From the Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft to the Basel Orchestral Society

In 1876 the concert hall on Steinenberg opened, and the Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft was established – laying the foundation for the Basel orchestra's flourishing development that continued until World War 1. In 1921, as a consequence of the financially stretched post-war years, a new orchestral sponsor emerged: the Basel Orchestral Society (BOG), which shaped Basel's orchestral scene for almost seventy years. In 1970 it even incorporated a second orchestra: the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel.


The 'Musiksaal'

The concert hall on Steinenberg (Musiksaal) is one of several representative buildings designed by architect Johann Jakob Stehlin the younger that defined the Basel cityscape towards the end of the 19th century. It is acknowledged to be one of the finest concert halls of its age, and to this day it remains the home of the Sinfonieorchester Basel. Beginning in the summer of 2016 it will undergo extensive renovations, as part of which the reception and foyer areas will be redesigned.

A key year

At the beginning of the 1870s the Capell-Verein, the Concertgesellschaft, the Choral Society and the Liedertafel launched a subscription appeal for a new concert hall. It met with a great deal of resonance, but with just as much resistance. The proposed hall was too expensive and acoustically inferior, it was said - and it was questionable whether the orchestra was anything like big enough or good enough for a hall like that. But on 4 October 1876 the concert hall on Steinenberg was inaugurated. Alfred Volkland conducted Beethoven's 9th symphony. The acoustics were excellent.

A further milestone in the orchestra's history is closely connected with the new hall: the Capell-Verein and the Concertgesellschaft, both in financial difficulties, merged to form Basel's Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft (AMG). That brought the gruelling competitive situation to an end. To meet the requirements of the new hall, the orchestra was expanded under its new sponsor: it now counted 52 members, 38 of them professional musicians.

The year's third major development was the selection of Alfred Volkland as successor to Ernst Reiter, who had died in 1875. Volkland was not the first choice - Friedrich Hegar was, but he decided to accept an attractive offer from the Zurich Orchestral Association, which later became the Tonhalle orchestra.


Anna Hegner

Basel violinist Anna Hegner (1881-1963) became the first female string player in the AMG orchestra when she joined it in 1900, aged 19. She attracted international attention as a soloist in her early years, performing seven times at the London Proms between 1902 and 1925. She decided against a career as a soloist, however, instead joining Frankfurt's Hoch Conservatory in 1904 as a teacher – where one of her pupils was Paul Hindemith. In 1908 she settled in Münchenstein, and in 1914 she returned to the Basel orchestra - remaining there until 1950 except for a five-year break. In 1947 she became the orchestra's first female leader.

Women in the orchestra

Many European orchestras remained men-only well into the 20th century, but the AMG orchestra admitted the first female musician - harpist Johanna Koch-Amort - into its ranks as early as 1899. Until the end of the first world war the proportion of the orchestra's female members grew steadily, on occasion to as much as a quarter. After that, though, there were rarely more than three or four female musicians. As recently as 1969 the 91 members of the orchestra included just five women: a little over 5 per cent. Today women account for around 29 per cent.


Hermann Suter

Together with Friedrich Hegar and Hans Huber, Hermann Suter (1870-1926) was one of the most prominent Swiss composers at the turn of the century. His most important work is the oratorio Le Laudi die San Francesco of 1923. In the same year he wrote the music for the Wettstein and Riehen Festival, which included the Wettstein March which is popular to this day. As well as the orchestra, Suter also conducted the Basel Choral Society and the Liedertafel - and on top of that he was Director of the Basel Conservatoire for three years. In 1913 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Basel.

With Suter into the modern age

Alfred Volkland resigned after 25 years as the AMG's director of music. Under his leadership, Basel had developed a concert scene of international stature. He was succeeded by composer, organist and conductor Hermann Suter, 32. Although Suter's compositional style tended towards late romanticism, as a conductor he quickly came to champion modern music. Works by Stravinsky, Bartòk and Honegger regularly appeared on the programme. Not always to the delight of the audience: when he presented Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231 in January 1925, it was received in stony silence – whereupon Suter turned round and announced that in order to create a better understanding of the piece, he would now repeat it. Another of Suter's priorities was the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, which he performed in their entirety during his 24 years in charge. The orchestra that Suter took over in 1902 had 68 members – now almost all professional musicians.


Alma and Gustav Mahler

When they visited Basel in 1903, Gustav and Alma Mahler stayed at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois. The picture shows the Mahlers on Rheinsprung between their hotel and the Minster, where the rehearsals and concerts took place.

Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss

In the spring of 1903 the Basel orchestra welcomed the two most prominent conductor-composers of the age as guest conductors. On 24 March the AMG held a special concert in which Richard Strauss presented works including his tone poems Ein Heldenleben and Don Juan, and on 15 June Gustav Mahler conducted his 2nd symphony at the 39th Music Festival of the General German Music Society in the Basel Minster.


The theatre fire of 1904

After the Stadttheater fire the Theatre Committee called on the citizens of Basel to subscribe to its reconstruction. The Schweizer Bauzeitung wrote as follows on 15 October 1904: "Basel's population is known for its sense of sacrifice, and not only will all the wounds inflicted by the accident soon be healed - in no time at all new life will spring up from the ruins. Of that there can be no doubt ."

Cash from conflagration

In October 1904 the Stadttheater was burnt to the ground. Theatrical operations were suspended until its reconstruction was completed in 1909. To keep the orchestra going meanwhile, the AMG received direct state subsidies for the first time (25,000 francs a year). When the theatre reopened in 1909 its state subsidies were increased to 90,000 francs a year, 76,000 francs of which it had to hand over to the AMG in payment for the orchestra. The orchestra was able to expand. In just a few years it grew to 76 members, 54 of them string players.



With the creation of the BOG, the AMG no longer had to fund the orchestra – but it remained one of its main clients, the other being the theatre. The BOG's orchestra had no director of music or principal conductor of its own, though effectively this function was filled by the Artistic Director appointed by the AMG. For its own concerts the AMG augmented the BOG's basic personnel, adding the leader, the principals of the string sections and various newcomers. The orchestra's average strength at AMG concerts was around 80 musicians.

A new sponsor

The privations of the war years and the post-war period left their marks. The AMG was no longer able to fund the orchestra, which had decreased to 57 members. An annual state subsidy of 100,000 francs was promised, and the Basel Orchestral Society (BOG) came into existence as a joint project of the AMG, the Stadttheater company, the Conservatoire, the GGG's Kommission für Volkskonzerte, the Basel Choral Society, the Basler Liedertafel and the Basler Männerchor. Once again – as in 1855 – the orchestra had a sponsor whose principal function was to manage it and hire it out to the various clients. This was a construct that would shape Basel's orchestral landscape until long after the BOG was wound up in 1989.


Felix Weingartner

Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) was one of the outstanding conductors of his age. He succeeded Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Court Opera in 1908, and he led the Vienna Philharmonic to worldwide fame. Weingartner achieved rather less success as a composer, though he regarded composition as his real destiny. The Sinfonieorchester Basel has taken up the compositional creations of its former maestro. Between 2003 and 2012 it performed all Weingartner's symphonies, under the baton of Marko Letonja.

Basel has a new podium star

Hermann Suter died in June 1926. The AMG Committee got wind of the fact that Felix Weingartner, the celebrated conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, was interested in succeeding him. On 26 October it sent a delegation to Mannheim and put out feelers to the star at a concert he was conducting. Soon afterwards the sensation was complete: Felix Weingartner signed a five-year contract with the AMG, also agreeing to become director of the Conservatoire and act as guest conductor on several occasions at the Stadttheater. Weingartner's arrival in Basel in 1927 triggered nothing less than euphoria. For month after month, all the concerts he conducted were sold out. Weingartner left Basel in 1935 when he was appointed to the Vienna Court Opera, but he remained true to the orchestra as a guest conductor until his death.


Hans Münch

Originally from Alsace, Hans Münch (1893-1983) entered the Basel Conservatoire in 1912 to study piano, organ, cello and composition. Like Hermann Suter before him, he combined the roles of Artistic Director of the AMG, conductor of the Choral Society and the Liedertafel, and Director of the Conservatoire. Münch received an honorary doctorate from the University of Basel in 1939.

Tradition and constancy

Felix Weingartner was succeeded in 1935 by Hans Münch, who had conducted the Liedertafel and the Choral Society since 1925. Münch's programmes reflected both contemporary public taste and the predilections of the AMG: lots of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, occasionally the French repertoire of the early 20th century. Contemporary works were rare, though during Münch's 31-year incumbency there were a few interesting Basel premieres – among them Stravinsky's Petrushka (1939), Hindemith's symphony in E flat major (1944) and piano concerto (1964), Martinu's 1st symphony (1945) and oboe concerto (1966), Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem (1946), Shostakovich's 5th symphony (1947), Prokofiev's 1st and 2nd violin concertos (1939, 1947), Honegger's Liturgical Symphony (1951), Rolf Liebermann's Furioso (1952), Bartòk's 2nd violin concerto (1947), 3rd piano concerto (1947) and Concerto for Orchestra (1953), Berg's Four songs (1953) and K. A. Hartmann's 3rd symphony (1953). (Years in brackets: first performances in Basel)


Hans Ziegler

Hans Ziegler took the helm at the BOG in 1948, guiding the fortunes of the Basel orchestra with great commitment for four decades. Like his predecessor and in line with the purpose of the BOG, Ziegler saw his role as the orchestra's manager, not its musical or artistic director. Under his aegis the number of BOG musicians rose from 60 to – sporadically – 165 (in 1970, two orchestras).

A palace revolution

After the end of the second world war the BOG board proposed an increase in the orchestra's strength from 60 to 64, together with changes to its salary structure. This proposal did not go far enough for the musicians. At the 1947 General Meeting, instead of the usual handful of musicians, almost the whole orchestra turned up – and the motion was thrown out. The board then resigned en bloc. This cleared the way for a reorganization of the BOG: modern salary terms and welfare benefits were introduced, and the artistic management of the musicians was improved. This secured the orchestra's successful long-term development.


Pierre Boulez and Paul Sacher

The relationship between Pierre Boulez and Switzerland is closely bound up with Basel patron of music Paul Sacher (1906-1999). Sacher supported him in many ways - he helped for example with the establishment of Ircam in Paris. Boulez showed his appreciation by personally dedicating some of his works to him, and - not least - by entrusting all his manuscripts to the Paul Sacher Foundation in 1985. In 1999 Boulez conducted the Sinfonieorchester Basel at Paul Sacher's funeral.

An 'avant-gardiste' heading the AMG?

Pierre Boulez made his conducting début in Basel in 1960, at the invitation of Paul Sacher. Between 1960 and 1963 Boulez taught an analysis and composition class at the Music Academy, and between 1965 and 1969 he gave three-week conducting courses. After his first course the AMG offered Boulez the job of artistic director, in succession to Hans Münch who had resigned. Boulez declined, because he was afraid of being dependent on the theatre – and he saw no possibility of repeating programmes in other cities. But the French conductor maintained his links with the Basel orchestra. In september 2015, in collaboration with the Paul Sacher Foundation, the Sinfonieorchester Basel organized a concert in honour of Boulez's 90th birthday.


Armin Jordan

Armin Jordan (1932-2006) rose to international fame as principal conductor of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande from 1985 to 1997. In June 2006 Jordan was appointed Conductor Laureate of the Sinfonieorchester Basel. His function in this capacity was intended to be adviser to the orchestra and the AMG, but the collaboration was brief. On 15 September 2006 Jordan collapsed in the orchestra pit of Theater Basel while conducting the premiere of Prokofiev's opera The Love of Three Oranges, and five days later he died. Among the fruits of Jordan's collaboration with the Sinfonieorchester Basel are two CDs with works by César Franck and Ernest Chausson.

An opera director

Under the aegis of theatre director Werner Düggelin, Swiss conductor Armin Jordan became director of music in 1969 and musical director at Theater Basel in 1973. Düggelin had to overcome resistance to Jordan's appointment from the theatre cooperative, but Jordan became an audience favourite – and he was also held in high regard by the orchestra. For many of those who experienced them, his Salome, his Lulu, his Ring – as well as performances of operas by Shostakovich and Zemlinsky – are unforgettable.


The Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel

The Radio-Orchester Beromünster was founded in Zurich in 1945. Its first conductors were Hermann Scherchen and Paul Burkhard. Its most influential conductors after its incorporation into the BOG (as the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel) until the merger with the Basler Sinfonie-Orchester in 1997 were Jean-Marie Auberson and Matthias Bamert. During the first few years the RSO's recording studio was located in the Landgasthof Riehen, later in the Volkshaus. The orchestra had originally been promised a new recording studio on the Bruderholz, but it was never built. Photo: RSO Mirror Concert at the Wenkenhof (1972)

The Radio-Orchester comes to Basel

Patron of music Paul Sacher, leading representatives of SRG, Basel city government and the cantonal parliament came out strongly in favour of relocating the Radio-Orchester Beromünster to Basel from its previous home in Zurich. They hoped it would bring increased prestige. The plan was to integrate the radio orchestra into the BOG as its second orchestra. The BOG, however, was sceptical about the project. It was unable to identify any call for additional orchestral services on Basel's concert scene, and it would have preferred a model based on a single strong orchestra. It yielded under pressure, and from 1970 the BOG had two orchestras under its roof, with a total of around 160 musicians: the BOG's previous orchestra, now called the Basler Sinfonie-Orchester, and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel.


Moshe Atzmon

Moshe Atzmon (*1931) began his musical education in Budapest, emigrating to Israel with his parents at the age of 13. In Tel Aviv he studied cello and horn. Atzmon has been the principal conductor of the Sidney Symphony Orchestra, the NDR Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and the Dortmund Philharmonic. He was Artistic Director of the AMG from 1972 to 1986.

Mahler renaissance

In 1966 Hans Münch retired after 31 years as artistic director of the AMG. The position remained vacant until 1972, when Hungarian-Israeli conductor Moshe Atzmon was selected as his successor. Atzmon's programmes were balanced, regularly including new music. But above all he championed the cause of Gustav Mahler's symphonies, which had practically disappeared from Basel's concert halls after the Weingartner era came to an end. During his 14 years in Basel Atzmon performed all of Mahler's symphonies at least once.


"Blow the opera houses up!"

The new theatre was not built exactly on the site of the old one, but some distance behind it. This meant that the old theatre could continue to operate while the new one was being built. When the new theatre was completed in 1975, the old one was blown up – making Basel one of the only cities to have taken literally what Pierre Boulez said in the 1960s.

A new theatre

Ab 1972 wird an einem neuen Basler Theater gebaut, 1975 wird es eingeweiht. Sein Wahrzeichen ist sein Dach, eine 60 Meter weite Hängeschale aus Spannbeton. Der Entwurf stammt vom Ingenieur Heinz Hossdorf und den Architekten Felix Schwarz und Rolf Gutmann.


Antal Doráti

Antal Doráti (1906-1988) began his career as co-répétiteur at the Royal Opera House in his native city of Budapest. In 1939 he emigrated to the USA, where he first became musical director of the newly-established American Ballet. Subsequently he exercised a formative influence on the Dallas and Minneapolis symphony orchestras. Later he was principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London, the Stockholm Philharmonic, the Washington National Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony.

Conductor in residence

"Antal Doráti came, conducted and conquered" – that was the headline of the review of Doráti's first guest appearance in Basler Nachrichten in January 1968. But after a second guest appearance in 1972, it was not until 1984 that the world-famous maestro came to Basel again – though his visits after that were more frequent. The position of artistic director of the AMG was vacant for two seasons, between the resignation of Moshe Atzmon and the arrival of his designated successor Horst Stein. Doráti declared his readiness to conduct at a number of concerts, and between 1984 and 1987 he conducted the Sinfonieorchester Basel in 17 repeated AMG concerts.


Horst Stein

Horst Stein (1928-2008) zählt zu den bedeutendsten deutschen Dirigenten der Nachkriegszeit. Er leitete 138 Vorstellungen an den Bayreuther Festspielen, war unter anderem erster Dirigent der Wiener Staatsoper, Chefdirigent des Orchestre de la Suisse Romande und der Bamberger Symphoniker sowie ständiger Gastdirigent bei den wichtigsten Orchesters der Welt. Stein hinterliess zudem eine beeindruckende Diskographie. Allerdings fehlen darin Aufnahmen mit dem Basler Sinfonie-Orchester – auch dies ein Zeichen für die vertrackte orchesterpolitische Situation der 80er und 90er Jahre.

The dream candidate

On 9 September 1987 Horst Stein opened his first season as Artistic Director of the AMG with works by Henze, Mozart and Schubert. Stein was the candidate the orchestra wanted. His repertoire was wide and varied, concentrating particularly on Mozart, Richard Strauss and Wagner. In his seven years in Basel he performed 117 works, 42 of them composed in the 20th century. His era was characterized by artistic successes, but it is not difficult to discern from his remarks in a 1994 interview that his relationship with the idiosyncrasies of the Basel music scene was not entirely sweetness and light. It would be better for Basel's music scene, he said, "if the principal conductor of the AMG were also the general musical director of the orchestra and the opera. As it is, strife is unavoidable."

1989 until today