The Berlin Staatskapelle, Berlin's oldest orchestra and one of the most traditional orchestras in Germany was founded as court chapel by Kurfürst Joachim II of Brandenburg. The origins can be traced to the chapel regulations dating from 1570. As such it is one of the oldest orchestras in the world.
The Berlin State Opera originated with the establishment by Elector Joachim II of his "Kurfurstliche Hofkapelle" (Electoral Court Ensemble), formally organized in 1570. By the early 17th century the orchestra numbered 37 players, becoming one of the largest in Europe, but during the Thirty Years' War it shrank to just seven players. It slowly recovered, now as an ensemble mostly of strings. In 1696, Elector Friedrich III established the first regular opera in Berlin, using the Hofkapelle as its orchestra.
In 1701, Brandenburg became the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Elector became King Friedrich I. Its musical establishment was enlarged and named "Königliche Kapelle" (Royal Ensemble), but with the accession of King Friedrich Wilhelm I in 1713 the group dwindled to a small brass band used for hunting and parades. During this period, the orchestra served as Kur Brandenburg court chapel, exclusively for musical engagements at court.
The next king, Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), known as a military genius, was also a music lover, good flute player, and adequate composer who wrote over 120 flute concertos. He brought in excellent musicians to serve as his Kapellmeister, including Johann Joachim Quantz and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. His lovely Royal Opera House on Unter den Linden, built in 1742, was strictly for the court and military officers. After the Royal Opera House was founded by Frederick the Great, the court chapel became an intrinsic part of the Opera House unter den Linden. By the 1850's, individual members were already extending their Kapelle activities and contributing significantly to the Berlin concert scene. The Opera House has been destroyed by fire and war more than once, but rebuilt each time, and it still serves as the home of the opera and the orchestra.
Frederick died in 1786, and in 1789 the Unter den Linden opera opened to the public for the first time. The first public symphony concert featuring the Kapelle was a 1796 benefit concert for Constanze Mozart of her late husband's music. From the beginning of the new century the orchestra began giving public concerts which, from 1821, were played at the Gendarmenmarkt Theater.
The greatest conductors in their time left their indelible marks on the orchestra“s culture of instrumentalization and interpretation. Great figures in music have shaped its instrumental and interpretational culture. Gaspare Spontini, the first to hold the title of Prussian General Music Director, was succeeded by illustrious names, such as: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
There were only sporadic concerts until 1842 when Kapellmeister, Giacomo Meyerbeer, organized regular subscription concert series. The orchestra's series remained limited and highly conservative by comparison with those of the Berlin Philharmonic Society (founded 1826 and organized as a professional orchestra in 1882) until conductor Felix Weingartner, appointed to head the Königliche Kapelle in 1892, made it a leading part of the city's musical life. Richard Strauss was its music director from 1908 to 1920. The works of Richard Wagner, who conducted the "königlich preussische Hofkapelle" (royal Prussian court orchestra) himself in 1844 at the Berlin première of The flying dutchman and in 1876 during the preparations for the Berlin première of Tristan, have been a key part of the repertoire of the Staatsoper and the Staatskapelle ever since.
The post-War Revolution toppling the monarchy (known as the German Empire since 1871) resulted in the "Royal Kapelle" being renamed the Kapelle der Staatsoper (State Opera Orchestra). As part of the lively musical scene in Berlin in the 1920s it now became associated with modern music. Its great conductors during the period included Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Zemlinsky, and Bruno Walter. Many of them left after the 1933 accession of the Nazis to power.
In 1934, the opera orchestra was named the Staatskapelle (State Orchestra), and from 1938 to 1945 was led by the young Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan. Another political reorganization in 1944 renamed the orchestra the Preussiche Staatskapelle (Prussian State Orchestra), which ceased giving concerts on April 19, 1945 when Allied troops began to enter the city. But it soon reopened (June 16, 1945) as the "Staatskapelle Berlin." Two long-serving music directors, Franz Konwitschny and (from 1964 to 1990) Othmar Suitner, saw the Staatskapelle Berlin through its years as the leading orchestra in East Berlin, firmly under German Democratic Republic government rule.
In 1989, the members of the orchestra presented to the government a petition demanding the reorganization of the Staatskapelle as an independent, democratically run organization. This became part of the widespread public pressure that within months caused the collapse of the German communist state and the reunification of Germany.
Daniel Barenboim is responsible for the Berlin Staatskapelle in his capacity as General Music Director since 1992, between 1992 and 2002 he additionally held the post of the State Opera's artistic director. With his guidance the orchestra that demonstrated its prolific range in tours abroad, even during the difficult years of the Democratic Republic is now enabled to reach out internationally to world wide acclaim. In many different guest performances abroad, such as the cycle of L.v. Beethoven's complete symphonies and piano concertos in Vienna, Tokyo, Paris, London, New York, and elsewhere, the Schumann and Johannes Brahms symphony cycles, and the three performances of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in Japan in 2002, the ensemble once again lived up to its reputation as one of the best orchestras in the world. Daniel Barenboim ranks the orchestra“s continued concert activity among the priorities on his agenda. The last years have seen Pierre Boulez, Alfred Brendel, Bychkov, Christoph von Dohnányi, Plácido Domingo, Christoph Eschenbach, Michael Gielen, Carlo Maria Giulini, Zubin Mehta, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Georg Solti, Stein, Maxim Vengerov and Zukerman and many more conductors and musicians of international repute perform in Staatskapelle Symphonic Concerts.