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The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is, along with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the two most renowned and respected orchestras in the world, and represents the pinnacle of virtuoso ensemble playing. Their sound is characterized by a startling richness of tone, beautiful and polished in every section of the orchestra, but especially the strings.
The orchestra's roots go back to the 1840s. Up until that time, most of the performing ensembles in Vienna were comprised of amateur musicians — only the theater orchestras had the benefit of professionals. The Viennese theater and opera goers were in an enviable position, but concert life in Vienna was far less than satisfying, for the works of the late Classical and early Romantic era were far beyond the demands of any but the very best amateur players.
That changed in 1833, when the conductor Franz Lachner hit upon the idea of forming an orchestra from the ranks of the musicians in the best of all Vienna's opera companies, the Court Opera. The resulting four concerts, which the performers — because of the financial security that their positions in the Court Opera afforded them — produced themselves, were a great popular success, presenting some of the finest orchestral playing that the city had seen in many years.
Lachner's informally produced concerts gave way nine years later to a fully organized body of musicians. Under the auspices of Otto Nicolai, the conductor of the Court Opera and composer of The Merry Wives of Windsor, among many other works, the first Vienna Philharmonic concert was given on the afternoon of March 28, 1842. The orchestra performed ten additional concerts over a period of five years that were stunningly successful, both critically and financially. The city of Vienna was subject to political upheavals beginning in 1848, however, which disrupted much concert life for the next dozen years. In 1860, however, the Philharmonic became a fully functioning performing institution, with a regular schedule of concerts. That year, the Vienna Philharmonic gave the first of its subscription concerts under Carl Eckert, the director of Vienna's Court Opera. Thus began a thriving existence for the Philharmonic which has continued to the end of the 20th century.
Eckert was succeeded the next year by Otto Dessoff, who led the Philharmonic for 15 seasons, until 1875, and is credited with imparting to the orchestra much of its long-term stability in its organization. This era saw boom times for the city, as the Emperor Franz Josef sought to give his capital an artistic splendor second -to-none. The Philharmonic rose to the occasion — Dessoff added the music of Wagner, Brahms, and Dvorak to the repertory, and Brahms himself appeared as the soloist for his Piano Concerto in D Minor, and conducted the debut of his Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale with the Philharmonic. Brahms' arch rival Richard Wagner also conducted his own music with the Philharmonic during Dessoff's tenure as permanent conductor.
Dessoff was succeeded by Hans Richter, a legendary figure at the podium, and one of the great conductors of the second half of the 19th century, famed — among other things — for conducting the first performance at Bayreuth of Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelung. Over a period of 23 years, from 1875 until 1898, he established the orchestra's reputation for musical excellence. Both the Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 3 received their debut performances with the Philharmonic, as did Bruckner's Symphony No. 3 (with the composer conducting) and his Symphony No. 8.
Richter was succeeded by Gustav Mahler, at that time the most renowned conductor of his age. Mahler led the Vienna Philharmonic from 1898 through 1901, three very stormy years in which he imposed demanding new standards of performance on the players, and also took the orchestra on tour for the first time, for appearances in Paris. His tenure, however, was too brief to allow him any lasting impact, and none of his immediate successors — all official "guest" conductors — were any more effective. Finally, in 1908, Felix Weingartner, a far more reserved figure than the iconoclastic Mahler, assumed the directorship and began an extended, highly harmonious era for the Philharmonic, which included their first tour of South America. Weingartner's tenure was also highlighted by dozens of guest appearances by Richard Strauss, who continued to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic until the end of World War II — the Philharmonic's conservative nature was also challenged by the performances of such works as Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, which received its premiere performance in Vienna under the composer in 1920.
Weingartner was succeeded by Wilhelm Furtwangler, the most influential of early and mid-20th century conductors. Ironically enough, Furtwangler's official tenure as permanent conductor lasted only three years, from 1926 until 1929, but those dates don't reflect his full influence over the orchestra's fate and history, for Furtwangler became the orchestra's chief protector during the Nazi era, and remained the orchestra's leader, in fact if not in title, until his death in 1954, a period in which he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic on more than 500 occasions. Furtwangler's immediate successor, the Viennese-born Clemens Krauss, held the position of chief conductor for three years, from 1930 until 1933 after which the Vienna Philharmonic — which is an entirely self-governing orchestra — elected to use a series of guest conductors rather than one permanent conductor each season.
The rise of the Nazis in Germany during 1933 put the Vienna Philharmonic, and most other Austrian cultural institutions, in a very precarious position. Up until that time, Austria and Germany, sharing a common language, had generally exchanged artists with relative ease, but the Hitler government's demands for the unification of the two nations under the German flag made these decisions riskier than they had been in earlier years.
Musical life in Vienna, however, did benefit from one tragic aspect of Hitler's rule in Germany — the elimination of Jewish and Jewish-born Germans from the cultural life of the Third Reich. Vienna became host to a steady stream of talented exiles from Germany, chief among them Bruno Walter, the most important conductor in Germany after Furtwangler, who shared the Philharmonic's concerts with Furtwangler from 1933 until 1938. The orchestra's other notable guest conductors during this period included Arturo Toscanini, Willem Mengelberg, and Victor de Sabata. This era, in which Walter and his fellow "non-Aryans," and their sympathizers, had a secure future, ended in March of 1938 when Hitler forcibly annexed Austria.
The orchestra got through the Second World War reasonably intact, due in no small measure to the efforts of Furtwangler. Despite having taken over the Berlin Philharmonic in 1930, the German-born conductor continued to devote much time and attention to the Vienna orchestra, and blocked any efforts to politicize the Philharmonic's membership or its role in public life. In addition to protecting members with Jewish ancestry, or who were married to Jews, Furtwangler saw to it that the orchestra's work was restricted to purely musical activities. Clemens Krauss also played a major role during this period in the orchestra's musical life, leading it in concerts even during the darkest days of the war. Other major guest conductors during the war included Hans Knappertsbusch and the aging Richard Strauss, who by 1944 was virtually an exile from Germany proper, and avoided arrest only by moving to Vienna. Krauss also established the tradition of the orchestra's New Year's concerts, now seen internationally on television every year — in the middle of World War II, as a statement of Austrian identity as distinct from that of Germany, he led a performance of waltzes by Johann Strauss that became an annual tradition.
Vienna was heavily scarred by the Allied bombing during the war. The Philharmonic and the State Opera both survived, although the opera house was destroyed and not rebuilt until 1955. The years after the war were difficult — the members of the Vienna Philharmonic survived on very short rations and precious little work, owing largely to the absence of qualified conductors. At first, Josef Krips and Erich Leinsdorf were among the very few major figures who, clear of any Nazi affiliations, were permitted to work in public at the podium. The orchestra's members were living very near to starvation, and anxious to resume their careers. They participated in recordings under the auspices of conductor Artur Rother, among others, in works such as The Tales of Hoffmann (which, as a result of Offenbach's Jewish origins, had been forbidden to them from 1938 onward).
Most notably, the orchestra was recorded by EMI in performances of Brahms' German Requiem and Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 under conductor Herbert Von Karajan. Technically, Karajan was not yet legally cleared of his Nazi-era affiliations and couldn't perform in public in Vienna, and the Allied governments objected to his recording sessions with the orchestras. EMI producer Walter Legge insisted, however, that EMI was a private British company, whose affairs were outside the boundaries of the Allied government authorities where private recording sessions were concerned. The resulting performances, although recorded under somewhat primitive technical conditions (recording tape didn't come into wide use until a year or two later), were among the first important recordings made by Karajan, and the beginning of his international reputation.
By 1948, the Vienna Philharmonic found itself in the enviable position of being courted by two of the most renowned conductors of two generations, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert Von Karajan. The older Furtwangler's dislike of Karajan resulted in his placing of severe restrictions on Karajan's work with the orchestra, which remained in effect until Furtwangler's death from pneumonia in November of 1954. The orchestra also made many appearances and recordings with Walter, Krauss, Knappertsbusch, Karl Bohm, Karl Schuricht, Otto Klemperer, and Erich Kleiber, either in Vienna or as part of the Salzburg Festival. Following the death of Clemens Krauss in 1954, the New Years Concerts were taken over by Willi Boskovsky, the orchestra's concertmaster, who also made numerous recordings as their conductor in a wide variety of repertory.
But it was Karajan who became the most notable of the orchestra's conductors after Furtwangler's death, and for the next 30 years. Other important conductors of the Philharmonic have included Claudio Abbado, Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, Andre Previn, Carlos Kleiber, and, perhaps most notably, Leonard Bernstein.
The celebrated American maestro made his first record with the Vienna Philharmonic, Mahler's Das Lied Von Der Erde, during the mid-'60s. At around the same time, Bernstein had made his debut with the Vienna State Opera in a celebrated new production of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, which took the city's musical community and the world's opera lovers by storm. He followed this up several years later with an acclaimed recording of Rosenkavalier. Das Lied Von Der Erde, done under the auspices of London Records' engineers, proved among the most satisfying experiences of Bernstein's career up to that time, while his work at the Vienna State Opera and with the Philharmonic was equally enjoyable to the conductor, who had grown restless while working under the auspices of the New York Philharmonic and Columbia Records. Bernstein announced his resignation as Music Director of the New York orchestra in 1970, and his exit from Columbia Records, for which he had been recording exclusively since 1958, followed just a few years later. From the early '70s onward, he made regular appearances with the Vienna Philharmonic, and, after signing a contract with Deutsche Grammophon Records, recorded much of his key repertory anew with the Vienna orchestra.
Although few of the resulting performances sold as well as his earlier work with the New York Philharmonic on Columbia — which had been done at a time when Bernstein was perceived as music's great new conducting star, and each new record was greeted by the classical world as the equivalent of a new album by the Beatles — the Vienna recordings generally found great critical favor. Additionally, even if his sales didn't match those of his Columbia/New York performances of 15 years earlier, they were still a boon to the Vienna Philharmonic, not only in sheer numbers, but among two key audience groups: Americans in general, who continued to think of Bernstein as their own and would always buy his work with any orchestra; and Jewish listeners in particular, for whom Bernstein remained a special cultural hero. Up to that time, many Jewish listeners (who comprise a high percentage of classical listeners, especially in America) had kept the Vienna orchestra at arm's length because of the city's partly undeserved reputation as a center of anti-semitism before and during World War II. Bernstein's work with the orchestra overcame all of those problems, and helped give the Vienna Philharmonic the sales to match the quality of its playing. So successful and harmonious was Bernstein's association with the orchestra, that he was made an honorary member of the Philharmonic, an honor rarely accorded any conductor.
Since World War II, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's performances, recordings, and reputation have been unchallenged, save by the Berlin Philharmonic, which generates more sheer power in its playing, but lacks the grace and richness of the Vienna's sound. It is one of the most widely recorded orchestras in the world, and its dual status — as a concert orchestra and an operatic orchestra, in the guise of the Vienna State Opera — means that it has recorded many major works, both for the concert hall and the opera house, more than once, under several different conductors. It can be confusing at times, to those who buy a recording for the orchestra, but also an embarrassment of riches.
The Vienna Philharmonic's membership is drawn exclusively from the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, and the two institutions are interchangeable. Especially during the '50s and early '60s, when recording under restrictive contract provisions, the VPO was occasionally credited as the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. The group's membership has also been criticized in certain quarters, because the Vienna Philharmonic is the last major orchestra in the world without a single female member. But its performances are virtually without peer, as evidenced by the success of its 1996 tour of America, which sold out almost as fast as the concerts were announced.