Review: Vienna Philharmonic’s 2020 New Year’s Day Concert Confronts Link to National Socialist Era

Statue of Johann Strauß II in the Vienna's Stadtpark

By Jonathan Spira on 2 January 2020
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While the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day concert is replete with tradition, “the same tradition as last year” as Miss Sophie would be wont to say, those who were paying close attention may have noticed something slightly different.

While I last attended the New Year’s Day concert in person ten years ago, which was conducted by Daniel Barenboim, I grew up watching the broadcasts of the concert with my parents and brother and have been fortunate to attend the concert two times.

Andris Nelsons, the Latvian-born music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Gewandhauskapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra,resplendent in a midnight blue velvet coat, took up the baton on Wednesday, conducting the New Year’s Day concert his first time.  While the Musikverein seats an audience of 2,854, the global audience on Wednesday was an estimated 40 million people and the concert was broadcast in 90 countries.

The year 2020 is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the death of Josef Strauß, son of Johann Strauß (Sr.) and brother of Johann Strauß (Jr.) and Eduard Strauß, as well as the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic.  As a result, the orchestra wanted to perform more pieces by those two composers in particular.

Nonetheless, the program was chock full of waltzes by Johann Strauß (Jr.) including the first traditional encore, “An der schönen, blauen Donau” or “The Beautiful Blue Danube.”  The orchestra, as tradition holds, played the first few notes of the piece and stopped with resultant applause as this is the same procedure at every New Year’s Day concert. It was time for the traditional New Year’s Greeting: “Die Wiener Philharmoniker und ich wünschen Ihnen Prosit Neujahr” (“The Vienna Philharmonic and I wish you a Happy New Year”) Nelson said before restarting the piece.  (Some conductors have better luck than others in saying this so it actually sounds as if they are speaking German.)

The break in tradition, however, came with the final encore, always the “Radetzky-Marsch” (“Radetzky March”).  The Radetzky March, composed by Johann Strauß (Sr.), was first performed in 1848, dedicated to the memory of Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky’s victory in the First Battle of Custoza, at the start of the Italian Risorgimento.

For much of the 19th century, what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire comprised lands we now call Austria, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, Czechia, and Italy.  Joseph Roth, whose 1932 novel “Radetzky March” chronicles the decline and fall of the Empire via the story of three generations of the Trotta family, referred to the piece as “the Marseillaise of conservativism,” and many Austrian families – including mine – hold it in a special place of honor, as much of an anthem as “God Bless America” is in the United States.  (Another unofficial Austrian anthem is “The Beautiful Blue Danube.”)

The problem, it turns out, is that the arrangement of the piece that the Vienna Philharmonic has used for decades was arranged by Leopold Weninger, a former member of the National Socialist party who was also responsible for arranging the most popular version of the party’s anthem, the “Horst-Wessel-Lied.”

The music of the Strauß family was so much a part of Austrian life that Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, was alleged to have tried to change the baptismal record of Strauß the Sonbecause it confirmed that he was partly Jewish.

Weninger had turned the “Radetzky March” into a very militaristic affair, creating a massive and booming sound that was incongruous with the original, which was uncovered by Norbert Rubey in 1999 and performed at the 2001 New Year’s Day concert conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Meanwhile, having been alerted to the arrangement’s National Socialist roots, the Vienna Philharmonic commissioned a new arrangement to be created by its archivist and performed going forward.

“This version will be used from now on,” said Daniel Froschauer, chairman of the self-governing orchestra’s board of directors and one of its first violinists. “On January 1st, the audience in the golden hall may clap along to a version of the Radetzky March that was created as a joint venture with the Vienna Philharmonic and that is not contaminated by a ‘brown’ past.”

The version of the “Radetzky March” we heard on Wednesday had a shorter snare drum intro than what was usually performed in the Weninger version (although the original, as performed in 2001, had a far longer snare drum introduction and an abrupt transition into the melody).  It seemed familiar but clearly less militaristic than Weninger’s.

Both the “Blue Danube” and the “Radetzky March” were resplendently performed.  The orchestra, with its strong commitment to social responsibility, something a former president, Clement Hellsburg, strongly emphasized, continues to lay bare aspects of its National Socialist past while seeking to make amends.

And as for the number that always draws attention, female membership in the orchestra continues to climb, however slowly. That number is currently at 15, with four more going through the statutory transition to full membership. The orchestra first admitted a woman to its ranks in 1997, although harpist Anna Lelkes had performed with the ensemble for 26 years at that point, albeit without full membership.

Still, change comes slowly but surely in Vienna.  Since June of last year, the Bundeskanzlerin or Chancellor of Austria has been female, Brigitte Bierlein.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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