Like a lot of Western artifacts, the symphony orchestra is relatively easy to place but hard to date. What distinguishes it from the doric column or gothic arch is a paper trail of local, national and global dots, leading to unexpected perspectives on money, culture, society, even geopolitics, extending over at least a couple of centuries. Who knew?
Scholarly consensus points to early sixteenth century beginnings, when it occurred to composers from Italy to the Netherlands that a well-calibrated ensemble of strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion could create a sense of occasion, enhance piety, entertain guests and impress the neighbors like nothing else to date. Princes and prelates got the message too.
By the middle of the eighteenth century what had been called a consort had morphed into what we now call an orchestra, welcome at all the best addresses. Between 1725 and the Revolution, an audience of upper-end bourgeoisie, lower-end aristocracy and foreign visitors made Paris's Lenten Concert Spirituel a secular institution. In 1791 Oxford University awarded Franz Josef Haydn an honorary doctorate for services to the art that already included some 91 symphonies. He rose to the occasion with a 92nd, known ever since as the Oxford, though it had been commissioned by a French patron.
Where there was demand there was supply. The orchestra could accompany instrumentalists and vocalists. It could thrill an audience like a walk-off homerun or move it to reverential silence. Called on to edify, it could honor both a newly united Berlin and an uneasily fractious G20 meeting with the obligatory Beethoven's Ninth. Called on to be frisky, it could deliver The Blue Danube in Vienna on January 1, and The and Stripes Forever on the banks of the Charles or the steps of the U.S. capitol on July 4. Called on to be seen and not heard at a graduation ceremony or diplomatic reception, it could be as unobtrusive as the floral arrangements.
Composers wondered how they'd ever got along without it, and pushed it to see what more it could do. Open to nearly anything that promised fun or profit from radio, movies, and records in every format from the wax cylinder to YouTube, it responded to virtually every challenge, in peace and war, be it hot or cold.
In 1743, a critical mass of Leipzig professionals, church players and university students got together to play home concerts. With a bit of civic support and an inspired conductor-manager, their little band had evolved by the end of the century into the Gewandhaus Orchestra, the first full-time professional orchestra, still going strong today.
A century later, virtually every capital, national and provincial, either had or wanted an orchestra of its own. As so often, Americans followed where Europeans led. "With westward expansion, cities were new and their roots shallow," Bernard Holland would observe. "For stabiity, the American city needed street lighting, sewers, schools, parks, libraries and - oh, yes - a symphony orchestra."
If economic and political contingency created new challenges, rail, ocean and air travel extended both range and possibilities. By the early 20th century, orchestra tours were an established way to make both money and an impression. By the early 21st, policy makers too had opted into what Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist, was the first to call "soft power."
As early as 1958, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first U.S. orchestra to tour the Soviet Union. In 1973 it became the first U.S. orchestra since 1949 to tour the People's Republic of China. In 1999, the Milwaukee Symphony parlayed a scheduled concert in West Palm Beach into a quickie visit to Havana. It was received with delight, despite logistical confusions that delayed arrival of its basses and percussion by a day and required customs officials to check them off at the stage door.
A decade later, the New York Philharmonic had been allowed to visit North Korea, but denied a license to visit Cuba. Orchestra patrons, who wanted to join the visit they were paying for would be considered tourists, and therefore in violation of U.S. sanctions, the Treasury Department ruled. In 2015 the Obama Administration reconsidered and the Minnesota Orchestra was allowed to fly in where the Bush Administration had feared to let the New Yorkers tread.
Meanwhile, Venezuela's Simon Bolívar youth orchestra, the flagship of El Sistema, a nation-wide music ed and civic development program, literally showed the flag as its concert dress. In 2012, it was received like the Beatles in London and Washington. Since then, the Chavez regime, its patron, has gone down like the Titanic, and with it the whole country, leaving what the New York Times now referred to as "a more standard international ensemble" dressed like everybody else, and without an upper age limit. "Fiddling While Venezuela Starves?" the headline asked in October 2016.
More remarkable still in spring 2016 was the appearance of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater orchestra under its superstar conductor Valery Gergiev in Syria. The nominal occasion was a memorial concert for victims of ISIS among the ruins, both current and archaeological, of Palmyra, a UNESCO heritage site. But the presence of the Russian minister of culture - not to mention CNN, BBC and the New York Times - left no doubt that there was more to the music than music. There was even a teletron appearance by Vladimir Putin from his Black Sea home in Sochi.
Foreign policy historians have been slow to appreciate the orchestra's research potential. But they might take a hint, of all people, from Donald J. Trump. "The West became great not because of paperwork or regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies...," the President noted on his recent visit to Warsaw. "We write symphonies."
They might also take a cue from Jutta Allmendinger, now president of a major Berlin think tank, and the late J. Richard Hackman, a professor of social psychology at Harvard. Music lovers both, they shared a moment of truth in the early 1990's when it occurred to them that the orchestra was the lab animal of their dreams. Their article Life and Work in Symphony Orchestras (Musical Quarterly 80: 194-219) appeared in 1996. It remains the most original study yet.
Its premise is disarmingly simple. With minimal allowance for when and where, an orchestra is an orchestra is an orchestra. Its players are similarly trained and socialized to rehearse and perform the same repertory on the same instruments in similar ways in similar halls before similar audiences.
Where so many variables are interchangeable, the authors reasoned, national differences should stand out like a Yankee fan at Fenway. Five years, four countries, including both the former West and former East Germany, and 78 orchestras later, it was clear that they were on to something.
Fritz Trümpi, a Swiss music historian, now teaching in Vienna, has since made it his mission to focus on just two orchestras, but not just any two. His study (called The Political Orchestra) of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics in an era unlike any other confirms how right Allmendinger and Hackman got it.
Each orchestra was a Central European icon, venerable, elite, protective of its brand, and acutely aware of the other. How, Trümpi wondered, had they coped, compromised, and coexisted with National Socialism, the Berliners from January 1933, the Viennese from March 1938? Forty two pages of backnotes, 17 pages of bibliography, an 11-page appendix and an exemplary 10-page index to 239 pages of text, display two of Trümpi's outstanding merits, an exemplary nose for sources and once nearly unimaginable access to the Viennese archives. But they also tend to make his study heavy going. If it reads like a dissertation, the explanation is easy. It began as one.
That much of it reads like a translation is also easily explained. It is one. Kenneth Kronenberg, the translator, has done his best to beat Trümpi’s text into idiomatic English. It's neither his fault nor Trümpi's that bureaucratic German plus Nazi German defies translation. That one of the era's most emblematic episodes is nowhere to be found among the exhaustively documented wage, pension, and subsidy skirmishes is regrettable too. In 1933, Jelly d'Arányi, a grand-niece of the great Joseph Joachim and a violinist herself, learned at a London seance that Robert Schumann's unplayed, unpublished violin concerto was gathering dust in the Prussian State Library. Four years later, its premiere enjoyed much the same kind of media attention as Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics or the second Louis-Schmeling fight.
Rediscovery of Schumann's manuscript had meanwhile led to Schott, the Mainz music publisher. From there, it led to Yehudi Menuhin, who liked it so much that he wanted to play the premiere in New York just as d'Arányi wanted to play it in London.
The Reich Chamber of Culture, a creation of Josef Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry (ProMi), was due for its fourth annual convention. Schumann's concerto seemed a heaven-sent alternative to the Jewish-descended Mendelssohn's. The copyright was unchallengeably German. Georg Kulenkampff, the last international-class German violinist still in Germany, was available for the solo part. Karl Böhm, another political persona grata, was available to conduct. The Berlin Philharmonic were ProMi employes. In November 1937 the premiere was broadcast internationally on short wave radio before again lapsing into obscurity.
What might has passed through players' minds when playing "Fidelio" or Beethoven's Ninth, as they often did in the Nazi years, is open to speculation. This too is a question that doesn't come up in Trümpi's study. But it evidently did occur to the great mezzo, Christa Ludwig. The orchestra felt uneasy playing Mahler, she noted years later in conversation with the Berliners' postwar concertmaster, Michel Schwalbé, whose family had died in Treblinka. "Tell me about it," he answered with what can only have been an eloquent shrug.
The big picture nonetheless remains clearly visible. Both orchestras began in principle as little republics of self-selecting, self-governing players, Vienna in 1842, Berlin 40 years later. When not moonlighting as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Viennese were essentially civil servants, the resident orchestra at the State Opera. The Berliners, professionals-for-hire in a rapidly developing economy, struck on the idea of going it alone after a bad experience working for an entrepreneurial conductor.
Each ensemble acquired - or created - a brand and mystique still perceptible today. Purposeful, dynamic, and modern, the Berliners aspired to set the pace in what had only recently become Central Europe's Big Apple. The Viennese countered by declaring themselves keepers of the flame, with a proprietary relationship to the great local masters so narrowly defined that they even rationed performances of Beethoven's Ninth.
By 1897, when the Berliners made their first guest appearance in Vienna, it was already clear that "Made in Germany," as Trümpi puts it, had joined battle with "Vienna, City of Music." In 1942, when the Viennese celebrated their centennial with guest appearances by the Concertgebouw from occupied Amsterdam, the Maggio Musicale from friendly Florence, and the Budapest Philharmonic from allied Hungary, the Berliners were not invited. But Philharmonic v. Philharmonic, in a proxy competition between an ascendant Germany and a subordinate but proud little Austria, was only one in a set of rivalries as interlocked as a Rubik's cube. Paying the piper, at whose expense, in return for what, was another perennial.
With tenured jobs at the opera, the Viennese were relatively safe and sovereign till at least the outbreak of World War I. But Berlin came up against its first moment of truth in 1911. For decades, a summer gig at Scheveningen, the Dutch sea resort, had got the Berliners through the winter. But the contract lapsed and the orchestra had to ask the Berlin city council for help. The city agreed. But it struck a hard bargain in the form of neighborhood pops concerts at user-friendly prices.
World War I added new challenges, patriotic appeals, avoiding certain foreign composers, touring neutral capitals as avatars respectively of German and Viennese culture, making themselves available for benefits, and playing extra concerts for the troops. Postwar politics, the postwar economy and what had now become a systemic need for subsidies only made prewar normal more remote.
Then came the Nazi years with ever newer opportunities for the politicization - Politisierung - at the core of Trümpi's book. Austrians for the moment were spared the hammer as a regime of authoritarian natives emphasized their country's fragile independence by sending the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter to play Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert at the 1937 Paris Exposition. But independence was short-lived.
By now, the Berlin Philharmonic, like all German institutions, had been Nazified with all the attendant jurisdictional skirmishes that were a Nazi specialty. Goebbels and Hermann Goering, the air force minister, Prussian prime minister, and the Third Reich's presumptive #2, came out on top. Goering got the orchestra of the Staatsoper, the former royal opera. Goebbels got the Philharmonic, which he continued to cherish as "my orchestra" till his suicide in 1945.
As often, the Austrians, including the Philharmonic, got the short end of the stick till the arrival of Baldur von Schirach, previously the Nazi Youth leader, as Berlin's man in Vienna. Resolved to make the most of his mandate, Schirach quickly realized that doing good for the Philharmonic was an effective way to do well for himself. But it was also clear that he'd need to spar with Goebbels if he wanted to do good for the Vienna Philharmonic.
The obvious first step in both cities was to fire all Jewish players. Berlin's most conspicuous casualty was Szymon Goldberg, the Philharmonic's 24-year-old concertmaster, who would go on to survive Japanese internment in Indonesia before resuming a distinguished career in Amsterdam and America. But where only four players in the orchestra qualified as Jewish in even the most notional sense, eliminating the Jews was hardly a radical operation.
Vienna, with 11 Jewish players and 10 more with Jewish wives, was a more difficult case. Of these, nine made it to Britain or the United States, including Arnold Rosé, concertmaster since 1881, and Ricardo Odnoposoff, the second - and only non Russian-Jewish - prizewinner at the legendary Brussels competition in 1937. But seven were murdered or died in concentration camps. Management in both Vienna and Berlin could hardly help notice that what had once been a substantial Jewish audience had left behind a lot of empty seats and unsold tickets.
The trade-offs were numerous and intricate. By the end of the war, Trümpi estimates, about half of the Vienna Philharmonic were party members, compared with about 20 percent of the Berliners. Whether they were moved by conviction, opportunism, prudence or a mix of all three is once more anybody's guess. But it is hard to imagine that personal decisions were unaffected by the protection and above all draft exemption afforded by ProMi employment and Goebbels. The benefit was first conferred on the Berliners, only later on the Viennese.
There was also the appeal of salaries at the equivalent of full professor level, plus generous travel allowances, irrespective of travel. Viennese income came nowhere close. In return, the Berliners performed like a public utility, available for radio broadcasts, movie music, factory appearances, the national travel and holiday agency, Party congresses, and foreign tours, where they might play for the troops, the natives, or resident German administrative personnel.
Though hard to quantify, repertory served at least as an indicator of priorities. Beethoven and Brahms, the acknowledged heavyweights, held their own in subscription programs. Wehrmacht concerts favored classics lite. Wagner, relatively underrepresented in Viennese programs, became a growth stock after 1938. There was a Bruckner boom.
As Berlin programs tended ever more to favor the iconic B's, Vienna was pushed all the harder in the direction of the Strauss family - Johann, of course, not Richard - as the definitive expression of what made Vienna Viennese. French and Russian composers were off for the duration. In 1944, the ban was extended to Belgian, Roumanian, Bulgarian, and Greek composers.
The music mystique even made its way into what passed for popular culture. "Whoever has truly understood one of Beethoven's symphonies will become a better soldier," declares a character in Friedrich Schreyvogl's 1941 novel Schicksalsymphonie (Symphony of Fate).
A draft movie scenario from 1943 begins with Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner discussing the centennial of the Vienna Philharmonic in heaven, and ends after a couple of adventures in space travel with a performance of Beethoven's Ninth. Unfortunately the film was never made.
But "Philharmoniker," a family drama, was actually produced in 1944. A father and two sons are Berlin Philharmonic players. The younger son, who has left the Philharmonic to form a dance band, returns from Paris as concertmaster after the death of his father and brother. "I must make great, serious music again or I will die," he explains.
The conductors Eugen Jochum, Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch, Richard Strauss, and a bust of Wilhelm Furtwängler make cameo appearances. An overhead shot of the orchestra fades into a factory floor where the workers are intently listening to Beethoven. Production costs were estimated at three million marks, three times the usual. Between its presumable release in December 1944 and February 1945, the film took in an estimated sixth of what it cost to make it.
A few months later, the Reich, nominally intended to last a thousand years, ended after 12, giving way to a new era. Herbert von Karajan, who had joined the party, succeeded Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had not, and appointed the Jewish Schwalbé as the Berlin Philharmonic's new concertmaster. Schwalbé was succeeded in turn by a Pole and two Japanese just as Karajan was succeeded by an Italian, an Englishman and a Russian. Meanwhile, in Vienna, the Philharmonic not only played Mahler under Leonard Bernstein. It even hired women.
For the player on the wrong side of the Wall and Iron Curtain, life was essentially unchanged. You played the classics. without an exam on Marxism-Leninism. Nobody got rich. But you lived relatively well by local standards, and Western companies engaged you from time to time to record with Western soloists because you came relatively cheap and your government welcomed hard currency.
For upper-end orchestras like the Gewandhaus, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Czech Philharmonic, there were even occasional perks like foreign travel, though your family, of course, stayed home. It was recalled after Kurt Masur helped prevent a Beijing-style massacre in Leipzig in October 1989 that, when he took the Gewandhaus on tour, he generally returned with the same number of players he'd left with.
But traces of the past can still be seen by those who knew where to look for them. The Hotel Sacher now stands on the Philharmonikerstrasse. Every year the Vienna Philharmonic's gala New Year's concert is heard around the world.
The Philharmonikerstrasse was Schirach's idea. No one knows for sure who first thought of the New Year's concert, though it might have been the orchestra's conductor, Clemens Krauss. For PR purposes, it was exactly what Goebbels had in mind. Visitors to the Library of Congress can admire and occasionally hear Szymon Goldberg's Guarneri del Gesù.
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