On March 28, 1842 Otto Nicolai conducted a “grand concert” that was performed by all the members of the Royal and Imperial Court Opera. This “Philharmonic Academy” is rightly considered to be the birth of the Wiener Philharmoniker, since, for the first time, all the principles of the “philharmonic idea” were realized: only members of the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera (formerly Court Opera) are eligible to become members of the Wiener Philharmoniker; the orchestral has artistic, organizational and financial independence; all decisions are reached in a democratic way; and the actual administration is carried out by a twelve-member, democratically elected committee.
After twelve years of stagnation, the Wiener Philharmoniker gave its first subscription concert on January 15, 1860 under the direction of the opera director, Carl Eckert. The philharmonic concerts have continued, without interruption, ever since.
The only basic change took place in 1933 when a series of guest conductors replaced the system of choosing a conductor for a whole season. After Otto Dessoff systematically expanded the repertoire, Hans Richter, the legendary conductor of the Bayreuth premiere of Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen, succeeded in establishing the ensemble’s worldwide reputation and incomparable tradition. Encounters with Wagner, Verdi, Bruckner, Brahms, Liszt and others, either as conductor or soloist, further enhanced this reputation. Gustav Mahler led the first concert of the orchestra outside of Austria, at the Paris World’s Fair of 1900. Working together with Arturo Toscanini in the years 1933 −37 was another highlight. The close relationship with Richard Strauss was of great importance as far as music history was concerned. Between 1906 and 1944, he conducted numerous performances around the world and was bound with the orchestra in a sincere friendship.
At the beginning of World War II, the National Socialists immediately dismissed all Jewish artists from the Vienna State Opera. Only the intervention of Wilhelm Furtwängler brought the cancellation of an order to dissolve the philharmonic association. He also saved the “half-Jews” and relatives of Jews from dismissal. The orchestra, however, mourned the deaths of six of its Jewish members who were murdered in concentration camps and that of a young violinist who was killed on the eastern front.
After the second World War, the Wiener Philharmoniker revived its connections to all major conductors. Collaboration with honorary conductors Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan, as well as honorary member Leonard Bernstein, hold special significance in the more recent history of the orchestra.
With its dominant role at the Salzburg Festival, or with the New Year’s Concert, the orchestra succeeds again and again in setting accents of incomparable individuality. In any case, the Wiener Philharmoniker strive to realize the motto Ludwig van Beethoven wrote at the start of his “Missa Solemnis”: “From the heart — may it in turn go to the heart!”
© 1998 Wiener Philharmoniker / Clemens Hellsberg (Translation: John Moffatt)