What the Vienna Philharmonic covers up on New Years Day

I have published a piece in the Spectator on the many things the Vienna Philharmonic tries to cover up at its New Year’s Day concert – racism, sexism, elitism and plain old Viennese meanness and nastyism.

The annual Strauss concert is one of the last water-cooler moments on world television, but:

So long as appearance defeats substance — so long as the world oohs and ahhs at the musical sweetmeats and ignores the dirt in the kitchen, New Year’s Day from Vienna will remain a family favourite, a testament to our human ability to look the other way.

Read the full article here.

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  • You’re right Norman.

    Its a beautiful event always beautifully played and a great hangover cure for the night before.

    But indeed it does have a whiff of totalitarianism and Aryan Supremacy about it.

      • Actually he (Johann II) was one-eighth jewish, from a paternal great-grandfather. The Nazis threatened at least one musicologist who wanted to publish that. But it wasn’t enough to classify either Strauss (or Johann II’s brothers) as jewish under the vile Nuremberg Laws. But the Nazis banned the music of Bruch who wasn’t jewish at all, but had written the cello piece, Kol Nidrei, Op.47. Thus the aribtrariness of the totalitarian state.

        • Furtwängler conducted Bruch’s violin concerto in Berlin in 1942, so I am not convinced the performance of his works in general was actually banned – do you have any sources for that (other than Wikipedia)?

    • You know, the Viennese had their Nazi past, but their most significant musical collaborations have been with Jews: Mahler, Solti, Bernstein, Barenboim…

      • The Strausses were of Jewish descent; Johann II was socially liberal and was actually arrested at one point for his revolutionary activities in 1848. The reason why this particular event gets such an annual kicking – when any activity by the VPO merits the same criticism – has as much do with musical snobbery as anything else (see Norman’s opening paragraphs). Condescension towards popular repertoire is still very widespread amongst classical music cognoscenti (irrespective of the music’s actual quality – Wagner and Richard Strauss both revered the Strausses; Brahms compared Johann II to Mozart). If music has a wide and enthusiastic audience, goes the subconscious reasoning of the music snob, there must be something wrong with it.

        The VPO has questions to answer whenever it plays, and this event is undoubtedly very high-profile. But if the VPO had initiated a New Year tradition of playing, say, Beethoven 9 each year, one wonders whether it’d attract quite so much bile. The Strausses aren’t the first great (yes, great) composers to be co-opted, posthumously, into dubious traditions or used to bolster questionable institutions. Ask tough questions of the VPO and its supporters, yes: leave the music itself out of it.

  • I am missing from the article a very legitimate musical criticism mentioned in Norman’s book “The Maestro Myth”: that after Boskovsky’s retirement the Vienna Philharmonic sold out to the star system by appointing a different jet set conductor every year, and not necessarily one steeped in Viennese tradition, the way Boskovsky or Krauss were. Appointing different conductors every year leads to annual high selling recording.

    • My understanding is slightly more tempered… Yes, they invite a different jet set conductor, but usually they are the jet set conductors that have a long affiliation with their orchestra and know its style very well. For example, has Rattle or Dudamel ever conducted a New Year’s concert? No. It is an invitation for “Ehrendirigenten”.

      • Yes, the conductors all have a connection to the orchestra, but not necessarily with the best Straussian experience. For instance, Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa and Georges Pretre are not at their best in this repertoire. I am sure the orchestra knows their Johann Strauss better than most of the New Year’s Day Concert guest conductors.

  • yeah, we know it. Still one of the few moments where classical musics gets to everyone, not only our restricted group of fanatics.

  • Please, please, please. Does Norman even care about the music anymore? The Vienna Phil is one of the most splendid orchestras in the world today. When can we go back to listening to music for it’s own sake? Does everything need to be a political game?

  • I’ve long thought that the mandatory traditional two last ‘encores’ had a bit of a stadium party rally wafting around, particularly the audience participation during the Radetzky March. As much as I also love the Blue Danube Waltz, it would be better to change the encores every year — the number of worthy and seldom-heard Strauss-family pieces is enormous.

  • The VPO bashing on this website long ago became tiresome and here we are again with the same old complaints.

    Yes, we know that the New Year concerts were instigated during the Nazi era but for heaven’s sake this was 75 years ago and the event has long transcended its origins in the darkest days of Vienna and Austria. Ridiculous and offensive comment from Sixtus complaining of the Radetsky March having ‘a bit of the stadium party rally wafting around’.

    No current members of the orchestra could possibly have been involved with the Nazis, obviously, so we can’t visit the sins of their fathers or grandfathers upon them.

    As for sexism, who cares? The VPO can employ whomsoever they want to be included in their ranks whatever gender, colour or creed they may be. What matters is: can they play well?

    It really is time this website ceased the vicious comments it peddles time and time again about the Vienna Philharmonic and instead celebrated this great orchestra and gave thanks that so many people throughout all the world can enjoy the wonderful music of the Strauss family through the miracle of radio and television.

    • “Who cares?” Well, probably a lot of excluded female and minority musicians do, for one. As do those of us who wish to see a preeminent classical institution represent inclusiveness, not exclusion. And for any Austrian taxpayer, they probably care too, since the ensemble gets a good chunk of state funding.

      • Well, I don’t hear any Austrian taxpayers making their feelings known. The Musikverein audience seems to have a good proportion of women there and I don’t see any banners or any other manifestations of protest. Is the Austrian press up in arms on this issue?

        Whatever protest there is appears to come from the Anglo-Saxon community who haven’t exactly got a stake in the matter and should butt out of something that doesn’t concern them.

      • Again, is this about the music or about sexual politics? How many women can you list who have tried to get the Vienna job, proved themselves better musically then their male competitors, and been turned down? The idea that because the orchestra is mainly male they must be discriminating has no ring of logic. Perhaps the conditions of the job are better suited to men? Maybe gifted women would rather play with a different orchestra?

        I wonder what Norman thinks when he hears a concert he enjoys. “Ah, what beautiful music! 75% of the orchestra is female, and 85% are minorities! Boy, must be better than it sounds”!

        After all, if a musical institution is able to achieve greatness, surely they must be cheating or doing something immoral!

        • Mr Osborne has stated that the orchestra “has a history of hiring foreign men to avoid hiring Austrian women”. Mr Barnard asked him to list the number of women “who have tried to get the Vienna job, proved themselves better musically than their male competitors, and been turned down”. Mr Osborne?

  • The New Year’s Concerts are a cash cow for the VPO. The royalties from the CDs and the yearly broadcast to about 50 million people are a substantial part of their income. The orchestra has been concerned for decades that competitors might steal their New Years business. This is one of the reasons the orchestra excludes Asians. They want to maintain an image that they are the most traditional and authentic orchestra in the world. They stress the view that the waltzes are something uniquely Viennese and that they can only be authentically performed by Viennese. The orchestra has long felt that the appearance of Asians in the orchestra would weaken this conceit and damage their New Years business, among other things. This policy has weakened slightly in recent years. The orchestra currently has three partially Asian members with German family names.

    A new book has just been published about the Vienna Phil by Bernadette Mayrhofer and Fritz Trümpi entitled “Orchestrierte Vertreibung: Unerwünschte Wiener Philharmoniker. Verfolgung, Ermordung und Exil.“ See:

    http://www.amazon.de/gp/product/3854764480/ref=pe_153031_55365941_nrn_desc

    It is comprised of short biographies of the 29 musicians in the orchestra who were murdered or exiled during the Nazi regime. It notes that none of the exiles returned to the orchestra, and addresses the orchestra’s behavior after the war. This included harboring unrepentant Nazis, a fact that discouraged the exiles from returning. With singular logic, the orchestra argued that it had been so strongly damaged by Nazi policies that it shouldn’t be further damaged by de-Nazification.

    One of the unrepentant Nazis was the solo chair trumpeter Helmut Wobisch, a former SS officer, who also served as the orchestra’s Executive Manager from 1954 to 1968. Wobisch was largely responsible for reissuing the Philharmonic’s “Ring of Honor” to the Nazi war criminal Baldur von Schirach. As the Gaulieter of Vienna, the city’s highest Nazi official, Schirach deported 65,000 Viennese Jews to death camps. In 1967 Wobisch was given one of Austria’s highest awards for public service, the Große Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich.

    In 1953 the orchestra caused international concern when it elected a former SS Sargent and member of the Sicherheitsdienst (which included the Gestapo) as its Executive Manager (Geshaeftsführer.) It is of course, very likely that the orchestra’s weak de-Nazification played a significant role in its continuance of discriminatory employment practices.

    For more about the orchestra’s Nazi history see:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/ purity.htm

    • The correct link: http://www.osborne-conant.org/purity.htm

      I wrote the above article 1996. Thanks to the web, it was the first article in English that brought the orchestra’s Nazi past into the forefront of discussion in the international music community. And yet it was another 15 years before the orchestra began to open its archives and engage with the public about its Nazi history.

      • You must feel very, very proud about that: laying an embarrassing past on the table of people who had nothing to do with it, like showing the turd of the forefathers to the masses to blame the offspring. I assume such noble deed must make you sleep very comfortably and happily.

    • [People are responding to an addenda to a post from me that is still awaiting moderation because of the urls listed in it. It explains why the VPO’s current employment practices make it essential to examine the orchestra’s history of sexism and racism. Here is a copy without the urls.]

      The New Year’s Concerts are a cash cow for the VPO. The royalties from the CDs and the yearly broadcast to about 50 million people are a substantial part of their income. The orchestra has been concerned for decades that competitors might steal their New Years business. This is one of the reasons the orchestra excludes Asians. They want to maintain an image that they are the most traditional and authentic orchestra in the world. They stress the view that the waltzes are something uniquely Viennese and that they can only be authentically performed by Viennese. The orchestra has long felt that the appearance of Asians in the orchestra would weaken this conceit and damage their New Years business, among other things. This policy has weakened slightly in recent years. The orchestra currently has three partially Asian members with German family names.

      A new book has just been published about the Vienna Phil by Bernadette Mayrhofer and Fritz Trümpi entitled “Orchestrierte Vertreibung: Unerwünschte Wiener Philharmoniker. Verfolgung, Ermordung und Exil.“ [Google the title to find the Amazon listing.]

      It is comprised of short biographies of the 29 musicians in the orchestra who were murdered or exiled during the Nazi regime. It notes that none of the exiles returned to the orchestra, and addresses the orchestra’s behavior after the war. This included harboring unrepentant Nazis, a fact that discouraged the exiles from returning. With singular logic, the orchestra argued that it had been so strongly damaged by Nazi policies that it shouldn’t be further damaged by de-Nazification.

      One of the unrepentant Nazis was the solo chair trumpeter Helmut Wobisch, a former SS officer, who also served as the orchestra’s Executive Manager from 1954 to 1968. Wobisch was largely responsible for reissuing the Philharmonic’s “Ring of Honor” to the Nazi war criminal Baldur von Schirach. As the Gaulieter of Vienna, the city’s highest Nazi official, Schirach deported 65,000 Viennese Jews to death camps. In 1967 Wobisch was given one of Austria’s highest awards for public service, the Große Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich.

      In 1953 the orchestra caused international concern when it elected a former SS Sargent and member of the Sicherheitsdienst (which included the Gestapo) as its Executive Manager (Geshaeftsführer.) It is of course, very likely that the orchestra’s weak de-Nazification played a significant role in its continuance of discriminatory employment practices.

      • None of the current members of the VPO have anything to do with the NAZI regime.
        But you connect connect all of them more or less directly with it.
        Two questions:
        Why don’t you do some research on your racist homeland, the US, whose founding father’s society was bases on slavery and whose ramapant racism can be witnessed in any major or minor US orchestra these days ( practically no black players.)
        And why is there an amnesty for all the conductors who worked with the VPO, many of them Jewish ,who happily worked with the orchestra for decades ?

        Double standards seem to have become the norm in this blog.

  • Just a few remarks upon the article on the site of The Spectator:

    The current players of the VPO have nothing to do with what other players many years ago did wrong. The son of a murderer may feel awful about his father but he is himself not guilty and he does not himself have to apologize for him, and neither should he be blamed for something he did not do himself and had no coltrol over and was not responsible for. He will want to forget the past to be able to make a life for himself. If this were not so, the British would still have many things to make apologies for, like things Henry VIII did with immigrant women, the catholic church and its possessions, and the legal system. Protestants would still blame president Hollande for the withdrawel of the Nantes Edict of 1685 by Louis XIV…. and so forth. In the same way, current Germany is a country, with people, fundamentally different from the country that gave birth to nazism. Life restores itself.

    The war past of the VPO was not suppressed, but neglected at most, from the same motives as the above-mentioned son. They made clean, under the pressure of PC culture, and have the right to leave it behind.

    The VPO has the freedom and the right, as a self-governing body, to prefer to remain a local, all-male club, like London gentemen’s clubs want to be all male, and like Italian female mandoline orchestras who want to remain all-female. These people cannot – for the reason of their preference – be accused of hating the opposite sex. (And, by the way, one is FREE to hate the opposite sex, though it is not something one would wholeheartedly recommend.)

    If female, Asian, African, Orinoco, Peruvian or whatever musicians want to play in a really good Viennese orchestra, they can audition at the Wiener Symphoniker or the radio orchestra, or decide to audition at one of the numerous other orchestras in the German-speaking world with mixed sexes and players from all over the world.

    Then this bit:

    “Wien bleibt Wien — Vienna never changes — is the city’s motto. Its defining characteristic, noted by Sigmund Freud, is Schein über Sein — looking good is better than being good. Appearance, in Vienna, counts most.”

    In fact, Vienna is constantly changing, like any metropolis, because (see above) there are new generations again and again. But the Viennese want to preserve the best of their city. Freud was wrong about Vienna, as he was on other points as well – in his profession for instance; Viennese culture (in the widest sense) is mythological. Its tradition is a constructive, inspirational myth, a cultivation of the capacity to create enduring monuments and works of art, motivated by the longing to preserve something of a dream of beauty, best expressed and realized through music (on any level, from high to low), and dreams and myths are the inspiring stuff people need to bring out the best in themselves, a process of which Viennese music life is a clear example. This is the real reason that audiences protested so strongly, at the beginning of the last century, to Schönberg’s avantgarde music: they rightly felt their culture, their identity was under attack. And that in certain historic circumstances myth can be misused by a certain type of people, is an open door: it obviously does not mean that the myth is thus wrong in itself. Like with Christianity, or any religion, people with destructive motives can always find ways to pick-out things from the human repertoire to justify their deeds.

    VPO-bashing is thus missing the point entirely.

    • Yes John, you are so right on many counts. What we are witnessing here is nothing short of a vendetta. If it’s all right for countries like the UK to have their musical traditions, e.g. The Last Night of the Proms, why is it not all right for the Viennese?

      • Good point (see, we can agree on some things, too) – I wonder when Norman will write an article about the Last Night at the Proms and their jingoistic celebration of “Britannia Rule the Waves” – a celebration of Britain’s nasty colonialist past which saw the brutal exploitation of hundreds of millions of people, including the systematic starving to death of tens of millions of people in India alone.

  • Thank god we have one inimitable orchestra left in the world. That is until the PC police destroy that too in the name of multiculturalism and feminism and every other ism. Leave Vienna alone. I’m a man, but an American. I have, for this reason, no real chance of joining the Vienna Phil. Good. There are plenty of faceless, anonymous sounding orchestras for me to play with and join. Don’t forget- an organization like Vienna Phil has it’s own life and sound which is the result of it’s history. Leave it alone. The Vienna can remain as it is.

    • Of course you have a possibility to Joint VPO äs an american. If you are playing this high level they do. Several brass players of the orchestra were English or Americans. For instance Ian bousfield, who was First trombone player.

  • You wonder why this blog is obsessed with constant VPO bashing,and endless huffing and puffing about one orchestra ?
    The VPO is quite simply a superior band when compared to any UK or Israeli orchestra.
    And that was the case for the last 100 years and it will be like that for the foreseeable future.

    • Not obsessed. Every year the VPO put on the world’s most watched concert. Every year we are approached by mass media for the latest research.

      • That’s not “the latest research”, Norman, just rehashing the same old, same old over and over again. I feel the use of the word “research” in this context is not entirely justified either. And who is “we”? We know it’s just you , Norman… 😉

        And what do you mean by “approached by the mass media” – you mean the tabloid press?

  • The New Year’s Day concert is a thing of beauty and a joy forever – and it’s fun too! Human history has many skeletons in old cupboards (name one country, one city, one culture, one religion that doesn’t) – but why trash something that now gives pleasure to millions and demonstrates the highest performance standards as well? The VPO is one of the world’s great treasures. Long may it continue.

  • Norm’s off on one of his regular anti VPO rants. Yawn…

    Yes Norm, we know YOU don’t like the VPO, but not everyone agrees with you. There are a good few comments here that clearly take issue with your near endless, and frequently, pointless tirades.

    It might also be pointed out to you that no matter how many times you comment on classical music or how many articles and books you write on the subject that does not make you a classical musician by default. No one is ever going to pay you to play an instrument on stage as a regular job. It does seem more than just a little perverse that you persistently pass negative comment on quite a range of professional musicians for some apparent failing or something lodged in the distant past when you are actually incapable of doing their job. Professional classical musicians live and work in a world run by people in power who frequently have little understanding or appreciation of what drives a classical musician or what underpins the greater ideal of our work. All of us who work in this profession know it is open to abuse by those political power and all of us also know that those currently in power will at some point no longer be so. Expose the criminals and abusers by all means as none of us want them but otherwise it is way past time you got behind us and supported rather than throwing brickbats.

    Nor is constant public bashing one of the world’s finest orchestras, just because you clearly have a grudge for whatever personal reason, a particularly well thought approach. The VPO has made public its past history and the current membership and organisation have accepted the findings. Indeed it was the current members who instigated it. All this has been gone through carefully by many who are far more objective than you Norman. One of the ideals of classical music is to bring people together in the hope of improving the future over the past. Perhaps you might like to subscribe to the idea as well. It won’t do you any harm and it might well be preferable to harboring out-dated grudges.

    It is also high time you got back to giving us classical music news rather than endlessly giving us your classical-music-related opinions.

    • Excellent posting.
      News about music are becoming more and more rare in this blog ,and political ststements dominate more and more the articles.
      Austria, Germany ( practically everything they do or say ), Gergiev, Russia in general, Peter Gelb,El Sistema to name a few are all not in the good books, some never were.
      I hope this once excellent blog will return to more information about classical music and less propaganda against the ever same few targets.

    • David Ashbridge says:
      December 13, 2014 at 8:18 am

      “It might also be pointed out to you that no matter how many times you comment on classical music or how many articles and books you write on the subject that does not make you a classical musician by default. No one is ever going to pay you to play an instrument on stage as a regular job.”

      And for good reasons! See here at 5:30: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16noW1H0yq8

  • “The music is strictly bar-room, written by members of the Strauss family as social foreplay for the soldiery and serving classes in low taverns. Like most forms of dirty dancing, the music rose vertically from barroom to ballroom and was soon performed as encores by symphonic orchestras to dowager purrs of wie schön.”

    And yet Brahms, who was asked to autograph the fan of Strauss’s wife Adele, didn’t write down a few measures of his own music, as was usual — no, he wrote down some bars from the “Blue Danube”, adding beneath it: “Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms.”

    And yet the greatest conductors of the 20th were honoured to conduct the New Year’s Concert and most of them thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Daniel Barenboim wrote: “I have enjoyed a very long relationship with the VPO for many years both as pianist and conductor, but to play this Strauss program with them was a very special occasion for me not only because millions of people watched it on television but because of the attitude of the musicians. One could have expected, and almost excused, an attitude of: “We know it all,” but I was heartened and inspired by their curiosity and openness to rethink with me the different styles in this highly varied music. Questions of tempo, rubato, and dynamics were looked upon as if for the first time, and this coming from such a great orchestra. It was a perfectly balanced combination of attitude and aptitude.”

    But of course, Lebrecht bleibt Lebrecht…

  • From the article:
    “The music is strictly bar-room, written by members of the Strauss family as social foreplay for the soldiery and serving classes in low taverns. Like most forms of dirty dancing, the music rose vertically from barroom to ballroom and was soon performed as encores by symphonic orchestras to dowager purrs of wie schön.”

    And yet Brahms, who was asked to autograph the fan of Strauss’s wife Adele, didn’t write down a few measures of his own music, as was usual — no, he wrote down some bars from the “Blue Danube”, adding beneath it: “Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms.”

    And yet the greatest conductors of the 20th were honoured to conduct the New Year’s Concert and most of them thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Daniel Barenboim wrote: “I have enjoyed a very long relationship with the orchestra for many years both as pianist and conductor, but to play this Strauss program with them was a very special occasion for me not only because millions of people watched it on television but because of the attitude of the musicians. One could have expected, and almost excused, an attitude of: “We know it all,” but I was heartened and inspired by their curiosity and openness to rethink with me the different styles in this highly varied music. Questions of tempo, rubato, and dynamics were looked upon as if for the first time, and this coming from such a great orchestra. It was a perfectly balanced combination of attitude and aptitude.”

    But of course, Lebrecht bleibt Lebrecht…

  • For anyone tired of the anti-VPO comments regularly expressed on this site and more importantly for those who have forgotten ( or choose to ignore) the fact that they are one of the truly great orchestras of the world, Decca have just released a very well packaged 64 cd set of their finest recordings – very well received by James Jolly in this month’s Gramophone magazine. I’m looking forward to opening my copy on Christmas Day – and can’t wait for 11.15 on New Years Day!

  • Since Norman has a bee in his bonnet about sexism, among other things, at the VPO, is there any chance he would apply his same logic to the following organisations that did not employ men? Or will he find some convenient form of words to absolve himself of the criticism?

    The Women’s Philharmonic, a professional orchestra that was based in San Francisco.

    The Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra which was formed in 1940 and gave concerts both in Canada and abroad until the late 1960s.

    Camerata Romeu, an all-female orchestra in Cuba.

    While these orchestras may not have the same international kudos as the VPO, going by Norman’s decidedly misguided logic, these ensembles practiced the same sort of sexism by excluding one half of the population on grounds of gender. Or is it the case, as explained so eloquently by John Borstlap that the VPO as a democratic, self-governing organisation is free to make its own rules.

    Or does Norman have some gripe against the VPO’s democracy? The reasons for his grudge are really very far from being clear to anyone.

  • While I agree with quite a few of the criticisms of the Spectator article, and even with the general observation that there are a few regular targets on this blog, I am detecting a faint whiff of what begins to have the scent of antisemitism disguised as disingenuousness in some of these posted responses.

    For all that I do not wish to tar sons with the sins of the fathers, the VSO history was too complacently comfortable with its Nazi years for far too long for any of the millions who knew the worst of what that era wrought to be able to blank it out. The first sons were proudly carrying their fathers’ banners by awarding their Rings of Honour as they did. Let’s see if the grandsons and great-grandsons in far from liberal Austria do any better.

  • What does NL consider should be done about this concert? Presumably the last thing he wants is for the VPO to abandon the event or for some authority be given the power to ban it on the grounds of sexism, racism, antisemitism, bogus traditionalism and/or “fausse culture” as a major building block for these obsessive regurgitations would disappear. Should a rabbi introduce the concert with an appropriate prayer or greeting following the recent Australian custom of having an Aboriginal elder greet those performing on former tribal lands? Is there anything else that would satisfy him and allow the orchestra to make music and its concert-goers to enjoy their music in peace? I am able to go to Tristan tomorrow without the need to publish an article about its nasty composer and the fact that he caused the Second World War and its horrendous tragedies. NL disagrees with the post that this blog is obsessed with “constant VPO bashing” – if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck……

  • Frankly? Yes. You have an institution with a very shameful and scandalous past that has still not come fully clean on it, and still seems to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era when it comes to gender/racial equity in membership/employment. Another reason it’s worthwhile to mention is that for a long time, if I’m not mistaken, the Vienna New Year’s Concert was spun as the VPO playing their beloved Strauss almost as a show of defiance against their German occupiers, as opposed to fawning over them.

    So enjoy the magnificent playing of the VPO, but don’t bury your head in the sand.

  • It’s not the same thing. All-women orchestras were almost certainly organized to give women a chance to play when the regular band in town excluded them. Same reason why in American we have historically black colleges.

    And the VPO may be free to make its own rules, but if it’s getting money from the government, or working hand-in-glove with a public institution (i.e. the musicians’ primary employer, the Vienna State Opera), it’s a bit harder to justify exclusionary practices.

  • While the VPO might be an easy and even tempting target to some, many studiously avoid to acknowledge the fact that the arts in general – orchestras in particular – exhibit a proclivity toward chauvinism and cultural superiority.
    For example, how many musicians are playing in top American, Austrian, British, French, German ect. ensembles that have not studied in those respective countries? That number is extremely low. And while there are sections/instruments that exhibit an audible difference based on geography, in the end the fact remains that if an orchestra is presented with two equally qualified candidates, one “locally grown or trained”, the other not, the tendency is in most cases to choose local over not-local. While there are institutions that demonstrate obvious sexism or racism, the rest is hardly innocent.

    • As long as countries like Germany and Austria cultivate classical music with state support far above the level of anywhere else in the world, they have the right to prefer musicians groomed in a culture in which classical music forms an important part of its identity.

      • For more than four decades, about a quarter to a third of the students at Vienna’s University of music have been Asian and thus “groomed” in Viennese music. None have ever been admitted to the Vienna State Opera Orchestra/VPO. The orchestra also has a history of hiring foreign men to avoid hiring Austrian women.

        • But surely they found a place in the other orchestras? And then, ‘studying’ at a place is not the same thing as growing-up. Yes, one can choose a culture, but growing-up in one gives one the best opportunities to achieve the highest level. It will always be impossible to ‘prove’ racist and cultural bias at auditions – all that remains are suspicions and sour grapes.

          • In his memoirs, published in 1970, Otto Strasser, a former chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic describes the problems blind auditions caused:

            “I hold it for incorrect that today the applicants play behind a screen; an arrangement that was brought in after the Second World War in order to assure objective judgments. I continuously fought against it, especially after I became Chairman of the Philharmonic, because I am convinced that to the artist also belongs the person, that one must not only hear, but also see, in order to judge him in his entire personality. […] Even a grotesque situation that played itself out after my retirement, was not able to change the situation. An applicant qualified himself as the best, and as the screen was raised, there stood a Japanese before the stunned jury. He was, however, not engaged, because his face did not fit with the ‘Pizzicato-Polka’ of the New Year’s Concert.”

  • Next step for Mr. Lebrecht: Berliner Philharmoniker, Willem Mengelberg, The french national Orchestra under German occupation etc.etc.
    Maybe start with Frederick the Great of Prussia?
    Music please maestro, music!

  • I know I speak for countless people in the classical music world when I encourage Norman Lebrecht to keep us up to date about the employment practices of the Vienna Philharmonic. Numerous comments on this blog vividly illustrate the hateful sexism, racism, and anti-Antisemitism that are still a serious problem in classical music. The efforts of some of the commentators here to intimidate and bully Norman into silence on these topics is disgraceful. I trust he and others, including many in Austria, will not be affected and continue to speak truth to power.

    There are now 11 women in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (and 7 tenured into the VPO.) And there are now 17 women in the Czech Philharmonic. Both orchestras excluded women until 1997 when protests forced both to end their shamefully sexist policies. That’s 28 women with full time, permanent jobs with full benefits in their country’s most prestigious orchestra. We thus see that the protests and coverage have made a huge difference and will continue to do so in spite of all the teeth gnashing and arm flailing of the misogynists and racists represented in this discussion.

    • Why do Americans always think they have to tell the rest of the world what to do ?
      And why do you call anybody who begs to differ with you an antisemite,a racist ,misogynist ? Who are you ? Some kind of Mother Teresa of the music business ?
      A self appointed speaker for many ?
      Get a life.

    • But what if the players of the VPO are so übersensitive as to get out of tune and / or out of rhythm on the sight of a woman playing the trombone? Maybe their anxiety about females stems from a heroic act of self-denial to preserve high levels of performance?

      What about female conductors wielding their authority in Beethoven V with voluptuous hairdo and unbuttoned shirt? How disruptive can gender mixing be? There is the famous incident in the Hiawatha Symphony where the female timpanist used her sticks on the head of any other player who came-up with criticism, including the conductor.

      • Perhaps women members could wear burkas… Simone Young has conducted the Vienna State Opera several times, and once when she was five months pregnant. Some how the august members of the orchestra managed to concentrate.

        And of course that timpanist knew her sticks are indeed useful on skin heads…especially the more “sensitive” ones…

  • t I do know who Mr. Osborne is: he is somebody who calls everybody who disagrees with him a racist,antisemite,mysogenist .
    As a composer I have never heard of him and as a journalist he seems to thrive mainly on your blog these days.
    His tantrums usually happen at the end of a discussion when not too many people have agreed with him.
    And where does he discover ‘antisemitism’ on this page ?
    It is a great pity that the very justifiable campaign for more women in the VPO is marred by such childish behaviour.

  • Whenever Norman writes one of these articles, the comments are always filled with people lamenting the fact that no one is focusing on the music. Why, oh why can’t we just focus on the music and not worry about racism and misogyny?

    That’s a good question, but it’s a question that needs to be directed at the musicians of the Vienna Phil. Why can’t they just focus on the musical abilities of an individual, regardless of their sex or race? Why are they so obsessed with these non-musical qualities?

    I also enjoy listening to the supporters of this orchestra who go on at great length about the tradition and history of the orchestra, and then say that we should forget about the years where it was a willing Nazi pawn because the musicians in the orchestra now weren’t alive back then.

    I hate to break it to you, but those years are part of the wonderful tradition and history of this orchestra. You can’t just pick and choose the parts of history you like and toss out the rest. After all, none of the musicians in the orchestra today were alive during Strauss and Mahler’s time, so why should they be able to lay claim to them as part of their cultural heritage? History cuts both ways, and it’s important to remember the bad and not just whitewash it away.

    On a final note, I’d like to thank all of the supporters of the Vienna Phil who post comments on these articles. I’m an orchestral musician, and you serve as a reminder to me that despite the refined image of the classical music world, underneath that is still a very nasty streak of racism and sexism that is justified in the name of culture and tradition. We must always be on the lookout for those who would use the beauty of music to exclude people based on their own prejudices.

  • As King George VI would have said:

    “Keep calm, dear Norman, and enjoy the Vienna Philharmonic”!

    🙂

  • “The VPO has the freedom and the right, as a self-governing body, to prefer to remain a local, all-male club…”

    That’s fine, except they are publicly supported through taxation.

    • I wonder to which extent this is the case, since the VPO also receives sponsor money and awards (the Nilsson award was a really big sum). Should the orchestra comply with politically-correct directives in proportion of state subsidies? How could that be implemented? 25% not liking Asian female trombone players instead of 40%? And then, how would this be different from Russian Soviet times when politics dominated music life?

      The orchestra is formed from a pool of players of the State Opera, but the ensemble is not exactly the same. How would proportions on that point influence following PC state directives? And so forth. The matter is grotesque.

      • PS: If state taxation would be the decisive argument for policies of symphony orchestras, most of them would have to be cancelled since a majority of inhabitants of Western countries could not care less about classical music.

  • Mr Osborne, could you please name some examples of non Viennese male players who received jobs in this orchestra over Austrian women due to sexual discrimination?

    • Over the years, many foreign men were hired in the strings because Austrian women were not even allowed to audition. A working table could be compiled by listing the many Austrian women playing in top Austrian orchestras who were not allowed to audition for the VPO before 1997. Most all of them would have loved to audition, even as the VPO was taking foreign men who were no better qualified.

      The problems continued even after they agreed to admit women. A good example is found in the article linked below. Violist Gertrud Rossbach is Austrian, born and bred in Vienna, studied at Vienna’s University of Music with Philharmonic musicians, and had spent ten years playing in the closely related Berlin Phil, but she was not allowed to audition for the Vienna Philharmonic. They claimed she was slightly past the age limit, but they have hired many men who were considerably older. See:

      http://www.osborne-conant.org/violist.htm

      Interestingly, a considerable majority of the women hired by the orchestra since it agreed to admit them have been foreigners, mostly from Eastern Europe. I haven’t done a count and calculated the percentage but I should. It is quite high. The large presence of foreigners in the VPO call into question the fact that it has never hired an Asian player, even though thousands have studied at the University of Music over the decades.

      So it’s not a matter of being a foreigner, but what kind of foreigner one is. The VPO claims their mysterious Viennese sensibility extends to the lower Danubian Valley, but its hard to believe that Bulgarians picked this up out of the Danube’s fine blue waters, to say nothing of the Russians and Australians in the orchestra. Apparently kangaroos know more about waltzes than the Viennese born and bred Ms. Rossbacher.

      • Mr Osborne, are you therfore suggesting that the Bulgarians, Russians and Australians in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra received their positions through something other than talent?

        • In some cases, foreigners were hired because equally qualified Austrian women were not even allowed to audition.

          • Mr Osborne, do you believe this is still happening (an example since Ms Rossbach being refused an audition in 1997)? Now that the orchestra welcomes women, do you believe that the orchestra is sexist in its hiring practices?

          • After agreeing to hire women in 1997, it was another ten years before the VPO hired its first non-harpist woman. That decade-long gap was clearly indicative of sexism. Since 2007 the ratio of women among new hires has been closer to international norms, but has been trending slightly downward over the last three years. I’ve noticed that the VPO makes progress when it’s facing a lot of pressure, and that when the pressure is reduced they fall back toward older less fortunate habits.

            The Berlin Phil provides a warning of what might come. They agreed to admit women in 1983. In the 30 years since, almost the entire personnel has been replaced, but they still have the third lowest ratio of women in the world. I suspect Vienna will follow a similarly unfortunate pattern. If Berlin continues its resistance, it will soon be surpassed by the Czech Phil, thus making Vienna and Berlin the two lowest ratio orchestras in the world. That would not be a beneficial picture for Germanic culture.

  • To provide a larger context for this discussion, yesterday 15,000 people marched in eastern Germany to oppose the country’s “Islamisation” in the latest show of strength of a growing far-right populist movement. It’s part of a movement called “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident” or PEGIDA.

    Comments by the group’s leaders reflect the xenophobia that has long been a troubling part of German society. An example: “We don’t want a flood of asylum seekers, we don’t want Islamisation. We want to keep our country with our values. Is that so terrible? Does that make us Nazis? Is it a crime to be a patriot?” The arguments are similar to many found in this blog’s discussion.

    Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the marches “bring shame” on the country, and that Germany is experiencing an “escalation of agitation against immigrants and refugees”, a trend he labelled “repugnant and abhorrent”.

    The full article is here:

    http://news.yahoo.com/10-000-hold-anti-islam-protest-eastern-german-193224895.html

  • The music in today’s concert was largely second rate Strauss, quite a lot of note spinning, except for the Lumbye item. The orchestra barely looked at Mehta and did what they had to do. As did the audience, predictably dutiful. If I want the VPO playing Strauss I’ll go to the Carlos Kleiber CDs.

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