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Vienna Opera chief: New Year’s Day concert is a Nazi invention

Ioan Holender, retired head of the Vienna State Opera (and before that an artists’ agent), has given an outspoken state-of-the-art interview to Der Standard. Holender describes the Salzburg Festival as ‘a mess’, calls its director Alexander Pereira ‘a fervent egomaniac’ and accuses the Vienna Philharmonic chairman of distorting the origins of its biggest show. ‘Cleaning the streets with a toothbrush was no order from Berlin, it was the Viennese who dreamt it up…. [The New Year's concert] was an invention of the Viennese Nazis. The concert was certainly not, as Clemens Hellsberg claimed until as recently as a few months ago, “a sublime memory of a long-gone Austria.”‘



Read the full interview here and our English summary below:

STANDARD: How would you describe the current situation at the Salzburg Festival?
   Holender: It’s all a bit of a muddle. President Helga Rabl-Stadler and Intendant Alexander Pereira were never a love match. The festival president is actually just a figurehead, nothing more. It’s not a good development that Rabl-Stadler’s role has recently become so important. And everyone knew that Pereira was used to running a company on his own, both artistically and financially — be it the Zurich Opera, the Vienna Konzerthaus or Olivetti in Frankfurt.
   STANDARD: Aside from the internal squabbling, there’s also the battle between Pereira and the board of trustees. It’s a battle about budgets.
   Holender: Everyone also knew that Pereira is an fervent egomaniac. If he says he can drum up the additional funds, then let him! He must shoulder the responsibility. But I think he should also be made liable, too. Do you know the festival’s funding law? The public sector must cover any losses.  That’s the greatest fear of mayor Heinz Schaden. That wouldn’t be possible with the federal theatres. Neither Dominique Meyer (of the Vienna State Opera) nor Robert Meyer (of the Volksoper) can say: “Oops, sorry. I’ve spent too much money. I need a bit more.” As a director you can do whatever you want as long as you make ends meet. What really bugs me is that Alexander Pereira only ever talks about money. I never read anything about his dramaturgy, his artist goals and visions. All I hear is “money, money, money”.
   STANDARD: Does he have a dramaturgy at all?
   Holender: I don’t know because all I read about is money. I don’t want to criticise Pereira, but it’s true: the programme is commercial, conservative and also populist. He brings in all the big names, even Gruberová, who was never a Lied singer anyway, and Carreras. No good will come of it.
   STANDARD: Change of subject. Five years ago, an exhibition that you initiated — Victim, Perpetrator and Spectator — about the Vienna State Opera and the Annexation in 1938 revealed Helmut Wobisch’s Nazi past and how he spied on his colleagues. Why is the Vienna Philharmonic only now distancing itself from its former manager?
   Holender: You’ll have to ask the Vienna Philharmonic that. But it’s striking. Everyone knew he was an important man in the SS. And later, at the Carinthian Summer Festival, Wobisch allowed some of Leonard Bernstein’s works to be performed. That helped him, because Bernstein was rightly famous. To use Göring’s words, Bernstein was Wobisch’s “in-house Jew”.
   STANDARD: Oliver Rathkolb and Bernadette Mayrhofer worked on your exhibition. Both complained at the time that they weren’t given access to the Vienna Philharmonic’s archive. Now both are working for the orchestra’s spokesman Clemens Hellsberg. Has the Philharmonic now successfully and honestly reappraised its Nazi past?
   Holender: There will always be new facts that are uncovered. But it’s satisfying that something has been done. Whether voluntarily or under pressure, that doesn’t matter for now. It’s also interesting to note how many times Wobisch was decorated. In 1967 he was decorated for his services to Austria, which was effectively an absolution.  How does Austria nowadays come to terms with the fact that they decorated someone who was such an important and ardent Nazi?
   STANDARD: Is there an explanation for the fact that one in two musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic was a member of the NSDAP?
   Holender: I don’t have any. They didn’t become members because it allowed them to enjoy perks and advantages. A great many were members of the NSDAP prior to the Annexation and were therefore illegal members. Generally speaking, the proportion of staunch Nazis and Jew-haters was higher in Austria than in Germany. And the proportion was particularly high in Vienna. Cleaning the streets with a toothbrush was no order from Berlin, it was the Viennese who dreamt it up.
   STANDARD: Is the New Year’s Concert also a Viennese invention or a Nazi one? The prototype was held in 1939.
   Holender: It was an invention of the Viennese Nazis. The concert was certainly not, as Clemens Hellsberg claimed until as recently as a few months ago, “a sublime memory of a long-gone Austria.” Thankfully, this sentence has since been deleted from the Philharmonic’s homepage. As far as I’m concerned, everyone can enjoy he New Year’s Concert, if they want. But my question is whether the Radetzky March, which is really not of a very high quality musically speaking, should continue to be played. It’s a question I’d also put even if this Murderers’ March was of a higher musical quality.
   STANDARD: Strauss senior composed it after Radetzky’s victory at Custozza in 1848.
   Holender: Exactly. Traditionally, it brings the New Year’s Concert to an end. And everyone claps along enthusiastically. There was only once when it wasn’t played: in 2005 following the tsunami in South East Asia. Out of consideration for the many people who perished. That means that the Philharmonic is very much aware that it’s a murderer’s march. Daniel Barenboim will conduct the next New Year’s Concert. He’s a great humanist. Perhaps he’ll scrap the Radetzky March.
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  1. beaumont says:

    As usual a delectable interview with Holender – the guy is a master at dishing it out!

    I just find it deeply offensive that he refers to soldiers as murderers.
    If, however, he really believes what he says, I do hope for his humanist sensibilities that he never attends performances of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus (and especially ‘See the conquering hero comes’).

    • Christopher Oakmount says:

      In the introduction to the original interview, Der Standard calls Holender “Statler und Waldorf in Personalunion”.

      • beaumont says:

        … with a bit of Sir Humphrey thrown in for good measure!

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          And such a modest guy, too:

          “Ich wollte eben, dass das Theater an der Wien die zweite Spielstätte der Staatsoper wird. Das ist mir nicht gelungen. Mir kann ja nicht alles gelingen.”

          “I wanted to make the Theater an der Wien the second stage of the state opera. wasn’t successful with that. I can’t be successful with everything.”


          • Mark Mortimer says:

            Herr Schaffer accused me of all manner of impertinences in a previous thread when I, tongue-in-cheek, remarked that the New Year’s Day Concert had a whiff of ‘totalitarianism’ about it. And here we have the evidence in glaring terms. I am right as is so often the case.

            Keep chilled Michael!

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Not “all manner of impertinences” but, more concretely, xenophobic prejudices is what I detected in your statement. The fact that they started that in 1939 has nothing to do with the actual concert today and the music. And it has nothing to do with “Aryan supremacy” either, which you also talked about.

            Hitler apparently was a vegetarian, a fairly new concept at the time – that doesn’t make vegetarianism an “Aryan supremacist” or “totalitarian” practice. And Johann Strauss lived decades before all that anyway.

            I tend to agree with some here who say there is maybe something chauvinist about the marches, but that’s obviously not a specifically Austrian thing either.

            This is what I actually said. I think it still applies. And I think it is very important to see that kind of comment for what it really is, not a critical comment on facts of past or contemporary history, but simply thinly veiled jingoism, “justified” by historical circumstances which have nothing to do with the current event:

            “What do waltzes have to do with “Aryan supremacy” and “totalitarianism”? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They are just pieces of dance music. All people have some forms of dance music, not just “Aryan supremacists”. It’s only your own biases and prejudices projected onto these people, and the completely nonsensical associations with “Aryan supremacy” and “totalitarianism” are just there to give some “justification” and “legitimacy” to your prejudices. You give in to the most basic xenophobic instincts, but you think that’s OK as long as you find some really farfetched “reasons” for them. And that’s what all forms of jingoism have in common.”

  2. An important point in this article is that Holender’s exhibition at the Staatsoper, “Opfer, Täter, Zuschauer,” clearly documented five years ago that Wobisch was not only an SS member, but that he also informed on members of the Vienna Philharmonic. And yet the new report by orchestra presents this information as if it is breaking new ground. They are acting like “true confessors” when in reality they have revealed almost nothing new. The report is more of a public relations effort than genuine scholarship.

    Also to be noted are Holender’s observations about how Wobisch and the orchestra very consciously used Bernstein as an alibi while continuing to employ and honor Nazis and maintain their sexist and racist employment practices. Is it fair to ask why Bernstein allow this? Did he hope to accomplish some good, or was he being an opportunist? Or perhaps some complex combination of both?

    Toscanini, by contrast, never worked with the VPO after the war because they refused his request to remove Nazis like Wobisch. Is that a better sign of integrity?

    We might also ask why so many conductors and soloists worked with the orchestra in spite of its discrimination long after the war. Does this tell us something about the classical music community and industry?

    (I’m still on tour for the next two weeks and so I probably won’t have much time to discuss these issues.)

    • beaumont says:

      BTW Mr Osborne -
      when I suggested something similar a couple of weeks ago (namely that the facts were known and have been known for many years) I got a severe shellacking-cum-drubbing from you and Mr Lebrecht :-(

      Isn’t it unfortunately the case that I was right?
      That – apart from the Ring story – the facts were out there?
      The interesting question for me is, why does everybody start having palpitations now?
      This, of course, also applies to stories about abuse in music schools, religious institutions, etc.
      Human beings seem to have a phenomenally well-trained capacity for ignoring even the biggest elephants in the room.

      I now expect my next drubbing ;-)

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        That’s my question, too. I thought it was all a big conspiracy, a big coverup. Then they release these materials, now it’s suddenly all old news. So first the WP get accused of obscuring their history, then they release all that information, now its “we knew that all along anyway”. We also learned here that back in their day, Bernstein and Solti knew all about Wobisch, corresponded about him, and they no doubt knew all the other stuff, too. They and all the other conductors who have worked with the orchestra after the war. I don’t think they were all totally naive and had no clue about who they were dealing with.

      • I’m not sure what you’re talking about. You’ll need to list the url for the “drubbing.” The new report does not provide much new, but that does not mean that there is nothing new to report.

        • Fabio Fabrici says:

          So you know there is something new but you don’t know what it is? So you know that you don’t know? Fascinating.

          • Why were Wilhelm Jerger’s archives separate from the Philharmonic’s and stored at the Staatsoper even though he was the Chairman of the orchestra during the Reich? Who put his documents there, when, and why? Wobisch presented the Ring of Honor to Schirach. Was it his imitative alone or did the orchestra know about it? If so, what did the orchestra know? Why have the reports made so little mention of Jerger’s book about the orchestra “Erbe und Sendung”? These are just a few examples of many questions that still need to be answered. To pretend the matter is closed is ridiculous. I hope to write more about this next month when I have more time.

          • Another important example: When did Jerger and Wobisch enter the SS? What was the extent of their service and training? Especially in the early years of the war, it was not possible to be a casual member of the organization. What are the specifics of Wobisch’s activities as an SS informant? What are the specifics of Jerger’s attempts to protect Jewish members of the orchestra? Why did his efforts fail? How genuine were they?

          • Fabio Fabrici says:

            These individuals were punished after the war according to the jurisdiction at the time. Wobisch was fired from the VPO and had to do social work. He was later hired again, since he was considered having gone through his punishment. If it was sufficient, I don’t know. But those who were in chrage back then in Austria, under Allied control, thought it was alright and he had served his sentence and was now free to go on with his life. Is all this really worth the outrage now 60 years later?
            Yes, the medal to Schirach, that’s a shame, but what else?

          • What else? The exclusion of women until 1997 and resistance to them this day.. And the discrimination against Asian musicans.

          • Fabio Fabrici says:

            Mr. Osborne, what about the discrimination against women in the world’s major soccer leagues? Not a single female player! Until today! And what about the discrimination against Asian musicians? Is there any? At how many Asians in the VPO would you say they are not discriminating against Asians anymore? What’s your reference?

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      “Toscanini, by contrast, never worked with the VPO after the war because they refused his request to remove Nazis like Wobisch. Is that a better sign of integrity?”

      Not really, because Toscanini didn’t seem to have any problem with the fact that his new home America had racial legislation against blacks on the books of many of its states, and racial discrimination – as anti-semitism – was very widespread in many of the other states, too, including in NY where he lived.

      “Also to be noted are Holender’s observations about how Wobisch and the orchestra very consciously used Bernstein as an alibi while continuing to employ and honor Nazis and maintain their sexist and racist employment practices. Is it fair to ask why Bernstein allow this? Did he hope to accomplish some good, or was he being an opportunist? Or perhaps some complex combination of both?”

      I don’t know either, but I respect his decisions and I am glad that he worked that out for himself because the partnership between him and the WP resulted in some fantastic music making. Many of their recordings are still among my favorites. I discovered most of the Beethoven symphonies through the TV series Bernstein produced with the WP and Maximilian Schell.

      • Galen Johnson says:

        After all, if one refuses to conduct in any country where there is absolutely no injustice, one will conduct precisely nowhere.

        • Galen Johnson says:

          Ooops, forgot some words, “except in one where there is absolutely no injustice…”

      • Michael Endres says:

        I can see the next big topic on the horizon:

        Bernstein’s association with the VPO.

        The archives will have to be opened again…How could he have done that ? Did that man have no conscience ? A conscience as clean as all of ours here or at least as clean as Toscanini’s ?

        I am afraid I also cherish every moment of their collaboration .Those DVD’s with Beethoven ,Bruckner ,Schumann, Sibelius and particularly Mahler have enriched my life forever. Bruckner 9 a particularly moving document,their last project half a year before Bernstein’s death.

        But I am increasingly cautious : my blinds are crawling down before I slide one of those DVD’s in my player . After all I was born only 7 km away from the Austrian border and I can no longer deny my regrettable entanglement in this affair. I might have to open my archives soon…

        • Galen Johnson says:

          Yes, I completely understand, Mr. Endres. My step-grandfather, who emigrated from Austria in 1913 (he picked a good year to leave!), has bequeathed to me a legacy of entangling guilt as well. Also some good recipes, although I suppose eating the dishes silently condones brutal Austrian imperialism.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          It could have gotten worse, far worse – I just read in Werner’s biography of Carlos Kleiber that the New Year’s Day concert of 1992 was originally supposed to be conducted by Bernstein but, since he died in 1990, Kleiber agreed to take it over. And what the hell was he doing there, the son of an actual Nazi victim who had grown up in exile himself, participating in that fascist funfest – twice even! The world is so confusing…

          Speaking of Bernstein and the evil WP, in October of 1984, they came to Berlin and
          played a program with his own Divertimento, Schumann 1, and Brahms’ second piano concerto with Krystian Zimerman. The next day, they headed over to East Berlin to play in the Schauspielhaus (now renamed Konzerthaus) which the GDR government had just lavishly rebuilt in an effort to demonstrate that they weren’t totally dysfunctional (nobody was fooled though) and that they could tackle big, representative building projects, too.

          When they arrived at the hall in the morning for a brief routine rehearsal to get to know the new hall a little, they found that people were already waiting outside, hoping to be able to somehow get tickets
          for that evening’s concert, among them many music students – the music academy in East Berlin is right behind the building. They told the arriving orchestra members that it had been practically impossible to
          get tickets if one didn’t have communist party connections. When told about the situation, Bernstein then declared that since it was a new hall for everyone, they needed to have people inside the hall to get a
          realistic idea of its acoustics. So he made the officials let all those people in, messengers were sent across the street to bring over as many music students as possible, and when the hall was fairly well
          filled, they then started the rehearsal – and proceeded to play ***the entire program*** for their grateful impromptu audience!

          Later, just before the concert, it was found that many seats were empty because a lot of those party officials who had received tickets hadn’t bothered to show up, while outside, there were again hundreds
          of people still hoping to get in. So Bernstein again made them let all of them in until the last seat was filled before he began the concert. I wasn’t there, since I (luckily) lived on the other side of the wall,
          but later, I met many people who were and who told me that story. For many of them, it was one of the great concert experiences of their time.

          • Michael Endres says:

            Wonderful story about Bernstein !! I hope it will be used to give him “mildernde Umstaende ” ( mitigating circumstances ) when his trial begins….

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            I hope so, too! It doesn’t look good though. Bernstein performed and recorded Wagner in Munich, the capital of the NS movement, of all places. He also conducted excerpts from his operas in concert at the Wiener Staatsoper. The concert was actually filmed, providing deeply incriminating evidence. Burton writes in his biography that soon after that concert, Bernstein took a film crew to Freud’s house where they taped him talking about his relationship to Wagner and his music in Freud’s consulting room. Bernstein apparently hoped that the film might convince people in Israel to let the IPO play Wagner, but he wasn’t able to bring the essay to a satisfactory conclusion so it remained an unedited and, AFAIK, unreleased fragment. It think that would still be very interesting to watch though.

  3. Michael Hurshell says:

    While Mr. Holender makes many fitting observations about Vienna ad its history, I am a bit baffled by his choice of the term “Mörder-Marsch.” It must certainly be a longstanding tradition, throughout the world, to have marches composed in honor of significant military victories, or indeed – more often – as parade music; and the Radetzky Marsch has long since become, practically, “Volksmusic” in Austria. The origins of the Neujahrskonzert are, indeed, not news, but what does that have to do with playing a march that was in the concert and parade repertoire for ages? Are all miitary marches, then, “Murderer-Music”…? What would Sousa say? And Elgar? And Fibich?

    • In his book, “Musik und Macht”, the German musicologist Fred K. Prieberg argues that military music is in fact used to accompany and rationalize murder. Especially notable are his discussions of music in the concentration camps. See:

      Prieberg is especially known for his extensive work documenting the music world of the Third Reich.

      • Galen Johnson says:

        Ah, enlightening to learn that my father’s US Army division was carefully prepared with Sousa’s evil “murder music” so they could murder some equally murderous SS Panzer Divisions.

        • beaumont says:

          I always knew Colonel Kilgore should have used different music!

        • @ Galen Johson. To belabor the obvious, your father’s service does not encompass all of our miltary’s activities. In any case, I’m not sure I subscribe to Prieberg’s conclusions, but his book makes worthwhile observations.

      • These days, If you are a murdering thug like, say, Che Guevara then some useful idiots in Hollywood will make an adoring movie about you.

      • Michael Hurshell says:

        Once again, the question is: do the Nazis, with their miss-use of music, get to have the last word on what that music means? Wagner, Johann Strauss, Bruckner, etc . for ever and ever? I say no. – That said, I am a great admirer of Prieberg’s work.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Or Beethoven?

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I think the really important question we all have to ask ourselves is: Are you ready for Radetzky?

  4. Andrew Johnson says:

    I suspect that Mr. Hollender’s characterization of the Radetzky March as a “muderer’s march” has to do not with Radetzky’s military victory but rather with his notorious — in Italy — and ruthless repression of civilians in the 1848 rebellion and afterward.

  5. Branimir Pofuk says:

    With all due respect, but Hollender calling anybody egomaniac?!

  6. Vienna Opera chief: New Year’s Day concert is a Nazi invention

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