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Vienna Philharmonic prepares for Anschluss anniversary

Ahead of the annual New Year’s jamboree, Austrian historians and journalists are taking interest in the VPO’s performance under Nazi rule – the period when the orchestra invented the New Year’s Day concert.

An article in Die Presse today reminds us that the VPO had an unduly high number of Nazis among its players – 25 joined the party when it was still illegal in Austria. After March 12, 1938, fifteen Jewish and leftist musicians were sent to concentration camps. Seven of them died. The orchestra awarded a signal honour to Baldur von Schirach, the Gauleiter in charge of ‘cleansing’ Vienna.

In response to questions about the origins of the New Year’s concert, the VPO chairman Clemens Hellsberg promised to provide website space to the orchestra’s conduct under the Third Reich – before the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss in March 201.


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  1. Norman, all this collective guilt/ rehashing of WWII culture politics gets sort of stale, doesn’t it? I feel you are using the supposed sexist bias in the orchestra as a justification to harp on their Hitler stance, and vice versa: a circular argument.

    Much of the European orchestral world was quite sexist until even the 1980s, when Celibidache in Munich famously told his best trombone player who happened to be a woman “Sorry, but we need man on the Posaune”.

    And the current members of the Wiener Phil may not be angels, but they aren’t Nazis, so dragging them through this particular mud is fruitless and unproductive.

    • It’s the Viennese press that is doing the mud-dragging. We just report it.

      • But you are a part of the press, too. You report . If you report their report, without commentary, you are adding to the mudslinging and offering credibility to their claims. If you don’t refute their mudslinging or offer some sort of commentary, it’s a bit like saying “some people say”… tenuous thin journalistic ice, no?

        • No. It is perfectly reasonable to state that certain things have been published without having to take a position on them, one way or the other.

        • another orchestra musician says:

          To my mind, the problem with the ‘evil Nazis’ tape loop is that it attacks an enemy many years dead. By referencing, over and over and over again, an epoch that few people today alive knew as adults, it engenders suspicion that the people playing the tape loop would live in denial of the present – and are fearful that the rest of us might not join them in their embrace of denial.

          The Shoah was unspeakably evil; we should never forget that it was perpetrated. Evildoing in the world, alas, did not begin and end with Hitler, and the victims of Nazi atrocities do not have sole proprietorship of human suffering. If we would do good in the world, we would be well advised to stow the ‘evils Nazis’ tape loop, I think, and focus instead on addressing the evildoing that is happening in the present moment.

          • The VPO has an ongoing problem with racism, so continued study of its fascist history is essential. One example is that the Vienna Philharmonic excludes non-Caucasian members. The orchestra has traditionally felt that such individuals would destroy the ensemble’s image of Austrian authenticity. Some members of the Philharmonic have also expressed beliefs that Asians, regardless of their training and background, make music differently than Westerners – a perception that is not uncommon in the German-speaking world. See:

            Lucas Wiegelmann, “Deutsche Orchester und ihr Rassismus-Problem” (Die Welt, August 11, 2009.) The article is online here:

            These problems with racism stand in correlation to the difficulties the VPO has had dealing with its Nazi past. The cultural values that caused 47% of the orchestra’s members to join the party were, of course, not dissipated simply because the war was lost. A long process of cultural transformation has been necessary and is still in progress. The re-presentation of the Honor Ring of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1966 to Baldur von Schirach who was convicted of sending 65,000 Jews to death camps is only one of many examples. It is as the German musicologist Fred K. Prieberg noted:

            “There was no hour zero. That is an invention of certain historians. Things went on as before, just with a more or less deeper disguise. A good example is Karajan’s lies about his Party membership.”

            In late December 1999, the VPO added quotes to its website by Wilhelm Jerger to substantiate the orchestra’s claims about its unique style. Jerger was the Chairman of the orchestra during the Third Reich and a Lieutenant in the SS. In 1942, he wrote a book about the orchestra which contained long father/son genealogical tables of some of the major string players. Jerger placed asterisks by the names of all individuals who were “non-Aryan” and explained that the genetic stock of the Philharmonic was so “tough” that the purity of their “blood” and style was not notably damaged by such dysgenic influences. I wrote a report about who Jerger was and put it on the net. The next day, January 1, 2000, the VPO quickly removed all references to him from their website. The orchestra, of course, had no illusions about who Jerger was. Indeed, there was no “zero hour.”

    • With the xenophobic, far right Freedom Party still garnering close to 30% of the vote in Austria (as recently as the 2000 Federal elections,) I think it is essential to examine and contextualize Austria’s history during the Reich. And I think many younger members of the VPO would completely agree. This is a history we are only beginning to understand.

      • Christopher Oakmount says:

        I agree with you – mostly.
        But I think, if you make this statement, it is ALSO essential to examine and contextualize Austria’s Freedom Party garnering close to 30% of the vote in the 2000 Federal elections:
        There were lots of bad and good reasons for this outcome; not by a long shot all of them had to do with xenophobia. On the other hand some countries need not fear “far right” parties, as e.g. in the UK it was the Labour Government of Tony Blair that first proposed locking up asylum seekers until their status is verified. No need then to vote right wing then – eh?

  2. Lots of skeletons in the VPO closet. The truth is that there is a long, sordid history of antisemitism in Austria.

  3. I have to say that I am from Boston, Massachusetts, USA and I’ve been invited to celebrate holidays at my Vienna Phil friend’s houses and they are the loveliest people on the planet, I cannot imagine them promulgating any hatred toward strangers of another creed…if there is any of that going on in Vienna, then I simply don’t believe it… the Viennese that I got to know are really nice…

    • It is hard to comprehend how much life changed in 1938 in Austria. The Vienna State Opera had a similar exhibit a few years ago which was re-exhibited at Paris’ Theatre des Champs-Elysees (Dominique Meyer, the theater director, is now the VSO intendant.). To see the documents, just the paper displayed on the wall, my eyes teared up. Closed for a week, a VSO casting sheet had lines drawn through it after the Anschluss. There were a large number of singers abruptly replaced and substitutes written in. The deleted names were those with Jewish background but also a large number who were “politically unreliable.” The papers showed musician changes, stage director changes, stagehand changes, administrative staff changes, etc. all made immediately – lives turned upside down, families destroyed.

      The VSO was reserved for the reliables. The young Karl Boehm, for example, was given by the state a rather nice and suddenly vacated apartment in Vienna. He kept this all his life, not bothering to reflect on why it became available.

      How the Nazis changed Bayreuth is the current subject of an exhibit in the gardens below the Festspielhaus. The individuals whose lives were instantly devastated are each the subject of a panel. Some made their way to America and England, most did not and died in their prime. The impact of these exhibit will never, for me, be forgotten.

    • I think that is the problem – we just can’t believe it. I have visited parts of the world where mass genocide happened quite recently. You just cannot believe these nice people who make you so welcome could possibly do anything like that. But they did!

  4. QUOTE in Die Presse
    by Dr Rathkolb, Viennese historian and about as much not-right-wing as it is possible to get:
    “Aus wissenschaftlicher Sicht ist das NS-Kapitel der Wiener Philharmoniker nämlich „längst abgeschlossen“, wie der Wiener Zeithistoriker Oliver Rathkolb erklärt. „Alles liegt auf dem Tisch“”
    (from a research/science point of view the NS chapter of the VPO has been concluded/wound up for a long time – everything is on the table)

    What is so funny is that it is the Greens (you know the liberal & progressive guys) who oddly enough restart this topic a couple of days before the New Year’s Day Concert – what a coincidence!?
    BTW: if you care to look at the Viennese Green’s record on arts and culture, you might be interested to learn that they recently intervened to stop the concert of a band, as the texts and music they make did not meet the Greens’ rules of what constitutes good taste and decency.

    The band was the so-called “Hinichen” and their output is IMHO quite simply atrocious – I however do find it amusing that politicians (and very often from the left) find it necesary again and again and again to tell people what they should read, listen to and watch (but only if it concerns criticisms of what the left perceives to be the ‘good guys’ – everything Christian esp. Catholic, American and Israeli is fair game).

    Funny and disturbing that this happens in Vienna. (and odd that Norman – who normally reports on everything – did not pick up on this: now why ever not?).
    (The head of the association of authors talks of a “disgrace” and compares the Greens’ actions to Metternich’s censorship)

    • The historian, Dr. Harald Walser, has responded to Oliver Ratkolb’s rather absurd remark that everything is on the table regarding the VPO’s history under the Nazis. You can read it here:

      In short, Walser lists a whole series of questions that haven’t been answered, and notes that the VPO is still not being fully open with its archives. And this is to say nothing about the archives missing documents concerning the Philharmonic granting an Honor Ring to the mass murderer Baldur von Schirach (the Gauleiter of Vienna.) Or why the orchestra had a copy made and had an emissary of the orchestra give it to Schirach when he was released from a high security prison for war criminals in 1966.

      • Isn’t it a quite well known fact, that the VPO (regrettably) granted this honor ring to Baldur von Schirach, because he granted the VPO players release from serving in the war? You have a point though with the 1966 issue, hardly comprehensibly by any standards of decency.

        • Schirach had countless dealings with the VPO so the Ehrenring probably grew out of many different types of contact . I haven’t made an exact count, but Fritz Trümpi’s new book seems to have about 30 pages devoted to Schirach and the orchestra. I agree that the 1966 event is mind boggling.

          • Dr Walser has a rather interesting homepage: attacks on the VPO together with adverts for the Greens’ comprehensive school dream – it would be funny if it weren’t so ridiculous.

            And BTW he defends the Greens’ position when it comes to deciding what may be said and what may not (see my above post) – is anybody surprised?

            Enough said.

  5. William, what exactly is the position of ethnic minorities in the VPO. Am I right in believing that there are no Asian or Afro-Caribbean members?

    • That is correct, there still aren’t any. (In my latest update I do not address the race issue in an attempt to keep it at a manageable length.) For those who might not know, the Vienna Philharmonic has long felt that including Asians or other non-Caucasians as members would destroy the orchestra’s image of Austrian authenticity.

      For the last 40 years, around a third of the students at Vienna’s University of Music have been Asian, but none have ever been hired by the Vienna Philharmonic/Staatsoper Orchestra even though many have reached the highest professional standards. For more details and historical context, see this article:

      In June 2003, Yasuhito Sugiyama, a world-class tubist from the New Japan Philharmonic, was hired by the Staatsoper Orchestra after he won an audition. From the outset, Sugiyama’s appointment was controversial, especially within the brass section. He did not pass his trial year. Soon afterwards, Mr. Sugiyama won the tuba audition for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra which suggests that his playing was not the issue.

      In 2002, Seiji Ozawa was named GMD of the State Opera by its administration. He was already ill at that point and never obtained strong presence in Vienna. I discuss the ironies of his appointment in this article:

      • If forgot to add that there are two members of the VPO who are half Asian, but this is not readily apparent in their appearance, and both have German names. It is exactly appearances that are the issue for the orchestra.

      • Just asking says:

        Are there any available statistics regarding the number of Jews (if any) that were hired by the VPO after the war?

        • I’m not sure what the stat is, but I think the orchestra currently has two Jewish members. But as I say, I’m not certain. The Jewish population in Austria is extremely small and this has been reflected in the VPO as well. The former Director of the Vienna State Opera, Ion Holoender, was Jewish. The Green Party politician and historian, Dr. Harald Walser, has called upon the VPO to create an appropriate memorial to the six Jewish members of the orchestra who were murdered, and the 11 who saved their lives by timely immigration.

          • Two Jewish members, well, now we need to know the number of: Protestants, Catholics, Pastafarians, Buddhists, Muslims (probably zero, the Turks twice failed to conquer Vienna), Mormons and Scientologists.
            Also do you know the number of Vegetarians in the Vienna Phil? Has the number risen or is it falling?
            These are all very important questions. I’m holding my breath until I get an answer.

      • “for those who might not know, the VPO has long felt that including Asians or Non-Caucasians as members would destroy the orchestras image of Austrian authenticity”
        Perhaps this is the case, but this attitude has clearly not extended to conductors.
        Mehta was warmly accepted by the VPO in the 1950′s, but less so by UK orchestras in the same period. I remember this cropping up in an interview once.

        When Diaghilev and his company travelled to Vienna in 1913, the Vienna Philharmonic initially refused to play the score, deriding Petrushka as schmutzige Musik (“dirty music”).
        One prays that their attitude towards contemporary music has shifted a little bit since then!

        • New music is another area where there is progress. The Philharmonic is doing more of it. I see they have commissioned a piece from Jörg Wideman. It seems like the ice is breaking on several different levels.

    • And? There are also very few Asians and Afro-Caribbeans living in Vienna.
      And even if, so what? Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

      How many Inuit are there in the New York Philharmonic?

      I get a feeling all this mud thrown at the VPO are a systematic effort to damage their reputation as one of the finest orchestras in the world and this blog is one of the biggest supporters.

      • Michael Endres says:

        The systematic mud throwing at the VPO is nothing new. Its a recurring ritual as predictable as the “Amen ” in church. The whole one sided approach becomes clear when you look at this :!/articles/conducting-business/2011/feb/17/black-classical-musicians-rewriting-odds/
        But does the NY Philharmonic or another US band get regular hostile write ups because of this ? –which is as scandalous as the longstanding unfair and unjust treatment of the VPO against women players. They don’t. Instead the VPO is questioned over its number of Afro Caribbean players……I rest my case.

        • If one third of the students in US conservatories for the last 40 years had been black and still none hired, it would be analogous to the VPO’s exclusion of Asians. Unfortunately, there are very few blacks who even study classical music in the US, though things are improving slightly. The appalling situation in the US is openly discussed, and significant work is being done to solve it. Meanwhile, the VPO’s exclusion of Asians remains a taboo topic in Austria and Germany. They can’t admit the truth, and thus can’t begin work to solve the problem.

          You need to understand that the unintended irony of comments such as yours reinforces negative impressions of Germany and Austria because the denial is very apparent to all. Honest candor and an open mind about the VPO’s racism would serve your interests better.

          • Michael Endres says:

            You state: my unintended irony “REINFORCES negative impressions of Germany and Austria “.
            Interesting statement. It points to the fact that both countries are already seen by you ( and without doubt some other enlightened companions) as fundamentally negative, regardless of the VPO situation.
            No surprise here,but I am grateful for this clarification.

          • Yes, given the horrific history of the 20th century the negitive impressions will, rightly or wrongly, remain for a long time. That is why the VPO’s employment practives are very counterproductive, as is denial about them. Openness and candor are the way to move forward.

          • congratulations -
            we have now entered the realm of racial / ethnic profiling

          • my comment was meant for Mr Osborne -

            BTW. hear, hear Mr Endres

          • “Meanwhile, the VPO’s exclusion of Asians remains a taboo topic in Austria and Germany. They can’t admit the truth, and thus can’t begin work to solve the problem.”

            Sorry, but that’s just bull…, a huge mountain of it.

            Why don’t you just leave the Austrians alone and let them decide, how they want their Wiener Philharmoniker.

            “negative impressions of Germany and Austria because the denial…”

            What negative impressions? Music lovers from all over the world flock to German and Austrian Music centers.

            Reading your diatribes here I guess we could explain your thoughts with another famous Viennese: Sigmund Freud.

            Maybe you have “classical-music-tradition-envy”? :)

          • Sure, candor on the part of the VPO is a reasonable expectation, but slandering the present members of the orchestra to account for crimes against humanity in the 1930s and 40s is not.

            And speaking of unintended irony: “Unfortunately, there are very few blacks who even study classical music in the US, though things are improving slightly. The appalling situation in the US is openly discussed, and significant work is being done to solve it.”… is a bit like saying that the USA has many starving children who never get to eat foie gras. The truth is that educational opportunities in general are denied to blacks in the US and this is the reason none study violin in the conservatories.

            Your point about the analogy of Asians in Vienna is dead on.

      • Thank you, Realist, this is how I’ve been feeling all along.

        Show me any august German or Austrian institution that predates the WWII time, and I will show you sordid connections that tarnish their history.

  6. Michael Endres says:

    Nick, your observation about some members of the VPO being the “loveliest people”
    is is not helpful in this discussion,it is not relevant and can’t be true anyway.

    But I agree with you ,though being a German you are now definitely in bad company…lol.
    Happy New Year to Boston !

  7. It may interest you to read of the experiences of VPO members as the Russians took over Vienna. Barylli, who is still alive, had a Jewish wife…

    In the original German:

  8. Peter Müller says:

    It’s pretty obvious that some organizations have been close to the political leaders in certain times. Today it is commen behaviour to accept certain idiologies are acceptable. 80 years ago gay and jew hatred was deemed normal. Gay hatred still is deemed normal in many areas today. Can we not just accept that at least now jew hatred is generally seen as unacceptable and work on improving the lifes for others, instead of bashing people and organizations who were close to the leaders of the past?

    I wish this jew/non-jew – nazi/non-nazi politics in art would find an end.

  9. Michael Endres says:

    Openness and candor are only working if they are applied to all,countries, not just two .
    Racial profiling is not a way forward either ,it never was.
    Neither is it productive to relate every unresolved issue to the sins of the past.
    Cultural envy seems to be part of this,as I notice that the Berlin Phil and the VPO are the two orchestras that get exclusively bad press here.But their artistic excellence and their worldwide success speaks for itself.

    Some self appointed watch dogs do not stop short of calling for boycotting the VPO,indeed calls for stopping transmitting an event that is watched by 50 million people worldwide and seen in 81 countries.
    I recommend a bit more “openness” here ,then the ‘candor” about the VPO’s practices ( which I also oppose ) will be more credible.

    • @ Michael Enders. The main topic of this discussion are current problems in the VPO, not past ones. The international community is unlikely to accept sexism and racism in an orchestra as legitimate practices.

  10. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, who studied voice with Jennie Tourel in Israel and Juilliard, I greet this bit of banter about die gute alte Zeiten in Wien with fresh hope that the horrible fates of the artists and theater workers will not be forgotten. Particularly because of the experts like Prieberg are spreading the word. There were so many destroyed. Another important project in Germany which came about at the hand of my mentor Frau Dr. Ulrike Hessler (RIP) is an exhibition in all the opera houses that depicts what happened to the Jewish members of their particular house. Excellent and very informative. In fact, another point of interest that I find hopeful is that in Munich and Dresden there are orchestras subsidized by their synagogues and private donations. Of course they have many different nationalities playing together.. I am very grateful to you Mr. Lebrecht for airing this topic from all angles

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