The history of the New Year’s concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

While the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s concert is a worldwide success, its legacy and reach rests on five pillars: a marvelous orchestra; internationally renowned conductors; a timeless repertoire, by the Strauss family and other 19th century composers; a splendid place, the golden Musikverein; and TV shows recently watched by some 1.2 million people in 92 countries on five continents.

The event, which returns this weekend with Franz Welser-Möst at the head of the Philharmonie, is now familiar and takes place over several days with three concerts. Between the preview, the New Year’s concert and the New Year’s concert, the conductors and the orchestra face the extreme demands of an emotionally and physically taxing marathon. Just days after the concert series, CDs and DVDs of the January 1 concert go on sale worldwide.

In the 19th century, today’s New Year’s concert repertoire was part of a diverse concert activity in the many entertainment venues that existed in almost every part of Vienna, including open-air stages. On weekends, this mixture of popular Viennese music, including lively waltzes, wild polkas and military marches, thrilled thousands of visitors, often as many as 10,000.

Gerald Heidegger, editor-in-chief of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation’s online services, rightly said in the “Straussmania” series on Topos, produced with the Institute for Contemporary and Cultural History in Vienna: “Our image of he Biedermeier era is slightly distorted.It is not entirely true that the time of Chancellor Metternich’s authoritarian state only led us to withdraw into the private sphere, when we consider music played in public.

This type of popular music was revolutionary in terms of the exuberance and physical closeness fostered by new dance forms, and it accompanied Vienna’s rapid development into one of the largest cities in the world in the rapid globalization of the years that followed. preceded the First World War. Today, in another era of rapid developments in technology and politics, music has lost none of its emotional impact; people still seem to be looking for joyful distractions.

The apparent lightness of the innumerable waltzes, polkas and marches, however, hides a technique that appeals to the musicians. A non-verbal rapport between orchestra and conductor is crucial to achieve this – another characteristic quality of the New Year’s Concert. And the selection of the repertoire requires exciting dramaturgy in the combination of known and unknown pieces. This year, Welser-Möst has devoted around 70% of the program to new works.

In the 19th century, Strauss’ orchestras were competitors of the Philharmonie, which, as the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, delighted audiences in the Court Opera Theater while having to perform for extra income as private company known as the Vienna Philharmonic. Conductor Ernst Theis studied the early interactions between these orchestras and noted that Eduard Strauss gave a New Year’s concert with a 60-person orchestra as early as January 1, 1871, playing not only waltzes and polkas, but also lieder and opera excerpts. .

An 1872 report, however, shows that many members of the Philharmonie believed that the Strauss clan and their music “damaged the reputation of Philharmonie concerts”. Yet in 1894 the Philharmonie played during celebrations marking Johann Strauss II’s 50 years in the business, and a few months before his death in 1899 he conducted the orchestra of the Court Opera during the performance of his “Die Fledermaus”. for the first and last time, the final success of a remarkable career.

This ambivalence towards the Strauss family would change after the First World War. From 1927, conductor Clemens Krauss notably chose to perform pieces from the Strauss repertoire on several occasions, including at the Salzburg Festival. It was not until 1934, when he succumbed to the temptations of the Nazi regime and abruptly left Vienna for Berlin, that the Philharmonie’s enthusiasm for Strauss came to an end.

After the Anschluss in 1938, Krauss returned to Austria and revived the tradition of “Johann Strauss concerts” (a reference to both father and son). The musician Clemens Hellsberg, writing in 1992, and the historian Fritz Trümpi, in 2011, highlighted Krauss’ role as the initiator of the “Johann Strauss concert” – then called an “extraordinary concert” – while the calendar toured from 1939 to 1940. Proceeds went to the National Socialist Wartime Winter Relief Fund.

Krauss quickly developed the next important pillar of the New Year’s Concert on its way to becoming a global musical event: radio broadcasts throughout the German Reich. In November 1940, a contract with the Reich Radio Corporation stipulated that there would be “four philharmonic academies in the great hall of the Musikverein in Vienna performed for the German Grand Radio” – on December 13, 1940 and January 1 (a “concert by Johann Strauss”), January 25 and March 15, 1941 — under the direction of Krauss.

Without any intervention from the Nazi potentates, the refreshing and emotionally uplifting “waltzing happiness” was a perfect match for National Socialist propaganda, especially its dissemination policy – ​​just like Mozart and Lehár. The program notes for the first of these series performed in Vienna not only emphasized the intended mass impact of the contribution to “German music”, but also included an ideological emphasis on the early history of waltz compositions in the ” suburban inns” as an “expression of the East Bavarian tribe who stood here at the forefront of the frontier”, which was, of course, a complete distortion and misinterpretation of cultural developments in Vienna during the Biedermeier period.

The politicization of the music of the Strauss family and their milieu was taken to an extreme when Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels even concealed the composer’s partly Jewish descent by falsifying baptism records in Vienna. Incidentally, this act was accompanied by a diary entry in which Goebbels revealed the sheer absurdity of his anti-Semitic beliefs:

Such a smart one discovered that Joh. Strauss is an eighth Jew. I forbid this to be made public. Because on the one hand, it is not proven, and on the other hand, I do not want the German cultural heritage in its entirety to be gradually undermined in this way. In the end, we will only be left with Widukind, Heinrich the Lion and Rosenberg. It’s not a lot. Mussolini goes there much smarter. It occupies for him the whole history of Rome since the first days of antiquity. We are only upstarts in comparison. I do what I can for that. This is also the Führer’s will.

The selling point that the New Year’s Concert enjoys today as a global event was not applied during World War II or in the years that followed; it remained limited to Germany and, after the war, to Austria. The old Johann Strauss concert was firmly rooted in tradition, and Josef Krips, who conducted the January 1, 1946 concert—the first to be billed as a New Year’s concert—succinctly noted: “I started 1946 with the first New Year’s concert in peacetime.”

Krips, stigmatized by the Nazis as a half-Jewish conductor, clearly had no problem continuing with the concert, the last performance of which took place when the mood was apocalyptic. The New Year’s Concert lived on as a uniquely Austrian cultural heritage – with Krauss as conductor until 1954, followed by Philharmonic concertmaster Willi Boskovsky until 1979.

In 1959, the New Year’s Concert began to become an international event with its first television broadcast. The first color broadcast was a decade later; the first abroad, in 1972. And since 1980, the New Year’s Concert has been conducted by international conductors on a rotational basis – a decision that reflects its global interest.

But the formative phase of the New Year’s concert – the Nazi era – was not examined in Austria and abroad until the last decade. Today, those years are extensively documented on the Philharmonie’s website. International music history in particular can make an important contribution to a critical assessment of Austria’s role in National Socialism, World War II and the Holocaust.

In 2013, for example, after much preliminary work, Clemens Hellsberg, then president of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, launched a critical documentary on the orchestra and commissioned an in-depth study from a team of historians – including me – about the members of the orchestra who were persecuted, murdered or forced into exile. It was followed in 2014 by the international conference “The arts of Vienna: a proud history, a painful past”.

Artists whose lives were sidelined by the Third Reich will be commemorated with stones, placed at the sites where they last lived, which Daniel Froschauer, president of the Philharmonie, will present to the public on March 23 . In 2023, therefore, the orchestra aims to spread not only a rich tradition, but also a message of peace.

Oliver Rathkolb is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Vienna in Austria and President of the Institute for Cultural and Contemporary History in Vienna and of the Academic Committee of the House of European History in Brussels.

Lydia Rathkolb contributed research.


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