Inequality alert: new report on unfair sex in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Inequality alert: new report on unfair sex in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra


norman lebrecht

January 01, 2012

William Osborne, who has monitored discrimination in orchestras for several years, today published a new report on the most exclusivist ensemble of them all. He concludes that, contrary to the orchestra’s claims of diversity, it is actually becoming more imbalanced. This morning, at the New Year’s Day concert, there were only two women on stage.

Read William’s original report and the 2011 instalment here.

(see any women? me, neither)



  • Ian says:

    While the auditions you describe are very concerning, I would not be surprised if the problem was being exacerbated by low numbers of qualified women applying in the first place. Would you apply if you were a woman? Is there any information available about the male/female applicant ratio?

    • I too would like to see that information. The VPO could provide it, but they haven’t, probably because it would show that women are applying but that they aren’t being hired in reasonable ratios. After all, 62% of the students at the orchestra’s feeder school, Vienna’s University of Music, are women.

      We should also remember that the orchestra is all but deified in Austria, and that women DO want to work in it. One of my colleagues is a professor in Austria. A few couple years ago she had to judge an oboe competition for youths. Fifteen of the 16 competitors were girls. And they played the Vienna oboe, which is not found outside Austria, and which normal oboistscan’t play. To maintain its standards and its special sound (of which the Vienna oboe is a major part,) the orchestra needs Austria’s women.

      • Dan P. says:

        Besides their French horns and oboes, what other instruments that have designs that are unique to the VPO do they use? If oboes, I would imagine also English Horns as well.

      • Squick says:

        I’m very confused.

        With all respect for your work, Mr Osborne, and agreeing with most of what you say, speculation to try and prove your point will do you no favours:

        “…probably because it would show that women are applying but that they aren’t being hired in reasonable ratios.”

        We are capable of coming to our own conclusions by the VPO’s refusal (has this data been requested?) to make audition figures available. If you push your opinion people are less likely to listen to what further things you have to say.

        The attitude of this institution is so many years behind the rest of the orchestral world, it will take a very long time indeed before the ideals of the management and players are altered. Is it really desirable to change an institution like this? Why not concentrate on enjoying and promoting the orchestras out there who do offer great performances whilst not discriminating? The Concertgebouw has plenty of women and non-caucasians, and in my view is plenty superior to the VPO. Even they have a mildly xenophobic attitude, from what I hear, but only in the sense they want to keep a core membership of Dutch players (this might be completely untrue).

        Let the VPO carry on its racism and other views of exclusivity for the cheap excuse of high art, we all know deep down this is rubbish. It’s like saying white people will never be able to play jazz. The fact that they are more concerned that a Japanese person’s face won’t fit rather than them not having that “Viennese Schwung”, well…..they’ve disproved their own point. They will become a laughing stock to the rest of the world before long, and I’d be more interested in watching them crash and burn than try to convince them to open their arms to all races and genders. Having said that…..

        My count on the orchestra’s website is seven female members of the Philharmonic, with another one a member of the Opera, membership of the Philharmonic pending. This seems a huge increase in the last few years, no? That there were no females playing yesterday, that looks a little suspicious, but with a relatively small orchestra playing from a membership of around 150, it’s not too surprising.

        Can someone point me in the direction of the ‘new’ report mentioned in the post title? This links to an article 12-13 years old.

        I await angry comments!

        Best wishes to all, and a Happy New Year.

        • Yes, the url link above is incorrect. Here is the correct link:

          I list the six women in that report. If I missed one, give us her name and I’ll make a correction. As for wondering about the m/f ratios of applicants, reasonable speculation is the basis of all intelligent inquiry, and especially useful in discussion concerning an orchestra know for secrecy.

        • Dan P. says:

          No anger here, Squick, just a couple low-key comments.

          I would imagine that without hard audition data it’s pretty difficult to speculate about what’s going on. The gender ratio of the audition pool would suggest one thing, but the VPO’s contemptuous attitude would seem to hold off many women and minorities from even think of auditioning.

          I can’t get a feel for this racial/nationalist/gender-specific thing, but I do understand the esthetic goal and advantage of a shared culture within an orchestra. I miss hearing orchestras with their own specific and identifiable sounds as one could in the past. In the old days, you distinguish in a second a French orchestra from a German one, and the Concertgebouw from the Berlin Philharmonic. And most recently, the Montreal Symphony under Dutoit was the only remaining truly French-sounding orchestra on the international scene.

          But these things are not racial or gender in origin, just the result of a culture being perpetuated by long-standing orchestra members and conductors by passing it on their traditions to newer players. (The story in Mr. Osborne’s article about the favored trombone player illustrates this.)

          Even in the heterogeneous U.S., when orchestras were conducted by strong-willed people, our best orchestras each had their own sound. When the Boston Symphony was predominantly German in its personnel, it was the most French of American Orchestras. The Cleveland and Philadelphia and Chicago Orchestras again had their own sounds, but they were maintained by very strong-willed and relentless conductors with a sound-ideal in their head.

          All that being said, as repugnant as their attitudes are, I think simply blaming the VPO for it is unfair, as, from what I understand from others here, this is a much wider national trait and something that isn’t going to be truly fixed until there is a cultural shift by the younger generation. So I’m not sure there is much to be done except to make one’s own choice to support it or not support the VPO by buying or not buying its tickets and CDs and making one’s feelings loudly and publicly expressed. Sooner or later, the light bulb is bound to come on in Vienna.

  • I agree that it’s a poor show but perhaps the concerns would hold greater sway if more women complained? The situation gives the VPO extra distinction for spurious reasons, however I imagine they are not too worried about the publicity. Viennese music has never been known for its equality – I wonder what Brahms and Bruckner would have made of it?

    • Janey says:

      If a woman complained, what protections exist for her? Would she ever be able to work at the VPO and if she already worked there and was fired, does she have recourse? Perhaps women are terrified to complain for fear of retribution… and perhaps not only from the VPO itself. Just a thought based on really no knowledge of Austrian law or precedent.

    • Charles Mutter says:

      Robert, I can’t speak for either Brahms or Bruckner, but given the enormous influence that Clara Schumann held over Brahms I find it hard to believe he’d have been as blinkered as many are today. The fact that Clara also received the highest possible state honour (“Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso”, wouldn’t you prefer that to an OBE?) suggests that institutional misogyny, even in Vienna, may have been nowhere near its current levels.

  • Dan P. says:

    The first question I have is: Given the underlying and deeply embedded racism among both management and many of its players, what is the position of the Austrian Government (who funds the Opera, which makes the VPO possible as a side venture) and the Austrian taxpayers who fund the government?

    While it’s true that no other orchestra sounds like the VPO now, the notion that it’s sound derives from some supposed shared cultural “soul” that links Aryan males is simply hateful, self-serving crap. It’s pure fantasy. It may, however, give the racist/misogynists among them some comfort to know that they’re performing together with other racist/misogynists, and together they form some sort of musical master race that the rest of us cannot even hope to understand. Maybe that’s the unspoken assumption in all of this.

    Second, if they are heirs to such innate solidarity, then, based on recordings and sound checks, why is it that during the 1950s, they were capable of playing so out of tune so often and with less than precise ensemble?


  • Paul Ricchi says:

    The headline is unfortunate: “Inequality alert: new report on unfair sex in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra”.

    I suppose that the sex is OK, even if unfair, so long as it is among consenting adults and not during a rehearsal, a performance, or on the bus to the airport.

    • Keith Pascoe says:

      Firstly congratulations to William Osborne on a scholarly and informative article ( I have to say it made my stomach churn to read the detailed and documented story of the VPO and its close attachment to racist and sexist and fascist organisations going back to its inception. To see in 2012 people on social media attempting a defense of the indefensible is sobering. Where do the token foreigners i.e. conductors and soloists stand on this issue? Is the fat cheque their bottom line?

      • To my knowledge, there has never been a conductor or soloist who refused to work with the Vienna Philharmonic due to its employment practices. It is not only the money, but the prestige that sways them. In the article Norman links above, I quote Joshua Kolman of the San Francisco Chronicle who provides some very interesting thoughts about the questions you raise.

        “There is something unsettling and sad about this sort of glib aestheticism – the view that anything can be justified in the name of art – because the truth is precisely the opposite. To exempt music, and art in general, from moral considerations is not to protect it at all, but to marginalize it and rob it of any ability to engage on a human level.”

  • ariel says:

    Yup ! no women are to be seen, no cats and dogs either also children for that matter ….let’s register moral outrage ……..
    I suppose if we took the picture from a different camera angle and a lonely woman came into view , would that
    calm the moral outrage ? This all reminds one of politicians at work – raising a finger, find out which way the moral
    winds are blowing and jumping on the band wagon . The Austrians will never be forgiven for their behaviour
    during the last war so lets keep digging until something however minor comes up and we can show the world how
    rotten are the Viennese. May one suggest Mr. Osborne work to clean up the fields at home first and when that is done
    he can then address saving the Austrians from themselves and their moral failings .

    • Keith Pascoe says:

      Ariel, you are speaking on behalf of whom? Austrians? If so, please point out to them that they are out of step with the rest of the world and that whatever excuse they want to conjure up will not wash any longer. Thanks.

      • Ariel says:

        Mr. Pascoe – Since all exchanges are monitored I must politely note that your interpretation of
        what I wrote is a stupid interpretation, mind you I didn’t say you were stupid (to avoid anything that
        may be construed as a personal attack) You may deplore the way you believe the VPO operates but let
        me assure you the rest of the world of billions of people don’t give a rats’ behind how the VPO operates.
        One never fails to notice how carefully chosen are the moral battlefields, especially “now I can feel
        good about myself ” morality ” battles .

    • Dan P. says:

      Ariel – you’ve registered your emotion, but I can’t make any sense from your outburst.

      1. Your comment about not being able to distinguish between a woman and a dog or cat is ugly in its underlying meaning, but I’m sure you must be aware of that, otherwise you would not have dragged that one out. But perhaps you can’t see the difference? Please explain one way or the other.

      2. Could you point out why you think one should be criticized for pointing out an injustice in one country just because they may not have previous pointed out an injustice in another. This is truly an odd statement. Why does the validity of one statement rest on the existence or non-existence of an unrelated statement? A statement is either true or untrue.

      3. Could you explain why you think that to point out an obvious example of injustice one has to have some hidden and, from I gather from you, nefarious agenda? Are you saying that other than having a political agenda, there is no justifiable reason to criticize anything in public life? I would like to hear your reason why.

      4. I think most people will find it in their heart to eventually forgive just about anyone who separates themselves from previous bad acts, acknowledges it, and asks for forgiveness, but when when groups seem not only fail to recognize the heinousness of their position but continue to consider them a virtue, then I think it’s fair game for discussion. Besides, the VPO, whether they agree are not, and despite how their funding works, are a de facto public institution and are not above critical comment for their corporate behavior by others. They are, to the rest of the world, the face of Austria and its culture and has been for some time.

      5. If you were really being honest here (and I don’t think you were, but prove me wrong) you would have been able to defend the VPO based on facts and reason, rather than hurling ad hominem attacks on those with whom you disagree. People who have no basis to criticize an idea, are usually forced to criticize the person holding that idea. This is what you did. Tell me, why should anyone take you seriously?

      Dan P.

      • ariel says:

        Dan P – Am certain you know what you are writing about , i certainly don’t .
        Poor Mr. Osborne in his Quixote roll with the VPO certainly draws an odd lot of supporters.
        This has turned into quite an amusing view of the human condition.
        And hats off to Mr. Lebrecht who knows just when to stir the pot .

      • ariel says:

        I did reply to you -for some reason it has disappeared .

  • Barry Johnstone. says:

    The VPO is following policies that are reminiscent of the 20th century at its worst, reflecting petty small-minded attitudes that come from petty, small-minded, arrogent and powerful beaurocrats. How DARE THEY UTILISE THAT FORM OF STUPID AND UTTERLY POINTLESS DISCRIMINATION!

  • Guilherme Fontão says:

    The “emotional unity” and “cultural tradition” alleged to justify women and non white Caucasian men exclusion from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra are false premises. First, because emotional unity is not a male exclusivity character. Second, being eventually different from female emotional unity doesn’t result in a superior quality. Even more so, are there gays playing in VPO? Does exist a particular “gay emotional unity”? Is it identical to a “male emotional unity”?… Besides, “cultural roots/tradition” cannot be confused with universal feelings and emotions. Although a cultural product, certainly a great masterpiece is above cultural implications. Once respected style and technique demands, ethnic origin is not also an insurmountable obstacle. The obvious and disgusting conclusion is: in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra prejudice prevails!

  • JonHL says:

    There is ONE good thing about the VPO to keep on doing their sex/race thing: They are becoming an international living museum of gender and race discrimination, showing the world how bad things used to be, and thereby making it impossible to forget all the fights that have been fought and won in the past.

    For everyone that doesn’t approve the existence of such a museum, I suggest writing a nice letter to the TV station in their area showing the VPO every January 1st, encouraging them to air another international top orchestra’s new year concert at the usual VPO time on Jan 1st, 2013, for example the Berlin or New York philharmonic, who both have excellent shows on new year’s eve, that are already recorded for TV and should be easily possible to air the next day anywhere in the world. Both of these orchestras even play interesting music, hardly any waltz or polka at all.

  • Barry Johnstone. says:

    The Vienna Phil has the lowest possible proportion of women musicians in the world. The bottom line to me is that of discrimination – no matter what diversionary tactics are used in trying to justify it – it still comes down to sheer discrimination! This is an orchestra that has a long and justifiably honourable history for music, but its discriminatory tactics in the 21st century has absolutely no place to go – in common with ALL discrimination!
    If the sound of the VPO is the result of being gender-specific, then change the sound! If it means changing the culture of this orchestra, then change the culture! Negating the employment opportunities for half the human population is the result of stupid, insulting, narrow-minded and arrogant beurocratic ideas that have had their day.
    How about that! I’m an interfering Southern Hemisphere Foreigner (and I’ve NEVER heard the band live) telling a foreign country CHANGE!

  • Andrew says:

    You guys are really operating on a lot of assumptions about the VPO, gender composition in the workplace, why they are in this situation, etc…

  • Maria Sanchez says:

    As a woman, I find all this criticism against the VPO is going beyond absurd. I’m not a musician but the mere thought of being hired according to some ratio would sound insulting and discriminating to me.

    • Dan P. says:

      The VPO IS already hiring according to a ratio, and it IS insulting. The ratio is something like 99% men, 1% women. Most orchestras now audition prospective members behind a screen so there is no opportunity to discriminate one way or the other. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s fair.

    • ariel says:

      Ms. Sanchez , spot on !!! you may notice that almost all the writers are male ….and this moral male army is
      getting more amusing by the hour – if I read the latest correctly there had better soon be a “gay” section
      in the orchestra or at least acknowledgment of members that are “gay”- soon under each
      orchestra members name will be a listing chart on the players reaction to the music, a scale meter – feminine to
      masculine,sexual proclivities, etc. I am positive most of the writers will have a comment about closet cases .
      Yes Ms. Sanchez this is beyond absurd ……imagine a man believing that musicians are hired solely based
      on their playing from behind a screen …the blind leading the blind . I have suggested Mr. Osborne take
      care of his back yard first then take on Vienna , but alas a cause is a cause .

      • Dan P. says:


        Could you please just answer this: why should we accept institutional discrimination based on any unrelated factor in publicly supported institutions?

        Dan P.

    • Mathieu says:

      What the VPO is asked here to do is NOT to hire a specific ratio of women (something lake a gender-friendly affirmative action); it is asked to stop considering that being a wouman precludes any musician from being hired, even if she is superior to all male applicants. What the VPO should do is having a gender-neutral (and race-neutral, but let us not ask too much; it’s Austria, for chrissakes) hiring policy. In other words, they should hire women not qua women, but qua musicians. Nothing like affirmative action.
      I nevertheless agree with ariel that it is not the most urging cause on earth… It is not like the VPO is the only orchestra in the world. Besides, I have attended many a VPO concert in Paris, and I have never be enthused…

  • Maria Sanchez says:

    Yes, players should be judged from their art, not for their gender. I agree with that. But at the same time many of you are judging the Vienna Philharmonic not on how they sound, but because of their policies. Forget me if I got something wrong, since English is not my first language, but that seems extremely incoherent to me.

    • I’m not judging how they sound, Maria. I’m judging them under human rights law – they discriminate against women. It’s illegal and they know it.

      • Mathieu says:

        I agree with you, Mr. Lebrecht, but I do not think one has to appeal to human rights law. Labor law should suffice: for instance in France, we have Labor Code Article L 1132 -1 which prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, etc. during the hiring process. I do not know what the law on this matter is in Austria or in England, but there are, if I am not mistaken, two 2000 European directives which are deemed part of the law of all UE countries. So, I think the Court of Justice is probably competent in this matter.

  • ariel says:

    Dan P – just don’t go to VPO concerts is one form of protest rather than write about orchestras of which
    you seemingly have scant knowledge . Mr. LeBrecht brings up human rights law – may I suggest the he and
    Mr. Osborne travel to Vienna (the enemy camp ) get on the underground (redU1 and take it to Kaisermuhlen
    stop and walk over to the UN Vienna Headquarters and lodge a formal complaint with the Human Rights
    office and hopefully the VPO will be brought up on human rights charges according to Mr. Lebrechts’ view. It will take forever but at last will be resolved to everyones satisfaction on way or another and we all can
    go back to listening to the VPO without moral outrage infringing on listening to endless Strauss Waltzes .

  • Anne S says:

    It boggles the mind that in 2012, there are people who defend and uphold medieval and illegal discriminatory practice. There is no scientific, esthetic or moral basis to the claim that the addition of women musicians to the Vienna Philharmonic would “ruin” their precious sound. Ruin their fragile ego is more like it. Pathetic!