The Berlin State Orchestra (Staatskapelle Berlin) is one of several professional orchestras of high repute in Berlin. It is the resident orchestra of the Berlin State Opera (located in the Unter den Linden Theater) and, although it is not the leading orchestra of the city, it claims to be the oldest, tracing its ancestry to the year 1545, when the Elector of Brandenburg added a group of instrumentalists to the singers of his court chapel (Kapelle). In 1696, it was named the "Kufurstlichen Hofkapelle" (Electoral Court Kapelle), and in 1701 this was changed to "Königliche (Royal) Kapelle." At that point King Friedrich I started to enlarge the orchestra (which had fluctuated in size to as few as seven members in 1640) to an ensemble fit for a king. But Friedrich Wilhelm I (1713-1740), interested only in the military and in hunting, laid off everyone but the brass players.
His son, Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), although even more of a military genius than his father, was also a passionate music-lover, a good flautist, and a passable composer. He not only revived the orchestra, but also made his Berlin court a major musical center. The Kapelle became an important part of court life, existing primarily to please the King and provide ceremonial music. It fell to other persons and various temporary ensembles to begin a tradition of public concerts. The orchestra, did not offer any concerts to which the public could buy tickets until 1783. This marked the transition of the orchestra into the form of a modern symphony orchestra, giving two or three concerts a year beginning in 1801.
Beginning in 1842, the scope of its season slowly began to expand, although it adhered to a very conservative repertoire. In 1882, it gained major competition when the Berlin Philharmonic was formed. (There had been a Berlin Philharmonic Society, an amateur orchestra, since 1826). Under Artur Nikisch the Philharmonic clearly outclassed the Kapelle, despite the great advances in performance quality brought about when Joseph Weingartner became music director (1892 - 1907). From 1908, the music director was the esteemed composer Richard Strauss, who remained into 1920.
At that time, with the overthrow of the monarchy, the Royal Kapelle was renamed the Kapelle der Staatsoper (Kapelle of the State Opera). The orchestra's operatic work increased when the State Opera founded a new contemporary opera theater (popularly known as the Kroll Opera) in the 1920s. Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, and Bruno Walter were among its conductors. Herbert von Karajan became its last conductor (1940 - 1944) before the end of World War II. During the Hitler era the orchestra had been renamed simply "Die Staatskapelle" (1934) and then the "Prussian Staatskapelle" (1944). It became Staatskapelle Berlin in 1945.
The American and Western powers each established a Radio Orchestra, and in 1949 East Germany set up the Berlin Symphony Orchestra as a rival to West Berlin's Philharmonic. Concertgoers could attend all the concert series until 1961 when East Germany closed its borders and built the Berlin Wall. In 1948, Joseph Keilberth became music director, but left in 1952 for Hamburg in the face of political interference. Franz Konwitschny succeeded him, but for most of the life of the DDR the Staatskapelle's conductor was the Austrian Otmar Suitner (1964 - 1990).
The members of the orchestra participated in the events leading up to the collapse of the German Democratic Republic. In September, 1989, they sent a resolution to the leadership of East Germany calling for it to democratize its constitution, then organized a private "Konzert gegen die Gewalt" in November 1989.
Daniel Barenboim became its Artistic Director in 1991, and since 2000 has been the orchestra's "conductor for life."