Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

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Formed: 1842, Vienna, Austria

Genre: Classical

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Wiener Philharmoniker) is unlike any other major orchestra. It is run more as a society or club than a modern musical business. In an era when globalization means that players, conductors, and soloists come from virtually anywhere in the world and thus few orchestras have a geographically distinct sound, the Vienna retains a style all its own. It sounds like no other orchestra, and its musical traditions are directly linked to the core of the classical orchestral repertory.

Until the Philharmonic was founded in 1842, Vienna did not have a full-time professional orchestra. That means that in the time of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethovenall of whom worked in the citythere was no regular professional orchestra; players were assembled for concerts on an ad hoc basis. But it also means that there was a strong musical tradition upon which to build one strong enough to endure to the twenty-first century.

The structure of the Philharmonic is unusual. Its musician members, who are elected to management roles, run the orchestra. The players vote on major decisions. The Philharmonic also serves as orchestra for the Vienna State Opera (Vienna Staatsoper), and before a player can become a full member of the Philharmonic, he or she must serve in the opera orchestra for three years. Unlike most orchestras, the Philharmonic is not state-supported; it is an independent, self-governing institution.

The orchestra is one of the most prestigious in Europe, and has worked closely with composers such as Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, and Giuseppe Verdi. Some of the most prominent conductors in the history of music have served as its conductors, among them Hans Richter (18751882 and 18831898), Gustav Mahler (18981901), Felix von Weingartner (19081927), and Wilhelm Furtwangler (19271930).

Despite its stellar conductor roster, however, in 1933 the orchestra took the unusual step of deciding to go without a permanent conductor, and it has employed guest conductors ever since. Prominent among these have been Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Karl Bohm, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, Bruno Walter, Carlo Maria Giulini, Georg Solti, Claudio Abbado, and James Levine.

The Philharmonic sound is unique because the orchestra largely retains ideals of performance adopted at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Partly this reflects a philosophical approach to tradition, but it is also the result of the orchestra's instruments. In other orchestras, instruments continued to evolve over time. But Vienna still uses versions of the brass, woodwinds, and percussion in use at the time of its founding, and they are mechanically different from modern instruments; they produce different sounds than modern instruments.

The orchestra has recorded extensively, and its historical collection of recorded performances of the core classical literature is highly prized. The orchestra's home is one of the great concert halls in the world, the Musikverein. The Vienna tours widely, and participates annually in Europe's most important music festivals. The orchestra's famous New Year's Eve concerts are televised worldwide to an audience of millions.

The 1990s were a time of reevaluation for the Philharmonic. The orchestra had always been an all-male preserve, which it justified with the argument that ethnic and gender uniformity leads to aesthetic superiority. But there was increasing pressure to admit women players and, after allowing women to perform with the orchestra beginning in the mid-1990s, it finally appointed an official woman member in 2002.

Importantly, in the 1990s the orchestra's nationalist traditions took some hits, with some critics challenging the orchestra's legendary musicianship. While many of the orchestra's fans appreciate the Vienna's traditional approach, some reviewers encountering the orchestra abroad have been critical of what they interpret as a style that has become increasingly ingrown. The orchestra still attracts top players, but its pay scale has slipped below top American orchestras, and the pool of players trained to perform on the Viennese instruments is small. While still considered one of the world's top orchestras, the Vienna has chosen to be a museum of German School tradition rather than an evolving modern organization.


Masters of Classical Music (Vol. 110) (Delta, 1990); Strauss: The Best of Vienna (Polygram, 1999).


douglas mclennan

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Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Ger. Wiener Philharmoniker). Austrian orch. founded in Vienna 1842, first cond. being Otto Nicolai 1842–8. The concerts were interrupted by the 1848 revolution. A few were given under Karl Eckert between 1854 and 1857, but a regular season of 8 concerts did not occur until 1860. Orch. soon recognized as one of world's greatest, a reputation it has maintained. Among prin. conds. after Nicolai were Dessov (1860–75), Richter (1875–98), Mahler (1898–1901), Hellmesberger (1901–3), Weingartner (1907–27), Furtwängler (1927–8), Krauss (1929–33), Furtwängler and Walter (1933–8), Furtwängler (1938–54), Karajan (1956), Abbado (1971). Orch. is self-governing and plays for Vienna State Opera. Gave its first concert at Salzburg Fest. 1926 and perfs. there regularly to present day, both in the concert-halls and the opera theatres. Many other conds., notably Karl Böhm, have been assoc. with it and have made recordings with it.