The Vienna Philharmonic: An Orchestra, a ring and a past

With access to Vienna Philharmonic archives, historians are compiling a comprehensive record of the orchestra’s Nazi years

Top Stories | Cynthia Peck, Dardis McNamee | April 2013

Bruno Walter conducting the orchestra before the Anschluss, Arnold Rosé, concertmaster. (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper)

In January, the buzz echoed across the globe: The Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world's most renowned orchestras, had finally opened its archives to a team of historians. By the second week of March, a few days before the 75th anniversary of Austria’s Anschluss with Nazi Germany, the website of the Philharmonic was updated with a new section: the history of the orchestra during the Nazi era.

At the same time, a television broadcast of Robert Neumüller’s documentary Schatten der Vergangenheit – Wiener Philharmoniker im Nationalsozialismus (Shadows of the Past – The Vienna Philharmonic during National Socialism) revealed long "forgotten" stories of the orchestra’s exiled and deported members.

The historians Oliver Rathkolb, Fritz Trümpi, and Bernadette Mayrhofer have all specialised in the Philharmonic’s past. Rathkolb, the team’s leader and professor of contemporary history at the University of Vienna, has focussed much of his career on studying the Nazification of artists during WWII and their denazification thereafter.

On the day of the Anschluss, 12 March 1938, concertmaster Arnold Rosé played his last concert with the Philharmonic. As a Jew, he was forced from his position overnight, but was able to emigrate to England. His violinist daughter Alma was not so fortunate; she was arrested in Paris and perished in Auschwitz.

Five members of the orchestra died in concentration camps and two more died in the process of deportation from Vienna. Nine members were exiled, and another eleven who had Jewish wives or were classified as "half-Jewish" continued to play under daily threat.

Why has it taken 75 years for this to become public knowledge? This is a question that also bothers Ioan Holender, long-time director of the Staatsoper. In 2008, two years before his retirement and 70 years since the Anschluss, Holender curated an exhibition about the history of the Vienna State Opera.

But he was not allowed access to the Philharmonic’s archives. Rathkolb did not take part. Nor did Clemens Hellsberg, a violinist and president of the orchestra, who has figured prominently in the current developments.

Over the last 25 years, the orchestra has made several gestures to face up to its past. Hellsberg lists the specifics: "In March 1988, I published a memorial to the murdered and exiled members of our orchestra, then in my book Demokratie der Könige [Democracy of the Kings] (1992) I dealt with the Nazi period in detail for the first time (as was stressed in the reviews), and in May 2000 we played a memorial concert in the quarry of the former concentration camp Mauthausen."

For these and other activities, in May 2012, the Israelitischen Kultusgemeinde (Israelite Religious Community) Vienna presented Hellsberg with the Marietta and Friedrich Torberg Medal, an honour for those who have "stood up against the past being forgotten."

Nonetheless, this has not been met with unmitigated good will. Hellsberg, who also functioned as the archivist of the Philharmonic for many years, has been accused of restricting access to the archives and covering up details in his 1992 book on the orchestra’s history. Many also wonder how so many important documents from the Nazi years could have been "lost" or "misplaced": Some of the material used for the current research was found only recently in a back corner of the State Opera’s cellar music library.

Rathkolb was not surprised. In archives, "it happens time and again that records end up somewhere or other, especially when there is no professional archivist." Holender does not consider this a valid argument: "The result is positive, something has happened. However very late, and why now? This question also must be answered."

Nonetheless, Rathkolb emphasises that the studies were placed on the website without being screened in any way by the orchestra. There was no effort to censor the historians’ findings.

Recent media reports have given puzzling prominence to the Philharmonic’s ring of honour, awarded in 1942 to Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi party governor in Vienna. Following the war, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity and the ring was confiscated. But upon his release in 1966, he was again given a ring.

This is not news. It was related in a book published in 2005 by Schirach’s son. Historians have now confirmed what was widely believed: That it was Helmut Wobisch, former Nazi member and trumpeter in the orchestra, who gave him the second ring. But they have also confirmed that the bestowing of the second ring was an independent act, not organised by the orchestra’s directorial body.

Yet, as Holender points out, 1966 is hardly "the past"; it is a date that is nearly contemporary, and this suggests that the denazification process in the orchestra was at best partial.

This matter is also touched upon in the new research. How was it that Wobisch, who was dismissed from his job in 1945 because of his active Nazi membership, was re-employed by the orchestra in 1951 and soon thereafter became the orchestra’s managing director? After retiring in 1968, he then founded the Carinthian Summer, a well-known music festival that still takes places every July and August near Villach.

According to Hellsberg, the Carinthian Summer organisers have recently, very belatedly, decided to discontinue the annual memorial concert to Wobisch.

The historians have established that during the war, nearly 50% of the orchestra were members of the Nazi party, a striking contrast to the general Austrian population, where this was only 10%. After the war, although they were invited, no Jewish exile ever returned to the orchestra.

Today’s orchestra members have accepted that these subjects must be discussed. Clemens Hellsberg makes this very clear in Neumüller's documentary.

"We can’t look back at the première of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, of Brahms’ 2nd or 3rd, or the Mahler 9th, and say that was us – but 1938 to 1945, that was the others. This is unthinkable."

Rathkolb, in particular, is outspoken in his respect for the orchestra’s current efforts to make its history public on their website. "Not only the victims but also the central perpetrators are being presented openly on the homepage. In the digital age, this is an important, modern step in the politics of history. The topic has arrived."

Thus it seems that 75 years after the Anschluss, discourse on the collective memory of the Vienna Philharmonic has finally, and firmly, been launched.

In the documentary’s powerful closing scene, the Philharmonic, in casual dress, plays Jörg Widmann’s Lied for Orchestra, described by conductor Franz Welser-Möst as "a sunken world upon which one looks back in grief." As the evocative textures of the music unfold, the names of the lost musicians are read out in a roll call.

And as in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, those sitting in those chairs today rise to their feet, one by one, set their instruments down, turn, and walk off. Then the camera pans out to take in the whole, an oboe is missing, the principal bassoon and the solo cello; the violin sections have been decimated – eighteen players gone virtually from one moment to the next.

"I watched the preview and felt sick," Rathkolb said, still surprised at his own reaction.  "I’ve been involved with this topic for so long… One knows all the numbers: eleven driven out, six or seven murdered… But when you see how many it was, in the orchestra, in the strings especially, it was a massive onslaught." He paused.

"And then the music goes on..."

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