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Vienna Philharmonic New Year's concert

Gaby Reucher
December 31, 2021

Conducted by Daniel Barenboim, the orchestra is set to thrill not just TV viewers worldwide but also a live audience on-site.

Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic
Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic OrchestraImage: NIKOLAY KRUSSER

For a brief moment, a lively waltz can make listeners forget everyday worries — even if they aren't swaying along in dance, but seated comfortably in a concert hall. People delight in classical concerts with cheerful dance music on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day — including the New Year's Eve Concert at Dresden's Semperoper or the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's New Year's Eve Concert. 

However, it is the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's New Year's Concert that is the most widely broadcast. From the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna, their traditional New Year's Concert is broadcast worldwide by more than 90 public television stations, including the European Broadcast Union (EBU). People from Japan to China, the US to Brazil, Kenya as well as on the Caribbean islands and of course the EU can listen to the well-known waltz melodies of Johann Strauss and his contemporaries.

Conducted by Daniel Barenboim 

This New Year's, Daniel Barenboim will conduct the famous concert, a "message of hope, friendship and peace" to the entire world. The Buenos Aires-born conductor and pianist has worked with the Vienna Philharmonic as a pianist since 1965 and as a conductor since 1989. He currently serves as General Music Director of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin and was named Staatskapelle Berlin's chief conductor for life.

Members of an orchestra stand on stage, backdrop is golden, seats in front
The orchestra in the Golden Hall of the Vienna MusikvereinImage: Lois Lammerhuber

In 1999, Barenboim and the Palestinian literary scholar Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an ensemble that brings together young musicians from Israel and Arab countries in a peace-building effort.

Nazis started the tradition

Founded in 1842, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the world's most renowned classical orchestras. The orchestra made its first guest appearance outside Europe with conductor Felix von Weingartner in South America in 1922. Richard Strauss (no relation to Johann Strauss) conducted the orchestra repeatedly between 1906 and 1944, and Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler also left their mark on the Philharmonic's history. Furtwängler was the orchestra's principal conductor from 1933 to 1945.

The Nazis started the tradition of Strauss concerts at the turn of the year, first broadcast on the "Reichsfunk" radio, and later also on television. Vienna saw the first Johann Strauss Concert on December 31, 1939. Jewish musicians were dismissed, expelled by the Nazis and persecuted.

 Wilhelm Furtwängler, man conducting an orchestra
Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1948 Image: AP

During World War II, the cheerful waltz music of Johann Strauss was specifically intended to distract from the horrors of war. Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Göbbels felt Johann Strauss' music was so important that he "aryanized" the composer — he had Strauss' Jewish roots deleted from documents. After the war, the Johann Strauss Concerts were renamed New Year's Concerts.

The Waltz King

The focus on music by Johann Strauss father and son as well as other musicians from the Strauss dynasty has remained to this day. At the time of its founding, the Philharmonic was wary of such "Viennese light music"— but eventually recognition by composers like Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms convinced the orchestra.

The Vienna Philharmonic's Strauss tradition goes back to Clemens Krauss, a conductor. At the Salzburg Festival in the early 1930s, he put together a similar program every year. In 1939, he conducted the first Strauss concert at the turn of the year with the Vienna Philharmonic for the Nazi "Kriegswinterhilfswerk" (winter war relief organization) fundraising campaign.

After World War II, Krauss was no longer allowed to conduct during the course of the denazification processes of the Allies. It was not until 1948 that he returned and conducted seven more New Year's Concerts until 1954. Today, the conductors of the New Year's Concerts change every year. Having conducted in 2009 and 2014, this marks the third time that Daniel Barenboim will conduct the Vienna Orchestra. 

A classical Strauss program

It is probably no coincidence that this year's program begins with the mythical tale of the phoenix rising from the ashes — the "Phoenix March" by Josef Strauss, Johann Strauss' brother. Johann Strauss, known as the 'waltz king,' also dedicated his waltz "Phoenix Wings" to the bird.

Johann Strauss, portrait of a man
Johann Strauss, the 'Waltz King'Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

A total of 15 marches, waltzes and polkas are on the program on January 1, 2022, including the famous overture to Johann Strauss' operetta "Die Fledermaus" and the "Champagner Polka."

Vienna dance music

The Berlin Philharmonic will end 2021 on Friday with Viennese dance music of a "somewhat different kind," that will include the Jewish composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold's stage music "Much Ado About Nothing" as well as Maurice Ravel's "La Valse," a modern, powerful version of the Viennese waltz.

In addition to a digital broadcast, the Berlin concert will have a live audience. However the Semperoper's New Year's Eve concert highlighting melodies from the "Golden 20s," will only be broadcast on television and online. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is allowed to seat 1000 guests in the Golden Hall, which normally holds 2000, in addition to the worldwide TV broadcast. At the venue, the "2G+" rule applies, which means only vaccinated or recovered guests are allowed to attend the concert with additional proof of a valid PCR test — and of course a FFP2 face mask.

This article has been translated from German.