The Twelve Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic


Let's begins with an excerpt from an interview of Georg Faust, principal cellist of the Berlin Phil, completed on January 6, 2003 by Birgitta Tollan of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation/Sveriges Radio. The interview was broadcast in edited form on March 10, 2003.  She sent this excerpt to me on April 15, 2003.

Birgitta Tollan:  When will the cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic hire their first woman?

Georg Faust:  The Auditions are not for a committee but it's in front of the whole orchestra, and the orchestra decides who is going to be the new member of the group, which makes it very democratic and very obvious that there is no way for the cellists to manipulate anything. It was the way it was - that the men are still a little better than the women cellists.

Birgitta Tollan: Do you think that men and women play differently?

Georg Faust: Yes of course - absolutely. And soon the women will take over anyway! (Laughter). And it will change the whole situation of course.

Birgitta Tollan: Do you think so - that just one woman will change the whole situation?

Georg Faust: Of course - we are all human beings. If you are a group of twelve men, and one woman comes in, I am absolutely sure it will change the whole situation. It will change the image because part of our success is that we are 12 men. We can easily see this when we go to Japan. We are like a boy group.

Birgitta Tollan: Back Street Boys from Berlin.

Georg Faust: Yes. Back Street violoncellists. Boy group. Because the audience is 90 % women. So this shows that this kind of energy we produce as 12 men - as 12 cellists - and 12 men, is something very strong, is very homogenous and very unique in a way.  Like a football team: The same instruments, it's 12 players of the same instrument. It's always a feeling of concurrence. Always a certain kind of pressure. Because everybody knows the other person very, very well. He knows what he can do and what he can't do. They are like 12 dogs. They all need their certain room and they all have their "revier".

End of interview excerpt.


Here is some information about the cellists I sent to Ms. Tollan a couple month previous, on January 3, 2003:

The Berlin Philharmonic is regarded as Germany's most sexist orchestra. In 1982 it became the last orchestra in Germany to admit women. As of last year, the ensemble had 14 women members out of 120 positions. After 20 years, women thus represent about 12% of the orchestra's personnel. Almost all of the women are tutti string players. The only first chair position held by a woman is for bassoon.

Last year the orchestra hired Simon Rattle as its General Music Director and seems to be working to change its public image.

The orchestra's gender culture is similar to Vienna's and is changing only slowly. In a German State Television interview in 1978, orchestra member Willi Maas, spoke about the possible entry of women into the orchestra and claimed they could not handle the stress of performing: 

"Close to 5000 people sit there. It sounds exaggerated if I say: 'Then the conductor enters.' It is not that we have anxiety. But every effort is required. These are things that require a masculine composure. I cannot have any concerns about who sits next to me..."[1] 

Four years later, these seating concerns were brought to life by the clarinetist Sabine Meyer, who became the first woman to enter the orchestra, and only through the intervention of General Music Director Herbert von Karajan. In spite of their "masculine composure", the orchestra exploded into turmoil, and after nine months she left. 

The conflict also ended Karajan's 40 year relationship with the orchestra. Meyer suffered extreme harassment, such as seating herself at rehearsals only to have the men slide their chairs away from her. Their "emotional unity" was disturbed. The German musician's union supported the orchestra, noting the all male ensemble had the "democratic right" to choose who it wanted. 

In the many interviews the orchestra gave during the Sabine Meyer incident, the men expressed views about uniformity identical to those of the Vienna Philharmonic. For example, some claimed that it is impossible for women to really play in unison with men because they have different bodies. 

This seems to be the ethos followed by the 12 men who comprise the "12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic." They feel they have a special character as an all-male group, and they actually use this in how they present themselves to the public -- as if they were some sort of cello-playing Chippendales. 

They do not seem to realize that many people actually see twelve rather pasty-faced orchestra musicians with a bad case of sexist narcissism. Since they want to preserve their special all-male status, no women cellists have been allowed to win auditions for the Berlin Philharmonic. 

You asked if the exclusion of women is common for cello groups of the orchestras in Central Europe. The only numbers available for Germany are provided by the Deutsche Orchesterverein, a union for symphony and opera orchestra musicians. They slant their studies for the purposes of public relations. They provide no numbers for the actual representation of women in each section, but give only data on how many women have won recent auditions, which, of course, looks much better. They claim that from 1996 to 1999 women won 33% of the cello positions in German orchestras. These numbers, however, are not trustworthy, because the orchestras that responded to the surveys were the ensembles with the least to hide. Extrapolating from numbers provided by the union, I can only guess that women probably represent around 10% or less of the cello sections in Germany's 144 state run orchestras. 

For a general discussion of women in orchestras see my article: "Art Is Just An Excuse: Gender Bias In International Orchestras" at:

William Osborne

[1 ]Rieger, Eva. Frau, Musik, & Maenner Herrschaft. (Kassel, Germany: Furore Verlag, 1988) pg. 222.