The Vienna Philharmonic is widely recognized as one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world. The orchestra has a rich history and many long associations with famous conductors and composers. These facets, combined with experienced virtuoso orchestra members, have been a recipe for great success. The Vienna Philharmonic has been praised by many musical greats, including Richard Wagner who ‘described the orchestra as one of the most extraordinary in the world’ and Anton Bruckner who called it ‘the highest art society in music’. Johannes Brahms was a proud ‘friend and admirer’ of the orchestra, while Gustav Mahler felt ‘connected by the bond of art’. Richard Strauss once said, ‘to praise the Philharmonic is to carry violins to Vienna’.
The Vienna Philharmonic was founded more than 170 years ago by Otto Nicolai. Before its establishment, symphonic concerts were performed by project-based orchestras assembled for particular occasions. There were no professional orchestras to be found outside of the theatres, which is quite shocking as this was the city of residence of many renowned symphonic composers such as Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. During the late 18th century and early 19th century, the orchestra of the Vienna Court Theatre was engaged for concerts, as organized by Mozart and Beethoven. About 20 years before the Philharmonic formed, the court orchestra and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music) joined forces to premiere Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9. Despite much success, it still took a number of years before a full-time ensemble would be established for symphonic purposes.
Along the way, many Beethoven symphonies were performed during the intervals of ballet performances, led by Franz Lachner, the conductor at the court opera theatre. He then founded the Künstler-Verein in 1833 to continue this tradition. However, after just four concerts, the society was disbanded for organizational reasons.
It was Otto Nicolai, who was appointed conductor at the Kärntertortheater in 1841, that would build upon Lachner’s idea with the encouragement of many influential Viennese figures. The members of the imperial ‘Hof-operntheater’ performed a ‘Grand Concert’ on 28 March 1842. This group was originally regarded as the Philharmonic Academy, as many of the Philharmonic’s principles were first put into practice at the time. Among these principles is the rule that only a musician that plays in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (then the Court Opera Orchestra) can become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic. With this strict rule, the standards of the orchestra are held very high. Other important elements of the Philharmonic include its autonomy (artistically, organizationally and financially) and its democratically elected body, the administrative committee.
In 1847, Nicolai left Vienna and the Philharmonic nearly collapsed, as he had served as not only its artistic leader, but also the administrative leader. Twelve difficult years followed before the first of four subscription concerts took place on 15 January 1860 at the Kärntnertortheater under the direction of opera director Carl Eckert. Since that date, the Philharmonic Concerts have continued without interruption. The only difference between then and now is the conductor: at the time it was customary to have one conductor conduct a complete season and now there are many guest conductors.Under the new leadership of Otto Dessoff, the Philharmonic’s repertoire was expanded and its rules of procedure solidified. In addition, the orchestra moved to its third home, the new Goldener Saal in the Musikverein in Vienna, at the beginning of the 1870-71 season.
Later, under the direction of Hans Richter, the Vienna Philharmonic entered its so-called Golden Era. According to the Philharmonic, ‘there has been no other conductor in the history of the Vienna Philharmonic who left such a long-lasting impression on the orchestra’. Richter conducted at least 243 concerts and gave the premiere of Wagner’sThe Ring of the Nibelungen in Bayreuth. It was under his direction that the Vienna Philharmonic rose to world-class levels. The Philharmonic also came into contact with many brilliant composers such as Wagner, Verdi, Bruckner, Brahms and Liszt. Other premieres during his time with the orchestra include Brahms’ symphonies nos. 2 and 3, Bruckner’s symphonies nos. 4 and 8 and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. They also enjoyed a close relationship with Richard Strauss.
In 1900, the Vienna Philharmonic gave its first performance abroad at the World Exhibition in Paris, under the baton of Gustav Mahler. In 1908, they became officially recognized by the Austrian Government as an association. It wasn’t until 1922, with Felix von Weingartner, that the orchestra began touring regularly. Under his leadership, they travelled as far as South America. The Philharmonic worked with Arturo Toscanini from 1933 to 1937 and Wilhelm Furtwängler from 1933 to 1945 and again from 1947 to 1954. Despite Furtwängler’s departure from the ‘one subscription concert conductor system’, he was actually the main conductor.
A dark period for the Vienna Philharmonic followed. In 1938, all Jewish artists were dismissed from the Vienna State Opera by the National Socialists. In addition, the Association of the Vienna Philharmonic was disbanded. With the help of Furtwängler, the order for disbandment was nullified. He was also able to save the majority of the ‘half-Jews’ and ‘closely-related’ from their dismissal from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Unfortunately, five of the orchestra’s members died in concentration camps and two died as a ‘direct result of attempted deportation and persecution’. Nine orchestra members were forced into exile while the eleven ‘half-Jewish’ members lived in constant fear of having their ‘special permission’ revoked. Before 1938, 20% of the orchestra members belonged to the Nazi party and in 1942, nearly 50% of the members had become members of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers' Party).
Much research and attention has been given to this dark period of the orchestra. Much of the research has been done by independent historians including Oliver Rathkolb, Bernadette Mayrhofer and Fritz Trümpi at the request of the former chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg. On 6 November 2014, the presentation of the book Orchestrierte Vertreibung – Unerwünschte Wiener Philharmoniker – Verfolgung, Ermordung und Exil (Orchestrated Displacement - Unwanted Members of the Vienna Philharmonic - Persecution, Murder and Exile) took place at the Jewish Museum of Vienna. In addition, a memorial concert was given by the Vienna Philharmonic, featuring pieces written by displaced members of the orchestra. Additionally, the premiere of violinist Josef Geringer’s Serenade was given.
The Vienna Philharmonic has since become an ambassador of peace, humanity and reconciliation and was named the Goodwill Ambassador of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in 2012. To date, the Philharmonic has continued its tradition of ‘working with every conductor of repute’, as established in 1933. Especially important collaborations after 1945 were with the honorary conductors Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan and the honorary member Leonard Bernstein.
The Vienna Philharmonic maintains an active concert schedule, worldwide tours, performances at major international festivals and many recordings. They give a very popular New Year’s Concert annually and appear each year at the Salzburg Festival.
The Vienna Philharmonic has received numerous awards, gold and platinum discs, national honours and honourary membership to many cultural institutions. Their most recent recordings include the Special Annual Edition 2017 with Mariss Jansons conducting Bruckner Symphony no. 6, the Summernachtkonzert Schönbrunn 2017 with Christoph Eschenbach and Renée Fleming, Franz Scmidt’s Symphony no. 2 paired with Richard Strauss’ Intermezzo, op. 7, "Träumerei am Kamin" with Semyon Bychkov (2017, Sony Classics), Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and many more. Their recordings of the Austro-German composers are the most spectacular, including those of Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, Brahms and Verdi, though their recordings of Debussy and Bizet are also worthy.