A Viennese tradition? Let’s not dig too deep

A Viennese tradition? Let’s not dig too deep

Comment Of The Day

norman lebrecht

January 04, 2022

A London orchestral player offers the following defence of Vienna’s New Year’s Day jamboree:

The Vienna NYD concert is unique and it should stay that way! If anyone fails to realise what makes this concert so great is its tradition, not only in its choice of repertoire but the way it’s played! If you want to hear on New Year’s Day the same style of concerts we hear all year round, same Mahler, Bruckner, and so on then go elsewhere! The way this orchestra performs this music is unparalleled and rightly so they should stick to their traditions. Many other orchestras (practically everywhere) have attempted to copy this tradition and every concert ended up as an opportunity to trash this music that is so hard to perform, to get the right balance, style, rubato, timing, making it sound effortless! “Similar” concerts by other leading orchestras ended up as gig events, on many occasions with just one rehearsal being “sufficient” to put together a show! They always ended up sounding that way and it’s an insult to treat this kind of music in this way! This orchestra is unique in performing this music every year and there’s still around 50% of the repertoire to be performed which has never been performed yet!
I do not support such an article, and correct is the fact that certain conductors will only dream of getting on that podium, no matter who they are! Other great conductors who sadly passed away never made it on that podium on 1st January and there are reasons for it, the orchestra knows who they can trust to bring off such an event and they have the full right to decide, with no pressures whatsoever from anyone! They got this one right and it’s here to stay! It’s their own yearly biggest event in the diary and they are very proud of it. Not everyone will support such a negative view and that’s coming from a professional musician.

That, however, is not a fully-rounded view. The so-called ‘tradition’ is just over eighty years old, invented by Vienna Philharmonic to maintain status under the Hitler regime and decorated with all manner of Nazi arrangements. You can read a full account of its unpleasant political origins here.

The basis of the New Year’s Day concert is playing a 3/4 waltz with a particular Viennese twist. The Philharmonic do that better than anyone. But the artistic value of this peacock display is limited. The concert serves as brand advertising for a tourist-trap Vienna, a place of pleasure that easily turns nasty. Daniel Barenboim’s involvement does not cleanse what Viennese musicians themselves refer to as their ‘brown past’.

In Vienna, said Gustav Mahler, the use of the word ‘tradition’ is usually a excuse for Schlamperei. That horrible noun combines physical and mental laziness with a dash of menace.



  • Akutagawa says:

    Honestly Mr Lebrecht, as my dear departed Nan would say, do give over. The world is full of ostensibly hallowed traditions that are of surprisingly recent origin but nevertheless give large amounts of pleasure to large numbers of people – the Last Night of the Proms being a prime example. When the BBC attempted to update some elements of the Last Night, you sneered at them for going woke with one side of your mouth, and now you’re lambasting the Vienna Phil as a bunch of hide-bound crypto fascists with the other. You can’t have it both ways!

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Salutations to your dear departed Nan but, yes I can.

      • Philipp Lancrest xiv says:

        Thanks for highlighting the “London orchestral player”s view above!

        It’s a great comment regarding “hard to perform, to get the right balance, style, rubato, timing, making it sound effortless”.

        Regarding having it both ways, Akutagawa got it all wrong.

        You’re not asking the Vienna Philharmonic to abandon the Radetzky Marsch, or to kick out all white-looking players and replace them with blacks (leave that to Katja Diehl, advisor to the green climate minister Leonore Gewessler).

        But I do have my suspicions that Russian conductors might not really be all that suited to conducting that repertoire; perhaps they’d just “wave around”, and leave it all the the orchestra itself, who should be able to pretty easily auto-pilot through that repertoire, in terms of balance, style, rubato, timing [unless you replace all the members with blacks, chinese, japanese, afghans, philippinos etc.]

      • Philipp Lancrest xiv says:

        Oh no… unfortunately I failed to read the stuff below the image

        “Vienna, a place of pleasure that easily turns nasty”

        I can say the same about Londonistan.

        “Nazi arrangements”

        Never forget: not everyone had their hand on the gas taps. Or does listening to those particular musical arrangements cause one to feel like gassing?

        and the spectator article:
        “Asian and women players who win competitive auditions to the orchestra of the Vienna Opera, where they play alongside VPO members, are humiliatingly excluded from the men’s club — the male conspiracy — that is the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.”

        So now Asian’s and women have to play in VPO? (they do already anyway)

        I smell agenda, where you could have better separated it, in my opinion.

      • Philipp Lancrest xiv says:

        “Lets not dig too deep”

        Rephrase that to: “Do dig deep, but don’t come to superficial conclusions about lessening achievements, orchestras, musical arrangements, people; just because they happen to also fall into the era 1933-1945 and happen to be in Austria and Germany”

        Should be demonize todays VW, BMW, Vienna Philharmonic, etc.??
        Should we push guilt (by association) onto them?

        No, since the result of that is more than ugly, with those people engaging in endless woke self-hate.

        Yes, let’s talk about the past. But let’s not smear things over too much, and let’s shun “guilt-by-association”.

        • Philipp Lancrest xiv says:

          It could be viewed, that a lot of today’s ugly woke internationalist modernism; may also be a result of just such smearing over of guilt-of-the-past, onto present day people. (The result being endless woke self-hate, and attempt at redemption by being woker and woker yet. An endless spiral of self-destruction.).

  • Ziobrifa says:

    I still don’t understand: what’s the problem? if someone doesn’t like the New Year’s Concert don’t watch it! to me and to millions of other people who like the music of Strauss and their contemporaries it is like the Bayreuth festival for the Wagnerians or the one in Parma for the Vedians, it is (unfortunately) the only opportunity to hear this music at high level! what is there to innovate? furthermore, I personally approached classical music thanks to the New Year’s concert; after the love for the Strauss came to me the one for Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler … how many other people have had experiences similar to mine? so why pick on an event just because it doesn’t respect your aesthetic standards? if you don’t like it, don’t watch it, but don’t spoil us every year with your usual academic considerations.

    • Achim Mentzel says:

      The problem is that the woke bubble constantly has to change something because it is too weak and too uncreative to invent something new itself. To create something yourself and to set new standards with it is also much more exhausting than just criticizing, shouting around and thus attracting cheap attention. That’s why James Bond will eventually be a woman and black. That’s why the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert must be conducted by a woman. That’s why the Vienna Philharmonic must consist of at least 50% women. And if nothing else helps, simply remind of their Nazi past. That always works, even if the actual argumentation is completely made up out of thin air.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        It’s actually about up-ending the status quo and the establishment based on the age-old maxim: “If I can’t have it neither can you”.

    • Novagerio says:

      Bravo Ziobrifa! Joykillers, change channel, end of story!

  • phf655 says:

    The televised broadcast of the New Year’s Concert attracts vast audiences around the world. I usually find it boring, but I watched it this year, perhaps because of the unfortunate circumstances that left me stuck at home. I found it more interesting than usual, perhaps because of the unfamiliar repertory, but also because Barenboim seemed more interested in what was going on than some of the other recent conductors, who just seemed to be part of the elaborate floral displays! Yet this seems to be lost opportunity for introducing the television audience to some more challenging repertory – a Mozart, Haydn, Schubert or early Beethoven work perhaps.

  • Music fan says:

    Someone needs to lay off the exclamation points.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      I thought the same. Agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment but couldn’t help but feel the argument was weakened by the exclamation marks. It’s like they look for approval.

  • Peter says:

    This concert may have had unpleasant political origins, but the music has survived them. The works the VPO perform on this program are best played by this orchestra, and as a conductor I appreciate the performances and the education I receive by hearing them played in their unique way.
    Similarly, should the VPO ever want to play an all-Gershwin program (his centennial is on the horizon) wouldn’t they be best served by listening to how an American orchestra “swings”?

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    Oh dear, sometimes I could just bang my head against a brick wall when I read some of the articles on here, but it would only hurt. Let’s get a grip, folks.
    I used to watch the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Year’s Day concert with my parents in the 1970s and I have continued to watch it ever since. I’m not a fan of endless waltzes and polkas at all but it is part of my musical tradition. I know of the political side of it all but, for me that doesn’t matter at all. It’s not important. These days I just enjoy the event for being what is the only time on television where you can watch a live orchestral concert, given that the Proms concerts are now shown as sanitised recorded events. So, let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

    • Achim Mentzel says:

      Bravo and Amen.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      There’s another reason for watching this annual event. During the recent lockdowns I despaired of the appallingly produced and video directed livestreams that orchestras worldwide, but especially in Europe, were putting out. Lurid lighting, metres and metres of cables visible on stage, as well as rapid action camera shots – now you see it, now you don’t – were some of the more egregious instances of amateurish production. For very many years our own Brian Large was in charge of the direction, one of the big names in the business and for every good reason. The direction was always a complementary and very satisfying aspect of the entire experience. More recently Michael Beyer, who was mentored by Large, has been responsible for these New Year’s Day concerts. Ignore the music for a while and just take in the power and sensitivity of the images Beyer created for the worldwide audience. That should be the model for every other televised concert.

  • anon says:

    “playing a 3/4 waltz” – is there another kind?

    • Bartok pizz says:

      5/4 by Tchaikovsky

      • Anon says:

        Allegro con grazia. Who says it’s a waltz?

      • dalet says:

        Has anyone in history ever waltzed to the Pathetic Symphony?

        Furthermore, to the extent it is categorized as a waltz, it’s called a “limping waltz”.

        If you gotta limp to it, it ain’t a waltz.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      Some composer said that Chopin used to play his own waltzes almost in common time.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      5/4 “Valse boiteuse,” by Dohnanyi.

      • Anon says:

        Thanks, Peter. I didn’t know it before, and it’s fun. I checked the score, and it’s actually 3/4 with occasional interspersed 2/4s, hence the limping. And there are others, I find with a bit of googling, e.g. Ligeti, Musica ricercata no.4. But was NL really thinking of those?

  • CSOA Insider says:

    Vienna is the cradle of civilization that gave us Karl Lueger. They did not give us Mozart and Beethoven, or Brahms, who came from elsewhere. But Lueger, yes, they gave him to us.

    A Viennese hardcore Muti’s fan has been visiting us over here for every concert over the better part of the past ten years (save the COVID era). He happens to be a Hitler apologist. He is often a dinner guest of Maestro.

    Ah, the Vienna tradition.

    • Matthias says:

      Vienna, while forcing all these great composers to work there against their will, was also the city of Schubert, Schönberg, Berg and Webern.

      And why exactly would you let a Nazi visit you?

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Yes, it DID give you Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms. Who cares if your friend is a Hitler apologist!!

      I’d take Vienna 20 thousand time over New York any time of the day. For a very good start, you can walk the streets any hour of the day or night without being bashed up. You missed that last train or tram? Don’t worry, it’s not far to walk from the Innere Stadt and you know you won’t be afraid. It was like this a decade ago, but I cannot speak about now.

    • Nicholas Ennos says:

      Vienna gave us our beloved Franz Schubert

  • Berndt says:

    I’m totally agree with writer/London orchestral player!

  • Save the MET says:

    I hate to use this as an example, but it is relevant, so I will. Peter Gelb improbably was hired as the GM of the Metropolitan Opera in 2006. He lacked experience in opera, period and arrogantly told everyone he knew how to fix it. Further, unlike every other management employee of that company that was not in charge of the cleaning staff, he was not educated. He had risen to his level of frankly incompetence due to his father’s pull as editor of the arts section of the New York Times and as Ronald Wilford’s willing accomplice. Wilford, then got him every job he mangled thereafter. He was essentially hired as a favor to Beverly Sills over far more accomplished and experienced opera and music leaders.

    He promised change for changes sake, not wooing back the audience the Met had built up over . It is now 2021, despite covid, with his newfangled approach and ignoring tradition and the wow factor the audience had come to expect, he brought Euro-theater to the Metropolitan opera. Cheap projections, boring sets which he deeded creative and it was not what American audiences wanted. Today, granted covid shut down the house for a year and has made it difficult this year, he has lost the audience.

    Like the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna Philharmonic, (leave out the Nazi bit) had traditions. They have built an audience through about the same period of time as the Metropolitan Opera. Symphonically, they are the wow factor. Unlike the Metropolitan Opera which has lost it’s wow factor through ill advised change, they have stuck to their traditions. They have not lost their audience either. Change for change sake is not necessary for every organization. I described in another post here, that New Year’s concert they produce is like an old comfortable pair of shoes for the audience. You want to hear new music and want to see women conductor’s in Vienna, the Wiener Symphoniker is the orchestra for you, not the Philharmonic. There are also other orchestras in Vienna which produce new music for their audiences. I’m just bringing forth a cautionary tale of an arts organization that went for change for change sake, rather than feeding the audience they had built well over 100 years, killed the wow factor and now is facing bankruptcy for that change.

    • Nicholas Ennos says:

      Unfortunately Austria has always had a tendency to confuse tradition with museum art. So schoen wie’s einmal war, so schoen gibt’s net mehr. This is in contrast with the English idea of a living tradition that is constantly being updated and refreshed.

  • Gustavo says:

    And then there is the “Blue Danube” tradition: interruptus after the first bars, followed by turning to the audience to introduce the “Prosit Neujahr!” cheer.

    Barenboim and the audience made a real hash of this tradition.

    Denial Barenboim’s anthropocentric Corona-speech was also unfortunate, as he promoted social and cultural cohesion – which of course was only meant in a figurative sense – but was partly in support of those who are disobeying or actively fighting against current Corona-regulations, which include social distancing, self-isolation and last-minute concert cancellations.

    Oh how I wish I were a Wiener Philharmoniker!

  • Lenny says:

    Unfortunately you are trying to destroy something beautiful that millions of people are watching every year and enjoying it very much , just because it’s not your way.
    Because of people like you, the operas now a day are modern and ugly and unpleasant to watch , just because you and others said that it’s time for a change and the old “style” is boring!!
    Shame on you for trying to make a “difference” but with that destroying so much beauty that has been build for years and years! Your articles I won’t be reading anymore that’s for sure!!!

    • Gustavo says:

      But Barenboim’s account was rather dull, you must admit.

      Any tradition needs a booster every now and again so that it can go on for years and years.

      With Sony’s complete (and extended) box set of all works ever performed on this occasion plus Riccardo Muti’s COVID-edition without audience, Barenboim’s current non-event, and frankly the worst of most expected next year, my feeling too is that the grand tradition is reaching an end (or is at an oversaturated low point).

      • Lenny says:

        Barenboim’s performance was very dull .agreed . I never said it wasn’t. But one dull performance (although the orchestra still sounded excellent and most of the people still enjoyed it) shouldn’t directly put this whole yearly New Years concert in question mark AND for sure not offering some very DULL young or female conductors as the answer to it!! I really don’t care about age, religion or sex of a conductor , BUT they should have something to offer!! And just the looks, sex or the “nice” stories they tell isn’t enough for me.
        Times have changed and looks are now a day much more important then quality !!

  • Monsoon says:

    My hot take:

    It’s a concert of fluff music. Nothing necessarily wrong with that — there are lots of fluffy concerts in December. They usually target people who would never attend a subscription concert and are big money makers for orchestras. If that makes people happy and helps orchestras pay the bills, I see that as a win-win.

    I bristle when people insist that the VPO’s New Year’s concert consists of “hard to perform” music (really? really?), and the claims seems to be made in some weird attempt to classify it as a serious concert.

    At the same time, calls to reinvent and reinvigorate the concert also treat it as a serious concert — how much can you really overhaul a program of all waltzes?

    Now when it comes to a program of waltzes, I do find the repeated selection of Muti, Barenboim, and FWM a bit surprising because they all seem incapable of smiling. I’m pretty sure that Chailly, MTT, and Rattle would leave audiences with bigger smiles on their faces than those three.

    • MB says:

      Muti can’t smile (would not, will not smile) because if he did, his secret identity as the reincarnation of Count Dracula would be revealed to the masses.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    There once was a time many moons ago when three luminaries, namely David Attenborough, Humphrey Burton and Bryan Large, did oversee a wealth of music on the tellywelly on which we could feast our eyes and ears before that nasty old Auntie Beeb stopped it all. Now, all we have are scraps thrown our way by the evil Auntie to keep us classical music lovers quiet. Over the festive period I spied within the schedules a 90 minute BBC documentary about the making of a production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet. Nothing wrong with that, but why not follow it with a complete performance, like they would have done in the good old days? We are constantly being let down by the vicious Auntie and so our once-a-year New Year’s Day treat from Vienna is a huge part of our poor live tv classical music diet which some of us wait for with tongues hanging out in expectation of a real LIVE musical feast. Long may it flourish!

  • justsaying says:

    The sooner everyone gets this straight, the better: all classical-music traditions are rooted in the past, and some extremely negative things can be found in the pasts of all nations!

    Therefore the only appropriate thing to do is pooh-pooh the value of the traditions. All music should be played as though nobody had ever heard its “traditional” idiosyncrasies, as smoothly and featurelessly as possible.

    Soon enough the resulting boredom will drive off the remaining devotees – this process is already well underway – and we can all say goodbye to this pesky and overrated relic of colonialism, sexism, racism, etc etc etc. Who’ll miss classical music? By then, nobody!

  • Petitmengin says:

    J’aimerais voir Madame Danailova sur la chaise de Droite !!!!

  • Paul Cruser says:

    If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.

  • Bruno m says:

    I wrote Vienna Phil about that matter ..
    I think they should let a young conductor named mina zikri a chance for next year ..he is really something special …

  • M2N2K says:

    There is absolutely nothing wrong in presenting a well-played “light classical” concert once a year. Changing conductors and pieces on the program give it variety which is refreshing. Of course, some maestros can lead it better than others, but that is natural. In any case, there are at least 364 remaining days each year when other music can be and actually is performed, so just leave this tradition alone for as long as millions of people keep enjoying it.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    “The Philharmonic does”. Point of grammar, since Philharmonic is a proper noun and a collective one at that.

    The rest is the usual attempt to remind people of the Nazi past of Austria. I can tell you Vienna doesn’t easily turn nasty, having lived there myself. You can even walk the streets at night, unmolested. Well, you could a decade ago.

  • Enquirer says:

    The ‘full account’ you are invited to read is Lebrecht’s own short polemical piece in the Spectator, December 2014. Nobody, including the Vienna Philharmonic, now denies the orchestra’s involvement in Nazism. But can it be factually true, as Lebrecht says, that “the players [because they “feared losing status”] went wooing Baldur von Schirach, the Vienna Gauleiter” … who had “had signed off the first Strauss concert on 31 December 1939”, given that von Schirach wasn’t appointed Gauleiter of Vienna until August 1940? And is he correct in saying, of the waltz in the 19th century: “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”?

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    That is such utter nonsense, NL. Today’s citizens of Germany and Austria had nothing to do with nazis or the Holocaust. Please stop forcing it upon them. Yes, the Holocaust was awful. It’s also over with and today’s German speaking people are not guilty of it. This kind of projecting and lashing out gets tiring.

  • Kyle A Wiedmeyer says:

    I’m not going to argue with people as to whether or not the Vienna Phil is the best, most unique orchestra in the world. But I will say that any professional orchestra worth its salt is capable of performing Johann Strauss well.

  • Nicholas Ennos says:

    The best things in life are unauthentic

  • Stephan Krueger says:

    Vienna has a tradition in the NYD concert that they have embraced despite its dubious origins. Embrace the future where classical music is devoid of political intrusions and viewed as an outlet for the joys and sorrows of human existence.

  • Helga Cathreipn says:

    People are snobs. God forbid, that one enjoys tradition. Keep onplaying. I am a grateful audience. Helga Cathrein.

  • the best says:

    Carlos Kleiber was the best.
    Everything else since looks second rate