A History of the Berliner Festspiele

Berliner Festspiele are made of many histories. One of them begins on 5 September 1951, when the first Berliner Festwochen, as they were originally called, opened at the Schiller-Theater.

Key visual “Everything Is Just for a While”

1951

  • The first Berliner Festwochen open on 5 September with Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, played by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the reconstructed Schiller-Theater.
  • Berlin’s civic and private theatres devise a three-week programme for the Berliner Festwochen that includes a variety of different artistic disciplines along with popular sporting and large-scale events (for example boxing matches and a “Day of Sensations”).
  • The Berliner Festwochen and the Berlin International Film Festival, which is soon known by the shorter title “Berlinale” and opens on 6 June at the Titania Palast, are intended as a cultural and political reaction to the “World Festival of Youth and Students” that also takes place for the first time in 1951 in East Berlin (a meeting of youth groups from around the world, with 26,000 participants from 104 countries) and aims to offer a “shop window for the Free World.”
  • The costs for the first two years of the Berliner Festwochen are borne by the three Western allied powers; Great Britain, the USA and France.

1953

  • The State of Berlin takes over the costs of financing the Berliner Festwochen.
  • The exhibition “100 Jahre amerikanische Malerei 1800 – 1900” marks the beginning of a tradition of major themed exhibitions as part of the Berliner Festwochen.

1957

  • As a new element in the programme, stage productions are presented from theatres in Vienna, Munich, Düsseldorf and Cologne. This is the starting point of what will later become known as the Theatertreffen.

1959

  • The “Jazz Salons” are held at the Sportpalast as part of the Berliner Festwochen for the first time. The format’s second and final edition is held in 1962.

1962

  • The 12th edition of the Berliner Festwochen reacts to the building of the Berlin Wall by erecting a “radio bridge” that will enable East Berliners to experience the concerts.

1964

  • A memorial concert for John F. Kennedy and speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Willy Brandt open the 14th Berliner Festwochen.
  • The “Berliner Theaterwettbewerb” is held for the first time, inviting the ten most notable productions of a single season from Germany, Austria and Switzerland to Berlin, selected by a jury of theatre critics.
  • The first “Woche der experimentellen Musik” takes place at the Akademie der Künste and is included in the Berliner Festwochen. Here one can trace the origins of subsequent new music festivals, the “Metamusik-Festival” (1974, 1976, 1978) leading up to “MaerzMusik” (from 2002).
  • In September the “Berliner Jazztage” are held as part of the Berliner Festwochen for the first time.

1965

  • The Berliner Jazztage are split off from the Berliner Festwochen and moved to November.
  • The “Berliner Theaterwettbewerb” is also detached from the Berliner Festwochen, moved to May and renamed the “Theatertreffen Berlin” (from 2004, simply: “Theatertreffen”). The “Begegnung junger Bühnenangehöriger – Meeting of Young Theatre Professionals” – now the “International Forum”, the academy programme for young international theatre professionals – is held as part of the Theatertreffen for the first time.

1967

  • Berliner Festspiele GmbH” is founded as an umbrella organisation to run the Berlin International Film Festival, the Berlin Theatertreffen, the Berliner Festwochen and the Berliner Jazztage, thereby incorporating the annual cultural events produced by the State of Berlin and the Federal Government. Ownership of the company is held by the State of Berlin and the Federal Government. In this way a network of independent, thematically-connected cultural events will emerge that take place all year round.
  • The Berliner Festwochen begin their collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic.

1970

  • The first “Arbeitstage für Musik” are held, focussing on contemporary music.

1972

  • Together with the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, in July the Berliner Festwochen organise the first “Berliner Musiktage”, a programme of avant-garde music. The second and final edition takes place in 1980.

1973

  • In collaboration with the International Institute for Comparative Music Studies, the “Tage außereuropäischer Musik” are held as part of the Berliner Festwochen, devoted to non-European music.
  • The “Aktionen der Avantgarde” (ADA I '73), a new format for exhibitions, happenings and processes around the city, is held for the first time. Its second and last edition takes place in 1974 (ADA II '74).

1974

  • In the “Metamusik-Festival”, three editions (1974, 1976, 1978) are created of an experimental music format whose programme presents connections between the European avant-garde with American and non-European influences in the field of experimental music and what later becomes known as world music.

1977

  • The Berliner Festspiele’s headquarters moves from Bundesallee 1–12 to the Bikini Haus at Budapester Straße 48.

1978

  • The “Stückemarkt”, the first initiative to promote new playwriting in a German-speaking country is founded and held as part of the Theatertreffen Berlin.

1979

  • In June the first “Horizonte – Festival der Weltkulturen” is held, focusing on artists from Africa. It presents contemporary theatre and modern art, dance and music, crafts and films. Subsequent editions of the festival focus on Latin America (1982), East and South East Asia (1985) and the Middle East (1989).
  • International guest productions are presented as part of the Theatertreffen Berlin for the first time.

1980

  • The Berliner Festspiele present the first “Schülertheatertreffen”, which is held annually from 1985 as the “Theatertreffen der Jugend”, for young theatre companies from the whole Federal Republic. In the years that follow, a series of other national contests will be founded for young people in music, literature and dance. A special feature of the national contests is that they aim not only to create a non-competitive platform where young artists can meet each other and develop together, but also to provide advanced training for their artistic directors.
  • The national contests’ academy programme is now financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

1981

  • Following an internal legal dispute, the “Berliner Jazztage” are renamed “JazzFest Berlin” (from 2012: “Jazzfest Berlin”).
  • The Martin-Gropius-Bau, which had been heavily damaged in one of the final air raids on Berlin in 1945 and undergone reconstruction since 1978, is re-opened with a programme that includes the exhibition “Prussia: Attempting an Assessment” as part of the Berliner Festwochen. Until 2001 the building is used by a number of cultural institutions such as the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, the Deutsche Künstlerbund (Association of German Artists), the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, the Berlinische Galerie (including collaborations with the Humboldt University and the Grothe Collection), the Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge and the Jewish Section of the former Berlin Museum, the City of Berlin and the Berliner Festspiele.

1984

  • The “Treffen junger Liedermacher”, later known as the “Treffen junge Musik-Szene”, is founded.

1986

  • The “Treffen Junger Autoren”, now known as the “Treffen junger Autor*innen”, is founded.

1987

  • Celebrations for the 750th anniversary of the still partitioned city in West Berlin are organised by the Berliner Festspiele.
  • The “Berliner Lektionen” are launched in collaboration with the publishing house Bertelsmann: a series of talks with philosophers, artists, writers and scientists at the Renaissance-Theater. The series continues until 2011.

1989

  • At the Martin-Gropius-Bau the exhibition “Europe and the Orient 800–1900” is held as part of Horizonte '89, the fourth edition of the Festival for World Cultures. Previous editions of the Horizonte festival also included exhibitions at the Martin-Gropius-Bau: “Myths of the New World: On the History of the Discovery of Latin America” in 1982 and “Palace Museum Peking. Treasures from the Forbidden City” in 1985. The success of these events provided the impetus to create a permanent venue to explore non-European cultures in 1989, on the basis of a concept devised by Berliner Festspiele: the “Haus der Kulturen der Welt” in the former conference hall in the Tiergarten.
  • For the first time productions from the GDR are invited to take part in the Berlin Theatertreffen. Productions are presented by the Maxim Gorki Theater and the Mecklenburg State Theatre.

1990

  • After the Berlin Wall has been opened, the Berliner Festspiele present films in competition and selected sections of the Berlinale in the East of the city for the first time.
  • As part of the Theatertreffen, the exhibition “Stage Design in the GDR” is held at the Kunstforum der GrundkreditBank.
  • The Berliner Festspiele realise the “Celebration of Unity” in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of the Interior.

1991

  • The Berliner Festspiele take over the “Musik-Biennale Berlin”, founded by the Festtage as an “international festival for contemporary music” in 1967 and produced until 1989 by the GDR’s Association of Composers and Musicologists and Ministry of Culture. This will subsequently evolve into the festival “MaerzMusik”.

2000

  • The Federal Government rents the former “Theater der Freien Volksbühne” in Schaperstraße and makes this available to Berliner Festspiele. The venue designed by the architect Fritz Bornemann is one of the outstanding post-war theatre buildings and has protected monument status.

2001

  • The former Theater der Freien Volksbühne becomes the Berliner Festspiele’s permanent base. The offices are moved from the Bikinihaus to the theatre in Schaperstraße, which is renamed the “Haus der Berliner Festspiele”.
  • The Berliner Festspiele take over the Martin-Gropius-Bau on behalf of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media. The exhibition space presents both modern and contemporary art as well as programmes featuring archaeology and cultural history.

2002

  • The Capital Culture Contract grants the Federal Government sole ownership of Berliner Festspiele GmbH and Haus der Kulturen der Welt GmbH. A retrospective merger of these two companies creates Kulturveranstaltungen des Bundes in Berlin GmbH (KBB) on 1 January 2002. Its is solely owned by the Federal Republic of Germany. As a result of the KBB’s foundation, one central administration and joint financial management structure operates three business divisions: the Berliner Festspiele including the Martin-Gropius-Bau, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Berlin International Film Festival.
  • “MaerzMusik – Festival for Contemporary Music” succeeds the Musik-Biennale Berlin. From now on, the festival takes place annually.

2003

  • The Berliner Festwochen take place for the last time.

2004

  • The former Berliner Festwochen are transferred into two new formats. The music programme takes place once only during the traditional festival period in late summer under the title “Konzerte | Oper”. From November to January the new series of guest productions “spielzeit’europa” presents international theatre and dance productions. This format continues until 2011.

2005

  • The Berliner Festspiele’s music programme now becomes “Musikfest Berlin”, which opens the Berlin concert season every year by presenting international guest orchestras at the Philharmonie in co-operation with the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation.
  • The Theatertreffen is transferred to “landmark funding” from the newly-founded German Federal Cultural Foundation.
  • The “international literature festival berlin”, founded in 2001, is hosted by the Berliner Festspiele for the first time. As a guest festival that returns annually, it supplements the programme by presenting a wide range of literature from around the world including poetry, prose, non-fiction, graphic novels and literature for children and young people.

2009

  • To mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, spielzeit’europa presents a four-day theatrical spectacular across the entire city with approximately two million spectators. The highlight is the production “The Giants in Berlin” by the street theatre company Royal de Luxe: this fairy tale of being separated and then reunited recalls the unification of the two German states, the FRG and GDR in 1989.
  • In order to continue to satisfy the multifunctional requirements of a venue for festivals and guest productions, the Haus der Berliner Festspiele’s outdated stage and technical equipment is modernised from 2009 to 2011.

2012

  • After the programme of guest productions spielzeit’europa is concluded, the Berliner Festspiele found “Foreign Affairs”: a festival that brings together experimental and interdisciplinary perspectives from the fields of music, theatre, visual arts and dance. This format continues until 2016.
  • As a contribution to the structural debate in German city theatres, the Berliner Festspiele present examples of alternative models and practices from Germany and abroad in the talks series devoted to cultural politics “Es geht auch anders”.
  • The series of publications “Editionen” is launched, combining literary texts with works by visual artists.

2013

  • For the first time the Haus der Berliner Festspiele is used as a venue for the ¬Berlinale, which presents film in competition and the “Specials” series here.
  • The series of events “One Day sith …” takes place for the first time. Running until 2016, it will regularly present single artists and their worlds at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele.
  • As a business division of the KBB, the Berliner Festspiele acknowledge their responsibility to maintain sustainable environmental standards and are certified according to the European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme, EMAS.

2014

  • The Haus der Berliner Festspiele is purchased by the Institute for Federal Real Estate (BImA) in the KBB’s name. The KBB now rents the Haus der Berliner Festspiele from the BImA.
  • The “Tanztreffen der Jugend” is founded.

2016

  • With “Immersion” the Berliner Festspiele found a new format for immersive art between exhibition and performance. This programme series, which runs until 2021, realises large-scale original productions intended to offer new impetus to institutional change within contemporary cultural organisations.

2017

  • “The New Infinity – New Art for Planetariums” is founded in co-operation with the Planetarium Hamburg. This new format takes place as part of the Immersion programme series and presents films and concerts that are specifically created for planetariums.

2018

  • The Martin-Gropius-Bau becomes the “Gropius Bau” and revives the idea of setting up studios and workshops, which the building had previously contained during its period as a craft museum, as residency spaces. The tradition of presenting archaeological collections is also continued and linked with contemporary enquiries and discourses.
  • From 2018 to 2022 a range of measures are taken to generally refurbish the energy use and technical specifications of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, including reinforcement of the roof in the box office foyer and renovation of the facades, the rooves, the fly tower and the wings. In addition, a new drainage system is constructed for outdoor areas and the ventilation system is upgraded.

2019

  • To mark the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, the Berliner Festspiele transform the Haus der Berliner Festspiele visually into the demolished “Palast der Republik” and realise a programme that connects the progressive legacy of revolution in the East with activist initiatives of the present.

2020

  • The online platform “Berliner Festspiele on Demand” is launched and provides a digital stage for streaming the Theatertreffen, Musikfest Berlin and Jazzfest Berlin in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • With “Down to Earth” at the Gropius Bau, for the first time the Berliner Festspiele present an exhibition and performance programme that makes almost no use of electricity or air travel and brings together experts in sustainable change.

2021

  • Due to coronavirus MaerzMusik – Festival for Time Issues and the Theatertreffen take place in digital form.
  • The Berliner Festspiele turn 70.
  • The Gropius Bau is 140 years old.

Gerhart von Westermann (1951–1962)
Wolfgang Stresemann (1963)
Nicolas Nabokov (1964–1967)
Peter Löffler (1968)
Walther Schmieding (1969–1972)
Ulrich Eckhardt (1973–2000)
Joachim Sartorius (2001–2011)
Thomas Oberender (since 2012)