Of the three major orchestras located in the historic Bavarian capitol of Munich (München), the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (Münchner Philharmoniker) is the least recorded of all orchestras that share its high level of excellence, primarily due to an eccentricity of one of its most famous conductors.
For most of its history Munich has been capitol of Bavaria and the seat of its ruling dynasty, the Wittelsbachs, who rose from Dukes to Electors to King. They established Munich as a European music center when they hired Orlando di Lassus as Hofkapellmeister in 1557, and founded one of Europe's finest court operas in 1651. (The opera, now the Bavarian State Opera, is still in existence; its orchestra, the Bavarian State Orchestra, is one of the two other main orchestras in Munich, the other being the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.)
The era from 1775 to 1850 saw the rise of public concerts in Europe, often under the auspices of private organizations rather than courts. This process began in earnest in Munich in 1811, when the Musikalisches Akademie (Musical Academy) was formed around several musicians of the opera orchestra. Failure to find an exciting conductor who could exert leadership caused their concert series to decline in the 1820s until they ended in 1832. In the 1840s, Franz Lachner, the dynamic conductor of the opera, revived the Musical Academy and re-established regular concerts.
In 1893, some musicians formed a privately incorporated orchestra known as the Kaim Orchestra and started a series of symphony concerts, moving in 1895 into the city's Concert Hall (Tonhalle). These concerts became very popular and remained so. When the orchestra was staggering, following the post-World War I financial crisis, the Munich city government took possession of the orchestra, which was renamed the Munich Philharmonic. The well-known composer Hans Pfitzner was one of the conductors during the 1920s.
In the 1930s, the orchestra received a new emblem, which it thereafter displayed with seeming pride: An eagle grasping a reversed Swastika in its talons over the legend, "The Orchestra of the Fascist Movement." Oswald Kabasta, conductor through much of the Nazi era, began the process of elevating the Munich Philharmonic to a high level, which continued after the war through such conductors as Hans Rosbaud and Rudolf Kempe.
In 1979, the often controversial and nearly legendary conductor Sergiu Celibidache became the orchestra's General Music Director. This inaugurated a period of exceptional accomplishment for the orchestra. However, his autocratic ways and constant threat of a walk-out (which he actually carried out for a few months in 1984) troubled many of the orchestra's supporters. His attempt to demote the orchestra's female solo trombonist, American Abbie Conant (who had been invited to audition in a letter addressed "Herr Abbie Conant and was hired in a screened audition) descended into harassment which a German judge later ruled was "indecent" and embroiled the orchestra and the City of Munich into a losing thirteen-year legal struggle that ultimately deeply embarrassed both. (It was dramatized in a full-length film, "Abbie Get Your Gun."
In addition, Celibidache's complete refusal to make audio recordings kept the rise in the Munich Philharmonic's stature a virtual secret outside Munich, except for occasional tours, such as an eleven-city triumph in the United States in 1989. Celibidache's sudden death in 1996 at the age of eighty-four required the Munich Philharmonic to search for a new Music Director. In 1998, James Levine, Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, accepted the position. He drew up a particularly striking retrospective series on twentieth-century music for the 2000-2001 season.