Breaking: Sharp decline in German orchestras

Breaking: Sharp decline in German orchestras


norman lebrecht

January 30, 2012

A survey by the German Orchestra Union (DOV) shows that 36 orchestras have been forced out of business in 20 years, since track was first kept after reunification. The number of orchestra jobs fell even more steeply from 12,159 to 9,844, a reduction of 19 percent. More here.

The decline comes in marked contrast to an increase in public spending on classical music, announced recently by the Culture Minister.


  • The article from DOV (the union for German orchestra musicians) should be understood as having a somewhat activist point of view. The number of positions for orchestra musicians has been reduced and they want to raise an alarm, but a look at the larger picture shows that the situation is not so draconian. Most of the reductions were related to technical aspects of unification, which was a singular, unique event of historical proportions. These reductions do not reflect a normal or continuing pattern in German thought about orchestras. Hence the contradiction with recent increases in cultural funding.

    Often small towns only a few miles apart were divided by the wall. Each had their own orchestra. When the wall came down orchestras so close to each other were redundant. It was only natural to merge them. The personnel in the two orchestras were usually combined and the orchestra gradually reduced to its original size through retirement attrition.

    The second reason orchestras were eliminated or merged is that East Germany had the highest concentration of orchestras per capita in the world. Among other things, the purpose was to show that communism was better at supporting the arts than capitalism. Even many people in the arts world knew that the concentration of orchestras in East Germany was artificial and redundant and so some of them were phased out.

    This is illustrated by the longitudinal data for the elimination of German orchestras, which can be viewed here:

    The graph shows that in the first four years after unification (1992-1996) the number of positions in East German orchestras were reduced by 20%. After that, the cuts tapered off strongly. There were, for example, no reductions in East Germany from 1996 to 1998. In the 14 years since then, the number of positions in East German orchestras has dropped by about 1% per year. In the 20 years since the wall came down, the number of positions in West German orchestras has only dropped by 7.2% — which is only about 1/3 of a percentage point per year.

    Now that the economic stresses of unification and the redundancy of orchestras have been eliminated, the reductions in orchestra positions have flattened out and will remain relatively stable for a long period. It is interesting that the Germans have spread these reductions out over a 20 year period, and that they are now once again raising their sums for cultural funding. It stands as a positive sign of their social and cultural consciousness.

    • One other observation. In the last six years, the number of positions in West German orchestras has only dropped 0.7% — which only comes to slightly more than 1/10th of 1 percent per year. In other words, changes have been almost flat. West Germany should be taken as a much better norm than East Germany because of the enormous changes caused in the East by unification — as described above.

    • Alex Radziewski says:

      Just my two cents as an orchestra musician in Germany: Dear Mr. Osborne, everything you mentioned is absolutely correct in general.
      Some smaller institutions are in danger by a political motivated undercalculation of the theatre’s budget.
      That#s the new way to close cultural institutions.

      • I’m glad to see that someone actually in the trenches agrees. The transition after unification is now over, so I can understand the DOV’s concerns that the cuts should cease. It is beyond American comprehension that little cities like Pforzheim (pop. 119,000) can have a year round opera house. It would be tragic to lose them because they are unique and very special. I really hope Germany will maintain its cultural standards – and I feel fairly confident it will.

    • Those €50m are spread among many fields of culture. €30m of it are for historical monument protection only (a special one-time programme) – no help for music, but well-spent money, too, I’d say.

      • And the 50 million is Federal funding. The Federal government provides only a tiny fraction of public arts funding in Germany. Orchestras and opera houses are primarily funded at the state and municipals levles.

  • richard says:

    can we still blame karajan?

  • Frank says:

    The French cultural budget this year has remained steady and even up 2% despite the cutbacks in other areas. Sometimes the government “encourages” a joint effort to provide a single opera and orchestra when two towns are a close commute.
    The Berlin papers report this week that the city has tossed in an additional eight million into that city’s arts budget (already twice the size of America’s entire National Endowment for Arts budget).