for subscriptions for the construction of a casino. Four years later the wish became reality. Henceforth the Basel orchestra's concerts took place on Steinenberg, in the casino designed by Melchior Berri. The Concertgesellschaft (Concert Society) was created as the successor to the Collegium and its Concert Directorate.


The Theater auf dem Blömlein

Melchior Berri's new theatre seated 1,300, at a time when the city of Basel had a population of 24,000.

Basel gets a theatre

The 'Theater am Blömlein', which was also based on plans by Melchior Berri, appeared diagonally opposite the Casino. It rapidly established itself as a second centre of bourgeois culture, on a par with the Concertgesellschaft's subscription concerts. For the orchestra the new theatre became an important constant factor, especially as its programme contained more operas than plays as early as its second season. Works by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini were dominant, in keeping with contemporary tastes.


Ernst Reiter

Ernst Reiter (1814-1875), who studied under Louis Spohr (violin) and Moritz Hauptmann (musical theory), came to Basel in 1836. Prior to his appointment as the orchestra's Director of Music in 1839 he had already worked as a conductor at the Basel Theatre. But he was much more than a conductor: he also performed as a solo violinist, as well as playing first violin in string quartets. Reiter's successes as a composer included his oratorio Das neue Paradies (The New Paradise) (1845). From 1845 Reiter was also the Director of the Choral Society, and from 1852 Director of the Basler Liedertafel male-voice choir, of which he was a co-founder.

Links to the wider world of music

Ernst Reiter, a pupil of Louis Spohr, became the Concertgesellschaft's Director of Music in 1839. In 1853 he gave the first performance in Switzerland of Beethoven's 9th symphony, followed in 1861 and 1863 respectively by the first Swiss performances of Bach's St John and St Matthew Passions. Among the audience in 1863 was an impressed Johannes Brahms. Works by contemporary composers – Spohr, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Schumann – were also firmly established items on his concert programmes. During his 36-year tenure Basel became an important port of call for the great virtuosos and conductors of the age: Henri Vieuxtemps, Clara Schumann, Hans von Bülow, Anton Rubinstein, Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms were regular visitors, performing as soloists or with the orchestra. Basel's music scene experienced a massive upturn.


"Vue de la ville de Bâle et de ses environs"

The Capell-Verein

By this time the orchestra was big enough and professional enough to cope with even the most ambitious repertoire works. The same could not be said of its sponsors. In 1855 a new orchestral sponsor – the Capell-Verein – was established, with the objective of giving the orchestra's musicians a fixed salary and its clients a firm foundation. Initially it did not hold concerts of its own, instead hiring the orchestra out to its clients: the Concertgesellschaft, the Sommercasino company, the Choral Society, the theatre and the Casino.



Basel's Martinskirche was first documented in the 12th century, while its north and south faces and the polygonal choir date from the late 14th century. The church was substantially renovated and altered in 1851. This involved the replacement of the rood screen (the barrier in front of the choir) by a concert stage, on which the Capell-Verein held its concerts from 1860 until 1876. Today the Martinskirche is still a popular concert venue.



Competition and discord

Soon after its establishment, the orchestra's new sponsor (the Capell-Verein) found itself in dire financial straits. From 1860, in order to raise funds, it held its own concerts in the Martinskirche, also under the direction of Ernst Reiter. This had the initial effect of popularizing concerts: access to concerts in the Casino continued to be restricted to members of the Concertgesellschaft, but anyone at all could buy a ticket for those in the Martinskirche. At the same time, the sponsor suddenly found itself in competition with the orchestra's principal user: the Concertgesellschaft. The atmosphere in Basel's musical world was toxic. There were struggles for power and discord.


Concert pitch a'

With the emancipation of symphony orchestras as an autonomous entity in the first half of the 19th century, there was a widespread inflationary rise in concert pitch. – though it was widely resisted, especially by singers. In 1859 – as proposed by Gioacchino Rossini and Giaccomo Meyerbeer, among others – the French government issued a decree fixing the pitch of a1 at 435 Hz. This "standard concert pitch" subsequently became broadly established as a feature of European musical life. The tuning of today's symphony orchestras with modern instruments lies between 440 and 443 Hz (the Sinfonieorchester Basel works with a¹=442 Hz).

Diapason normal

Complaints about the Basel orchestra's high pitch multiplied - not only from Basel choirs, but also from prominent soloists like Hans von Bülow and Clara Schumann. In 1867, following initial resistance, the pitch was adjusted to the standard French level of a1 (the A above middle C) = 435 Hz. This change forced the orchestra to acquire expensive new instruments. These were funded by a loan, plus the proceeds of a benefit concert that included Schumann's Paradise and the Peri.


Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms was by far the most frequently-performed contemporary composer in Basel in the 1870s and 1880s. He visited the city several times, often at the invitation of Friedrich Riggenbach-Stehlin and his wife Margaretha. Brahms performed with the Basel orchestra on a total of four occasions: in 1874 (with his Song of Triumph), 1881 (inter alia with his 1st symphony and as soloist in his 2nd piano concerto), 1882 (with his 2nd symphony and the world premiere of his Song of the Fates) and 1887 (with his double concerto).

Brahms conducts, Nietzsche listens.

At the Basel Choral Society's anniversary concert on 9 June 1874 in the Basel Minster, Johannes Brahms conducted his Triumphlied (Song of Triumph) for choir, orchestra and soloists. The young Friedrich Nietzsche, professor at Basel University, was in the audience – and this fervent Wagnerian was impressed. In a letter to a friend he wrote: "Your fellow-countryman Brahms was here not long ago, and I've heard a lot of his work – first and foremost his Song of Triumph, which he conducted himself. Coming to terms with Brahms has been one of the most challenging tests of conscience I have ever faced. I now have an opinion of this man, but a very tentative one as yet ..."


J.J. Stehlin's Stadttheater

Designed by Johann Jakob Stehlin the younger in the neo-baroque style, the new Stadttheater was inaugurated on 4 October 1875. It had seating for an audience of 1,600 on four tiers, with a generously-proportioned foyer, ultra-modern stage equipment and a ventilation system. The theatre was rebuilt after burning down almost completely in 1904. It was replaced by the present theatre in 1975.

First state subsidies thanks to the new theatre

The operations of the Stadttheater had been in crisis for years. It had to be closed temporarily during the 1859/60 season, and in 1873 it ground to a complete halt. That had painful financial consequences for the orchestra. Two years later a new, larger theatre brought a new beginning. The cantonal parliament came to appreciate that a proper theatre needed to be properly run, and it granted the theatre an annual subsidy of 12,000 francs – on condition that this went to the orchestra for its services to the theatre.

1876 to 1988