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Myth and tradition of the Vienna Philharmonic

Rick Fulker
February 23, 2017

This year, one of the world's most renowned orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic, celebrates its 175th birthday. The anniversary year will feature more than just a commemorative silver coin.

Wiener Philharmoniker Neujahrskonzert 2016
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Neubauer

When the lilting melodies of Johann Strauss waft from the stage of Vienna's sumptuous "Musikverein" on January 1, it's clear that another year has passed.

Those wishing to be there in person discover that tickets are so highly in demand that they have to be distributed by lottery. But the New Year's concert of the Vienna Philharmonic reaches a television audience in 90 countries, as well as radio listeners and live stream users, making the orchestra one of the best known in the world.

As these musicians are based in what has been called "the capital city of classical music," they usher in each new year with a dynasty of composers from Vienna, Strauss and his sons. The Vienna Philharmonic is associated with Strauss waltzes, polkas and operettas like none other, although it would be a mistake to pigeonhole it thus.

For many, the Vienna Philharmonic is synonymous with classical music. Founded in 1842, it has premiered a number of masterpieces and earned accolades from composers who worked with it.

Richard Wagner dubbed this orchestra "one of the world's very finest," while Anton Bruckner called it "the supreme artistic association in music." Johannes Brahms named himself the Vienna Philharmonic's "friend and venerator," and Gustav Mahler felt bound to it "through artistic ties."

Richard Strauss, however, is the source of the most quotable quote: "Praising the Philharmonic would be like carrying violins to Vienna."

Coin commemorating the 175th anniversary of the Vienna Philharmonic
Founders Otto Nicolai, August Schmidt and Alfred Julius Becher Coin are featured on the anniversary coinImage: Münze Österreich AG

Self-determination and pride

The orchestra's origins are to be found in the Vienna Court Opera, whose musicians were occasionally commissioned by Mozart and Beethoven for "academy" concerts.

Eventually, the need for a full-fledged symphony orchestra was recognized to perform repertory apart from the operatic repertoire. In early 1842, the composer and conductor Otto Nicolai collaborated on the issue with August Schmidt of the Finance Ministry and Alfred Julius Becher, a lawyer, musician and composer. All three are portrayed on the "175 Years Vienna Philharmonic" silver coin along with part of Max Oppenheimer's painting "Die Philharmoniker" ("The Philharmonic").

The Vienna Philharmonic with conductor Arturo Toscanini
The orchestra with conductor Arturo Toscanini after a rehearsal in Salzburg in August 1935Image: Historisches Archiv der Wiener Philharmoniker

The first concert on March 28, 1842 - Easter Monday - launched the history of the ensemble later to be known as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Nicolai's "Founding Declaration" was set up according to democratic principles that still apply today: to play in the Philharmonic, one must first be a member of the opera orchestra. The musicians organize and host the concerts themselves, and they share the proceeds.

Taking their fate into their own hands, the once poorly paid musicians of relatively low social standing decided on what to play and on who would lead them, choosing Nicolai as their first principal conductor. He remained with the orchestra until 1847. First in the Redouten Hall of the Vienna Court Castle and in the Court Opera, and after 1870 in the Musikverein, the orchestra made music history.

Secret of success

Tradition is writ large with this orchestra, determining both who is inducted into its ranks and his or her field of activity, explained oboist Wolfgang Plank in an interview with DW.

"The gateway to the orchestra is the Vienna State Opera," said Plank. "That's where the young musicians start, and if they pass the three-year probationary period, they're gradually engaged in concert performance. How much opera and how much concert activity one has depends on the repertory chosen. We tend to serve mostly in the opera pit, but for most orchestra members, it's about 50-50."

Describing an orchestral sound as unique is difficult nowadays, but when it comes to this group, "unique" is in fact the word most often used.

"The oboe, for example, is a different instrument here than in other orchestras. It's an earlier model, richer in overtones," said Plank. "The horns, the timpani, even the triangle are all specially constructed for the Vienna Philharmonic."

Described as particularly homogeneous, the Vienna sound has also been shaped by seminal personalities from the world of classical music, beginning with Hans Richter, who led the Vienna Philharmonic from 1875 until 1898 in what is called its "golden era." 

Gustav Mahler worked closely with the orchestra from 1898 until 1901 and took it on its first tour abroad, to the Paris Exhibition in 1900. The 19-year era of Felix von Weingartner began in 1908 and saw the orchestra on its first tour outside Europe, in South America. In 1933, the Vienna Philharmonic began to work only with guest conductors, a tradition it continues to this day.

The Vienna Philharmonic with conductor Hans Weisbach in Bukarest
Under Nazi occupation, the Vienna Philharmonic performed with conductor Hans Weisbach in Bucharest in 1941Image: Ullstein

A darker period

When Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, authorities revoked the orchestra's self-governing structure. It was only at the intervention of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler that the decision was revoked.

All Jewish members were dismissed, five died in concentration camps and another two died in the wake of persecution in Vienna. Nine musicians were forced into exile.

The 11 members married to Jews or stigmatized as "half-Jews" stayed on in constant fear of losing their special privileges. In 1942, 60 of 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were members of the Nazi Party, a far higher proportion than in the populace at large.

These facts have only comparatively recently come to light. Citing Austria's history of coming to terms with its Nazi heritage in fits and starts, Swiss historian Fritz Trümpi told DW that "public pressure on the orchestra became so great that it had to open up its archives."

An ongoing, exhaustive review of the era, including primary sources with the disturbing stories of several individuals, is published on the Vienna Philharmonic's website.

Into the modern era

The venerable New Year's concerts were initiated in the Nazi era, though that fact has done little to besmirch the Philharmonic's postwar glamour. It continued to work with the world's foremost conductors, including five decades in close association with Herbert von Karajan and a period with honorary member Leonard Bernstein.

The Vienna Philharmonic has performed at the Salzburg Festival nearly every year since 1922, and the "Vienna Philharmonic Weeks" have taken place in New York and Japan since 1989 and 1993, respectively. The annual performances in Vienna's Schönbrunn Palace Park draw upwards of 100,000 visitors.

Summertime performance of the Vienna Philharmonic at Schönbrunn Palace, 2012
Summer performances at Schönbrunn Palace are a hitImage: dapd

Named "Goodwill Ambassadors of the World Health Organization" (WHO) in 2005, the Vienna Philharmonic has given about 7,000 performances in its 175-year history - currently over 40 concerts a year in Vienna and more than 50 in guest appearances abroad.

In the still-young anniversary year, the Philharmonic is embarking on its annual US tour under Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, beginning on February 24 in New York - where that city's Philharmonic is also celebrating 175 years - and continuing in Florida and North Carolina. Beginning March 26, the orchestra will give six performances in Vienna, Paris, Frankfurt and Dortmund under Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons. 

To mark the 175th anniversary of the founding of both the Vienna and New York Philharmonics, an exhibition with documents of both orchestras - concert playbills, founding declarations, photos and musical scores - opens at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York on February 23. The exhibition will then move to Vienna to be shown in an expanded version at the "Haus der Musik" beginning on the Vienna Philharmonic's 175th birthday, March 28.