The Vienna Philharmonic is indisputably one of the world’s greatest orchestras. Known for its finesse, elegance and authentic interpretations of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler, it has remained a centre of musical life in Europe since its first concert in 1842.

The orchestra is currently touring North America and will perform in Toronto on Feb. 27, its only Canadian appearance.

In preparation, CBC Music offers 10 things you may not know about the Vienna Philharmonic.

1. Opera connection.

All members of the Vienna Philharmonic must first be members of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. They must complete a three-year tenure requirement before applying to enter the Vienna Philharmonic. Once in, players undergo a rigorous three-year probation period.

2. Democracy rules.

The orchestra is and always has been democratically run. A committee of players makes all decisions, big and small, including choosing conductors and hiring players.

3. Where are the women?

Speaking of hiring, you may know that the Philharmonic has a tradition of excluding women from its ranks — and minorities and other performers from outside central Europe, too, for that matter. The history of this is well documented in this article.

Here are some more facts: the Philharmonic was the last major orchestra in the world to admit women. The first woman, harpist Anna Lelkes, wasn’t hired until 1997. She was admitted as an official member after being an associate member for 26 years. Ten years after her hiring, in 2007, the number of women in the orchestra remained at one, again the harpist. Clemens Hellsberg, the orchestra’s chairman, is quoted to have said, “In art, you can’t impose quotas.” Today, eight women are listed among its 136 members.

The reason given for choosing musicians from central Europe is the desire to preserve the homogeneous sound of the orchestra. Presumably, according to the Philharmonic, musicians who have grown up in the tradition will have the music in their blood, thus preserving the unique musical style.

4. Wiener Musikverein.

Since 1870, the orchestra’s home has been the elegant Musikverein. The orchestra performs in the Grosser Saal (Great Hall), also known as the Goldener Saal (Golden Hall), named for its exquisite decoration and golden statues. The hall offers some of the finest acoustics in the world, which is interesting because it was designed by Theophil Hansen before the application of modern acoustical science.

Listen to the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein perform Mahler's Symphony No. 5, first movement:

5. Conductors.

The Vienna Philharmonic stands out in that it has no resident conductor. Since 1933 the orchestra has only worked with guest conductors, with the goal of engaging every conductor of repute. Therefore the orchestra has been led by some of the most illustrious names in the conducting world, including Hans Richter, Arturo Toscanini, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Hans Knappertsbusch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel and Daniel Barenboim. Franz Welser-Möst is leading the orchestra on its current tour.

6. Association with the greatest composers.

Many of the most important composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been associated with the orchestra, such as Wagner, Verdi, Bruckner, Brahms, Liszt, Strauss and Mahler, all of whom performed with or conducted the orchestra. So many big works were premiered by the orchestra, including Brahms’s second and third symphonies, and Bruckner’s eighth.

Curiously, the orchestra that premiered so many new works in the past now performs few works composed after the mid-20th century. Exceptionally, for their Toronto appearance, the Philharmonic will perform Lied by young German composer Jörg Widmann.

7. Dark Nazi past.

The war years were a troubling period in Austria. In 1938, 15 Jewish musicians were expelled from the orchestra and seven of them were killed by the Nazis. The National Socialist Party also tried to disband the orchestra, but Furtwängler was able to intervene. A large number of musicians joined the Nazi Party. In 1966, the Philharmonic controversially bestowed its highest award, the Honourary Ring, on Baldur von Schirach, the Vienna Gauleiter, or governor, who was convicted of crimes against humanity for deporting 185,000 Austrian Jews.

In an effort to put these nasty events behind them, the Philharmonic recently announced it has asked three historians to investigate and document the orchestra’s Nazi past.

8. New Year’s concerts.

The Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s concerts are beloved the world over. They consist of the ever-popular waltzes by the Johann Strauss family and their contemporaries and are now enjoyed by more than 60 million television viewers in more than 80 countries.

In his day, Johann Strauss Jr. actually enjoyed a personal connection with the orchestra, conducting a number of his works from the violin. But after his death in 1899, his music fell out of favour with the musicians.

The tradition of the New Year’s concerts also has a coloured past, going back to the war years when Austria was losing its autonomy. The first concert was held on Dec. 31, 1939, and served to fund the National Socialist Party. By reviving this quintessentially Austrian music that it played so well, the concert helped bolster the orchestra's international reputation.

The glory days of the Vienna New Year’s concerts were the 25 years with Willi Boskovsky, from 1955 to 1979.

Listen to the Vienna Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Möst perform Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz from the 2013 New Year's concert:

9. The Viennese “lilt.”

The Austrians play waltzes like no one else. The characteristic lilt is a rhythmic sensation that occurs when the three beats are not played in strict rhythm. Typically the second beat comes early and there is a longer space between the second and third beats, resulting in that typical Viennese lift.

10. Viennese greeting.

What is the first thing you hear when you approach the ticket booth at the Musikverein? “Grüß Gott,” or “God’s Greeting.” This greeting, which sounds quaint in other German-speaking lands, is still typical in Austria and Bavaria, even among non-religious people.


Royal Albert Hall to Musikverein: a gallery of gorgeous concert halls
Watch: Vienna Phil plays Beethoven's fifth with Christian Thielemann

Watch: National Youth Orchestra of Canada plays Koerner Hall

posted by Andrea Ratuski on Feb 25, 2013