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Vienna Philharmonic: orchestra for the concentration camps

January 2, 2012

Perhaps yesterday, like people all over the world, you watched the televised performance of the Vienna Philharmonic as part of its celebrated annual series of New Year’s Concerts.  The music of the Philharmonic is light and airy.  But the visuals are rather different; one thing stands out for a viewer: almost no women.  No Asians or blacks.  Almost no Jews.  Apparently, women, Jews, Asians, and blacks just don’t know how to play classical music.

The Vienna Philharmonic has been called “unashamedly racist and sexist.”  No women was allowed to join the orchestra before 1997, and since then, out of about 40 open positions, only 3 have been filled with women (making the orchestra 2% female).  Before World War II, 18 members of the orchestra were Jewish.  Today only two Jews are allowed as members of the Orchestra. The orchestra is almost entirely white (there is only a single half-Asian member, hired in 2001).  In 1970, Otto Strasser, the former chairman of the Philharmonic, wrote:

I hold it incorrect that today the applicants play behind a screen; an arrangement that was brought in after the Second World War in order to assure objective judgments. I continuously fought against it, especially after I became Chairman of the Philharmonic, because I am convinced that to the artist also belongs the person, that one must not only hear, but also see, in order to judge him in his entire personality. […] Even a grotesque situation that played itself out after my retirement was not able to change the situation. An applicant qualified himself as the best, and as the screen was raised, there stood a Japanese before the stunned jury. He was, however, not engaged, because his face did not fit with the “Pizzicato-Polka” of the New Year’s Concert.

In 1996, Dieter Flury, a solo-flutist in the Philharmonic said:

From the beginning we have spoken of the special Viennese qualities, of the way music is made here. The way we make music here is not only a technical ability, but also something that has a lot to do with the soul. The soul does not let itself be separated from the cultural roots that we have here in central Europe. And it also doesn’t allow itself to be separated from gender. So if one thinks that the world should function by quota regulations,then it is naturally irritating that we are a group of white skinned male musicians, that perform exclusively the music of white skinned male composers. It is a racist and sexist irritation. I believe one must put it that way. If one establishes superficial egalitarianism, one will lose something very significant. Therefore, I am convinced that it is worthwhile to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards.

Perhaps the single most insensitive activity that the Philharmonic ever participated in was its infamous 55th anniversary concert at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 2000.  (Mauthausen was a complex of concentration camps in Austria that initially focused on the extermination of ideological opponents of the Third Reich:  communists, socialists, anarchists, homosexuals, professors, teachers, priests, Spanish Republicans – although especially later in the war large numbers of Jews, Roma people, and Soviet prisoners-of-war were sent to the camp.  The camp contained a large quarry and practiced extermination through hard slave labor – to such a degree that civilian employees complained about having to work with so much gore in the quarry.  There is no exact death toll, but it is believed that between 120,000 and 320,000 prisoners were murdered at Mauthausen.  You can read more about Mauthausen here or here.)


James Schmidt writes:  “The presence of the Vienna Philharmonic at the ceremony also drew criticism… [Commentators] noted the orchestra’s past role as a cultural icon of the National Socialist state and current controversies involving a hiring policy that excluded women and non-Europeans from membership. The musicologist Thomas Dombrowski, observing that the orchestra’s ranks included ‘enthusiastic Nazis’ until ‘well into the seventies,’ described it as ‘the most unworthy ensemble in the world for such a task’ and sarcastically commented that it was a shame that the orchestra had been unable to obtain the services of conductors Karl Böhm or Herbert von Karajan, both of whom had been members of the Nazi party and had successful careers during the Third Reich….

“Finally, a number of critics were repelled by the very idea of a concert at the Mauthausen site. Their disgust only increased after the responsibility for planning the concert was turned over to an advertising firm that opted for the construction of a six-story orchestra shell, giant video screens (both at the camp and at remote locations in Linz and Vienna), an elaborate amplification system involving individual microphones on all the musicians, the use of colored lights on the walls of the quarry, and a satellite broadcast of the concert throughout Europe. Marta Halpert, the director of the central European office of the Anti-Defamation League in Vienna insisted, ‘Anything that changes this uniquely brutal slaughterhouse on Austrian soil into a concert house is frivolous and tasteless,’ and noted bitterly that the elaborate arrangements for the concert ensured that ‘the crescendo of the Philharmonic’s brass will drown out the screams and lamentations of the abused.’ The Viennese historian Marie-Theres Arnborn was likewise appalled by the prospect of the quarry being transformed into a ‘virtual concert hall’ in which loudspeakers would blast the ‘Ode to Joy’ over a place where ‘defenseless men were tortured to death.’ ”

I wish I could enjoy the performances of the Vienna Philharmonic; but when I hear their music, I remember Mauthausen.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. kennyoboe permalink
    January 4, 2012 12:31 pm

    The performance to celebrate the new year was magical to say the least. Not everything in this world has to be about a quota. MUSIC! That is what is all about. It is about listening, not counting the races and sexes in the orchestra.

    To sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, you must be practicing and in good standing with the LDS. Scandal! You have to be at least 25 years of age, and when you reach the magic age of 60…POOF! you are no longer able to sing with them.

  2. January 4, 2012 2:11 pm

    To sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, you must be practicing and in good standing with the LDS.

    You make a fair point. However, and nonetheless, if it were specifically the “Aryan Male Vienna Philharmonic,” then there’d be no scandal here?

  3. January 4, 2012 2:36 pm

    Kenny, I understand your point and you may note that I specifically did not review the concert.

    Indeed it was a type of genius to have a racist orchestra play at Mauthausen concentration camp; Adolf and Himler would have approved.

    By the way: the LDS (and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) has changed its views on blacks: in 1978, LDS president Spencer Kimball received a revelation that allowed blacks a greater role in the church, and since then, there have been many prominent black members of the Tabernacle Choir (e.g., Alex Boye). Notably, the change in policy did not ruin the Choir.


  1. Remembering Mauthausen « BLT

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