Vienna Philharmonic comes clean on its post-Nazi era. Well, almost.

Vienna Philharmonic comes clean on its post-Nazi era. Well, almost.


norman lebrecht

December 23, 2015

The orchestra has published a 55-page scholarly investigation into its ‘ambivalent loyalties’ in the period from 1938 to 1970. During the union with Hitler’s Reich the orchestra was a willing collaborator with racial persecution and other crimes against humanity. That much is well documented. The post-War period is more hazy.

The orchestra’s chairman from 1938-45, and its most influential board member for the next quarter-century was the charming Wilhelm Jerger, an avowed Nazi and lifelong anti-Semite. Jerger proclaimed that the orchestra’s first loyalty was to itself. His exchanges with Nazi leaders are among the most revealing passages in the new research.

Jerger emerges as the force behind the 1960s decision to award the orchestra’s Ring of Honour to the Nazi war criminal Baldur von Schirach (pictured), the genocidal Gauleiter of Vienna. However,  the research team of Silvia Kargl and Friedemann Pestel, admits that there are gaps in the archive for 1966-68 and decide that the post-War actions and attitudes of the orchestra require extensive further investigation.

The new paper, funded by the Birgit Nilsson Award, is a stride in the right direction.

You can download it here (in German, bottom righthand column).

David Frost interview with Schirach here.




  • Andrew R. Barnard says:

    What’s really creepy is that Norman still has time to think the Nazis are relevant today, even when no substantive evidence is anywhere in sight.

    If you want to go on an anti-Nazi rant, look to the American primary race and Donald Trump. Your case against the Vienna Philharmonic is clearly prejudice that causes you to scramble for anything to say against them.

    This is getting very, very predictable.

    • Scott Fields says:

      The orchestra saw fit to publish their investigation. Lebrecht is reporting on the publication, not dredging up old news.

      And Trump’s fascist tendencies don’t tender Europe’s Nazi past irrelevant.

    • william osborne says:

      Your comment is vulgar nonsense. The article Norman mentions by Silvia Kargl and Friedemann Pestel is linked on the website of the VPO and is fascinating and absolutely essential history for those who wish to better understand the orchestra. It is important that we know more about the postwar history of the Philharmonic and the way it continued close Nazi associations.

      I didn’t realize, for example, that the Gaulieter of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach, who had very close connections to the VPO, lived in Trossingen after he was released from Spandau (a prison in Berlin famous for housing high level Nazi war criminals.) My wife works at the Musikhochschule in Trossingen. I knew that Trossingen was an important haven for Nazis, but didn’t realize that even Schirach had lived there. Trossingen is mentioned 33 times in the 55 page article.

      Here in Germany, this history is never far away. And that is one of the enormous and unspeakable ironies in these recent articles. Now that the last of the old Nazis have died, a flood of information about them is coming to light which helps us understand the orchestra’s racism, but not a word is said about the VPO’s continuing exclusion of people who are fully Asian and have Asian family names. For an open admission of the truth about that, we will probably need to wait another 20 to 30 years. For that, these scholars in Vienna should be ashamed. There is something distinctly cowardly about people who only address essentials truths when they are completely free from retribution.

      • jaypee says:

        “not a word is said about the VPO’s continuing exclusion of people who are fully Asian and have Asian family names”

        How about the under-representation of African-Americans in American orchestras? Any change since the last time I asked you? It’s quite telling that you spend more time obsessing about the Vienna Philharmonic than about orchestras from your native country. What’s your problem with Vienna?

        Instead of repeating the same thing over and over and over on this blog, how about contacting the Vienna Phlharmonic? Sending articles to newspapers? In other words: doing something USEFUL and RELEVANT?

        • william osborne says:

          It’s probably not even worth answering such an ignorant comment, but I’ve written many articles about the Vienna Philharmonic which have been widely followed, especially by journalists. Many of the articles are on my website if you want to read them. They inspired countless journalists to cover the orchestra’s employment practices, including front page articles in the NY Times, and LA Times, numerous reports on NPR, and even an appearance by myself on ABC’s Good Morning America. They also led to countless articles in the Austrian and international press. And most importantly, they contributed significantly toward the entry of women in the Vienna and Czech Philharmonics. In the most concrete terms, these articles led to 28 women so far being given full time jobs with pensions and benefits in these two orchestras, the most prominent in their respective countries. Actually, you would know this if you weren’t exceptionally ignorant about the matter.

        • MacroV says:

          An ignorant and completely inappropriate comparison. The VPO’s failure to include Asian musicians is noteworthy and merits discussion because there is a huge pool of skilled Asian musicians in major conservatories, including in Vienna (I think I’ve heard one-third bandied about on this site). Basic probability would suggest that a few Asians would have made it to the Staatsoper and the Philharmonic by now, were they employing fully blind auditions.

          In the U.S., orchestras don’t have many black players because, unfortunately, there just aren’t very many in the conservatories or taking auditions. That’s a problem that must be addressed at the grass-roots level; it’s not one orchestras can address in their auditions. OTOH, there are a LOT of Asian musicians in many US orchestras now, reflecting their large numbers in US conservatories.

          • NYMike says:

            You are correct. As a member of the Juilliard Association, I hear most of the different iterations of the “Juilliard Orchestra” in a season. There are almost no black students playing. Of the few black players succeeding in the US orchestral world, NY Phil principal clarinet, Philly assoc. principal bass and Dallas principal flute are excellent examples.

        • Robert Levine says:

          The percentage of musicians in American orchestras who are African-American is almost exactly the same as the percentage of music students in American music schools (ie colleges who have music performance programs with a track record of placing students in professional orchestras) who are African-American. It is mostly what’s known as a “pipeline problem.”

      • Eddie Mars says:

        What about the under-representation of Austrians in Asian orchestras? Or does your absurd political correctness only cut one way?

        • william osborne says:

          Austrians are virtually non-existent in Japanese music schools, but for the last half century they have comprised about a quarter to a third of the students at Vienna’s University of music. None have ever been admitted to the VPO. The VPO says there has never been one good enough. By contrast, the Chicago Symphony has 18 people in the violins and violas alone who are Asian and have Asian family names.

          • william osborne says:

            That should read that for the last half century *Asians* have comprised a quarter to a third of the students at Vienna’s University of Music.

          • Andrew R. Barnard says:

            Why is the orchestra indebted to hire Asians just because they train at Viennese schools? Do you have an evidence that Asians who want to join the orchestra are being turned down based on their nationality? There seems to be large missing pieces in your argument.

            Even if highly accomplished Asian players didn’t fit the sound and culture of the orchestra, should the Vienna Phil be obligated to hire them?

          • Peter says:

            Your personal statistics are very flawed.
            From those about 25% Asians in Viennas music schools, the vast majority (particularly young women) study in Vienna not with the intention to become a professional, but to raise their chances back home on the – very traditional and materialistic – marriage market to catch a step up the social ladder with a European – highest ranking Vienna – cultural beautifaction programm, called music studies.

            It’s actually ok, its one way to promote classical music the world over.

            That’s what several Koreans studying in Vienna – who are fantastic and succesful musicians in European orchestras now – have told me or reaffirmed to me after I got told for the first time.

          • Bviolinistic says:

            Peter’s comment about the vast majority of the Asian students who come to Vienna to study is absolutely spot on. They have every opportunity to continue their studies and also to audition for top orchestras but so many don’t even consider such a career. They come to learn the European style of playing for a few years and then typically return to their countries. This is of course perfectly valid and quite understandable. Many students from the United Kingdom and from the United States do exactly the same thing. The idea that Asian students are actively being persecuted against by the Viennese orchestral institutions is simply untrue. The policy of the orchestras is to engage the best qualified applicant on the day, regardless of sex and ethnic background.

      • Andrew R. Barnard says:

        Your response bored me. One comes to a modern music blog, and the most relevant thing we can find to talk about is housing arrangements in the 1950s for some Nazi dude? I don’t understand why this is supposed to reflect on the orchestra today, as if though today’s musicians need to publicly apologize for their grandparents’ sin. Let’s not pretend that Americans, British, and Russians don’t have their own share of gory history. I find this constant harping on Austrians to be racist itself.

        Why are you so insistent on seeing all nationalities equally represented in every orchestra everywhere? It would seem nature itself would suggest regular disparity. If Asians and women were equally represented everywhere, it would suggest something unnatural was happening in the selection process. Maybe Asians and women don’t want the Vienna Phil job? And if you think they should have the job, do you really think your articles make them more apt to join?

        • MacroV says:

          First, the Vienna Philharmonic, to its credit, is finally making a serious effort to document and disclose its history and relationship to the Nazi regime, one that it tried to whitewash for decades. It’s not a trivial matter, for reasons that really should not have to be explained.

          Second, it doesn’t pass the laugh test to suggest that the Asians who comprise one-third of musicians studying at the Vienna Conservatory (or whatever it’s called) would not have interest in joining a great orchestra like the Philharmonic, or for that matter the Vienna Symphony or Radio Orchestra (the latter two each have 3-4, at least). Again, if they’re one-third of the students, and have been for decades, and are generally as good as the others (which can be assumed if they’re being admitted in such numbers) basic probability would suggest that in an unbiased audition system, a few would have made their way in by now.

          • Andrew R. Barnard says:

            You can talk all you want, but where are the Asians who are trying to get into these orchestras who are being turning down because of their nationality? Just saying that you’re sure it’s happening isn’t the same as factual evidence.

            And as I asked Mr. Osborne, if highly skilled Asians audition who simply don’t fit the orchestra’s sound and culture, should they still to obligated to hire them?

          • MacroV says:

            I should add that I’m familiar with the concept of major conservatories – including Juilliard – serving as finishing schools for young Korean women, sexist as it sounds. Nonetheless, even if you factor many of them out of the mix, it does seem improbable that none would have made it into the Staatsoper or the Philharmoniker. They did have a Japanese tuba player who is, I believe, now successfully oompah-ing away in Cleveland. don’t know the answer to this: Do they use blind auditions? If they do and no Asians are making it in, I’d find any defenses of their practices a bit more persuasive.

          • Bviolinistic says:

            The orchestra does blind auditions ; the problem is that very few (next to none) Asian students are applying.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It seems that Mr Osborne settled in the south of Germany to be able to be offended by history’s crimes. The former presence of a nazi killer at Trossingen must have greatly contributed to his enjoyment of the moral highground.

    • Olassus says:

      What’s really creepy is your comment.

    • Eddie Mars says:

      Irrelevant, eh? Look outside the Semper Oper in Dresden, and you’ll see them in their jackboots, sadly ((

      • Andrew R. Barnard says:

        What’s irrelevant is the continual mudslinging Norman directs at the Vienna Philharmonic. You can hardly go a week without a new headline. Most of my comment was meant as sarcasm. If punishing an orchestra for Nazi infiltration many decades ago is worth anyone’s time, they’re living in a much easier, less corrupt world than I am. Let’s move on, for goodness’ sake.

  • Heinrich says:

    Would the New Year’s Concert really be the same if half the violins were of Korean descent….? ; D

  • william osborne says:

    There is another article on the same page of the VPO’s website that is just as valuable and interesting. It is by Oliver Rathkolb, a historian who specializes in the recent history of Vienna. The article addresses the difficulties the Allies had with the denazification of the Philharmonic. While the Berlin Philharmonic only had 20 Nazi Party members, the VPO had 60 which comprised about 50% of the orchestra. If all the Nazis had been removed, the VPO would have been destroyed. The Allies thus decided to apply weaker standards of denazification to the orchestra than to Austrian society in general.

    The article is also interesting because it discusses the conflicts between the Soviets and Americans concerning the denazification of the orchestra. The Russians preferred a much harsher approach than the Americans who were much more willing to work with Austrian advisors.

    There is also interesting information about how a group of hardcore Nazis in the VPO denounced a small number of their Nazi colleagues with the intention that their removal would be enough to rehabilitate the orchestra’a image while leaving the denouncers unscathed even though they were just as bad or worse. In a word, a few Nazi colleagues in weak positions to defend themselves were used as sacrificial lambs to protect the more powerful Nazis in the orchestra.

    These new articles, and two recent books about the VPO’s Nazi history, are valuable contributions concerning the history of the orchestra.

    • Max Grimm says:

      This is an utterly random musing, to which you may have an explanation; why does it seem as though Asian musicians in European orchestras are mostly of Japanese heritage, whereas Asian musicians in American orchestras are mostly of Korean and Chinese heritage?

      • william osborne says:

        Two observations: First, Korean singers are now very common in German opera houses. It’s become something of a phenomenon. Many come to Germany to study. I’m not sure why they have been so successful here. Probably just hard work.

        Second, the high ratio of Japanese in German orchestras is probably due to the very high levels of instrumental instruction and ensemble work in Japan. I also think that in general, the Japanese think of Germany as a better and more authentic place to study and work in classical music than the USA. As an example of the quality of music education in Japan, listen to this all girl concert band, which is simply astounding. There are many such videos of excellent Japanese youth groups on YouTube:

  • Peter says:

    I remember very well how Mr. Lebrecht ridiculed the Birgit Nilsson price going to the Vienna Phil. Now they used it for a good purpose it seems. Time for an apology, Sir.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Because of Mr Osborne’s grave warnings and campaigning for political correctness in orchestras, I got a worried Melissa Corigliani on the phone, the director of the Bologna Mandoline Orchestra, who – stimulated by what she had read on SD – had opened various old boxes in her attic and discovered that the grandfather of Augusta Tremendi, the famous mandoline virtuoso who had set-up the orchestra in 1926, had been a spy in the service of the Austrian Empire, interrogating Richard Wagner on his visits to Venice.

    There, this man had blackmailed Wagner and forced him to reissue the notorious brochure ‘Jewry in Music’ and to let the ‘Eternal Jewess’ Kundry die at the end of ‘Parsifal’ instead of her marrying the opera’s protagonist, as Wagner had originally envisaged. Also Wagner had to promise to remove, in the plot, all the women from the grail community who – in the first sketch of the libretto – would enjoy quite liberal parties with the knights before and after the services. Now Melissa sought my advice, feeling pressured but hesitating to publish the material, fearing that all her efforts to include Syrian refugees and Korean and Japanese men in the orchestra would be insufficient to make sure that audiences would be convinced of the group’s spiritual purety. I advised her to keep the skeletons in the closet until she got notice from Mr Osborne, that would be early enough.

    It is a tragedy that we live under such Old-Testament pressures which chase the hidden guilt down the generations.

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    As the daughter of Holocaust survivors,no matter how much is done in the way of acknowledging the bestail behaviour of Nazi’s and their supporters is too little, and too late. It’s better than denial and no acknowledgement, and I take it for what it’s worth.

    • Peter says:

      The concept of forgiveness is first of all intended to help the victims or their relatives to relief themselves from the burden of too much negative emotions, which can make you sick.

      I can totally understand and empathize with those who can not forgive for this, but it is not healthy.

    • John Borstlap says:

      This comment deserves full sympathy and understanding. But this acknowledgment by the VPO has been possible by the passing of time, and it has been done by people who have not the slightest responsibility for what had happened.

  • Sir Andrew, use your brain. says:

    Because I am so sick of ignorant people like Andrew Barnard who demand there be evidence that Asians are actually auditioning in these orchestras when, as some on this thread point out, we only go to Europe to study to ‘up our chances on the marriage market’, I announce myself as one of them. Only recently have I auditioned in a major European orchestra where, once the blinds came down, they weren’t sure if I would ‘fit in’. Of course it doesn’t matter that I given high praise for my playing.

    This is in fact quite an oft happening for my fellow Asian friends. Here are some quotes, masked to the best of my ability to not jeopordize the individual or the ensemble. Yes, these quotes come from within the audition panels of major European orchestras. It should be noted that these are not from VPO but you do know that VPO has one of the more white based personnel within European orchestras. It heartens me to know that some other people also from the panel found issue with these. (For others who are reading, grab your barf bags.) ‘No one plays the instrument like ___, but s/he simply doesn’t have the style.’ ‘Because this is a leadership position, I prefer someone European-looking.’ ‘You played really well, but my section doesn’t like you for some reason.’ ‘S/he doesn’t fit in, s/he is a foreigner.’ ‘We don’t play like that here’ (to someone who has studied in Germany). ‘You were the best player but you had three things against you: unmarried, Asian, woman.’

    It makes me sick even to recount these. I’ll stop here.

    So dear Andrew, before you rear your ignorant head by saying things like ‘are the VPO obliged to hire Asian players’, why don’t you think it through yourself first. No, they aren’t. But when desperate and pathetic excuses are made over and over again for not hiring Asians, you should ask yourself ‘WHY’.

    Because you have displayed profound lack of thought, I will have to spell it out to you that no, I won’t reveal my identity because I am still looking for a job.

    I do wish VPO would just admit that the ‘look’ is part of their ‘style’. Then they could make a case to hire European-looking musicians first and then open it up to others. Except that would be illegal.

    • Bviolinistic says:

      This is a sad story… If you audition for the VSOO (VPO) and you win the audition, ie you play better than every other candidate, you will receive a trial.

      • Again. says:

        Honest question genuinely without any sarcasm intended: are you a violinist in the orchestra? Because I am wondering how you know that next to no Asians are applying.

        Frankly, VPO is not even on my radar being Asian because I know I don’t stand a fair chance and that I would be miserable even if I won. Perhaps I am not the only one.

        In a previous comment you mention that the VPO is not actively persecuting Asians. I think you are correct. To actively persecute would be blatantly illegal. But passively discriminate, perhaps. Also, judging from the core thesis of your comment, which alludes that VPO always hires the best playing candidate for a trial (and then presumably for tenure), it seems that in your mind, those exceedingly are of the white male variety.

        • Bviolinistic says:

          Never assume that someone is inherently racist ; I am certainly not. I have posted this before but for your information, the orchestra recently held a concert master audition where unfortunately nobody was appointed. The final round was held on the second day of auditioning and was with the orchestra (conducted by Jansons). All of the candidates in the final played well but it was decided by the jury that the level of playing (for such a prestigious position) was just not high enough on that day. Amongst the finalists was a Japanese violinist named Kei Shirai and also two women (both of whom now have Tutti first violin positions in the orchestra). The audition was recently repeated and a Brazilian German violinist was appointed as concertmaster. Unfortunately Mr Shirai did not reapply. My point is simply that anyone may apply and if they play well enough, they will be appointed.