From the Classics to the Music of the Future

The early history of the Wiener Symphoniker

A look at the early history of the Wiener Symphoniker

By Walter Weidringer 

It was about time. Even Eduard Hanslick, as an influential critic not exactly in the frontlines on the progressive front, had lamented what was for the 19th century the ‘very late nature of concert life in Vienna’. With the opening of the Musikverein building of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in 1870, Vienna finally had a performance venue that was both glorioussounding and impressive. The in-house Gesellschaft orchestra, however, gave its concerts there without a fixed roster and, in many cases, without any professional players at all. In retrospect, the fact that in the second half of the 19th century – after a change to statutes – professional musicians could be engaged to boost the amateur majority gives one an idea of the questionable quality of the Gesellschaft’s own concerts. The undisputed masters of their profession were, of course, the players of the Hofopernorchester (Court Opera Orchestra), who gave concerts comparatively rarely since their founding as the Wiener Philharmoniker in 1842. But their programmes focussed on the past and represented, even for Hanslick, ‘a hot-bed of strict musical orthodoxy’. 

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Momentum and affordability

It was high time, then, for a new, permanent, professional and — ideally — decently-paid concert orchestra in Vienna, one that could meet the rising demand for musical performances from both the middle classes and a now culturally-minded working class - and, in fact, one with a clear educational mandate. It was agreed that the ‘cultivation and popularisation of symphonic music’ should be achieved at ‘the cheapest possible prices’. As its conductor, Ferdinand Löwe was a logical choice. Later characterisations describe the Vienna-born Löwe, a pupil and life-long champion of Anton Bruckner, as a formidable orchestra trainer and audience educator, as well as a modest advocate of modern composers. Gustav Mahler himself had briefly brought him back from Munich to the Court Orchestra as Kapellmeister. He soon found success in Vienna on the podium with the Gesellschaft Concerts as well as at the head of a newly-founded philharmonic orchestra. The latter was only able to operate for a short time, however, owing to weak finances. In 1900, to fill the gap left by this older enterprise and at the same time invest in the future, the committee of the newly-founded Wiener Concertverein built upon the artistic abilities of the then 37-year-old Löwe.

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Against the sin of omission

And though the name may have been different at first, this also marked the birth of the Wiener Symphoniker: their continuity of institution and personnel reaches back to this long-awaited Orchester des Wiener Concertvereins, which made its debut under Löwe in the Musikverein on October 30th, 1900. With Weber’s Overture to ‘Euryanthe’, Mozart’s Symphony KV 338, Wagner’s ‘Faust’ Overture and Schubert’s Symphony 944, this debut concert was no arbitrary combination of famous names and popular works. Quite the contrary: Max Kalbeck, writing in the Neue Wiener Tagblatt, praised the inclusion of the Mozart symphony, which until then had ‘only been performed twice in the 58-year history of the Philharmoniker! How many such inevitable sins of omission must be committed against the classics - not to mention the modern and living, who should be heard all the more!’ Moreover, in the double-parallel structure of the programme, one can already sense a concert dramaturgy that feels modern: two overtures — one to an opera, the other for the concert hall — and two symphonies in C major — one, as it were, a short classical work in three movements, the other the proverbial ‘Great Symphony in C major’, which flung open the door to Romanticism. Right from the beginning, and without raising a schoolmasterly index finger, Löwe demonstrated a feeling for musically historical connections and rewarding juxtapositions. In his next programme, Löwe showed how the popular and the sophisticated could be brought into balance with Schumann’s G̒ enoveve’ Overture, a Handel concerto grosso, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Smetana’s ‘The Moldau’. 

Excitement on every level

The critics were unanimous in their praise, and the public showed their enthusiasm right from the start: the twelve concerts of the first season 1900–01 were already sold-out in advance, with no more single tickets available. Löwe, it’s true, enticed the public by programming all of Beethoven’s symphonies, performing them as a complete cycle for the first time in Vienna; but he also placed newspaper advertisements calling for submissions of new scores. At the same time, the Wiener Concertverein also worked at reaching a new audience in order to cure what would only later come to be known as Schwellenangst (‘the fear of crossing thresholds’): Kapellmeister such as Karl Komzák and, above all, from 1905, Martin Spörr delighted a colourfully mixed audience in locations like the Volksgarten and the Musikverein with ‘volksthümlichen Concerten’ (‘popular’ concerts). What’s more, on December 28th, 1905, at the instigation of David Josef Bach, Arts Editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung and friend of Arnold Schönberg, the legendary Arbeiter-Symphoniekonzerte (‘Workers’ Symphony Concerts’) began in the Musikverein under Löwe. It was in this setting in 1913 that the young Wilhelm Furtwängler would make his Vienna debut. Who at that time could have guessed that Furtwängler would play an important role in the orchestra’s history? So-called musical high culture was no longer the exclusive domain of the well-to-do, and the Workers’ Symphony Concerts — despite initial scepticism of highranking Social Democratic politicians — were truly popular. 

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Curiosity for the present

‘Löwe’s clever, targeted programming strategy — with its pedagogically-driven combination of carefully raising audience expectations and judicious mix of traditional repertoire and innovation — was soon a complete success’, summarises the historian and and former Symphoniker oboist, Ernst Kobau, who has authored a number of works on the history of the orchestra. This success received such a response that even the Philharmoniker became nervous, and not without reason: in an anonymous letter written to them in May 1903, a ‘well-meaning college’ whispered, ‘Do not put your heads in the sand — gentlemen, just as America presents a danger for Europe, there is one that awaits the Philharmonic — called the “Concertverein”’. Another reason was that Löwe was not afraid of the new, and wanted to convince the audience of what had convinced him. On February 2nd, 1903, he and the Concertverein presented Anton Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth Symphony in Löwe’s own heavily-edited edition as a world premiere. The jubilation and emotion were enormous. In the 1910–11 season, Löwe even began a complete cycle of the Bruckner symphonies. And he did not exhaust his considerable commitment to the works of Mahler with the Vienna premieres of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, but demonstrated an effort to anchor these already familiar works in the repertoire. Altogether, the list of premieres dating from the years before the First World War contains, in addition to much that is forgotten, a wonderfully broad cross-section of now-established concert repertoire at the threshold between late-Romanticism and Modernism. World premieres, naturally, appealed to the local younger generation, which included Arnold Schönberg, Franz Schmidt, Franz Schreker and Alexander von Zemlinsky. But Löwe and the Concertverein also brought works by Richard Strauss to Vienna for the first time, as well as works by Hans Pfitzner and Max Reger, by Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rachmaninov and Scriabin, by Sibelius and Bartók, by Franck, Dukas, Elgar and Busoni — on many occasions with the composers themselves at the podium. In 1910, for example, Claude Debussy conducted his ‘Prélude a l’aprés-midi d’un faune’ and the triptych ‘Ibéria’. Undoubtedly, the Concertverein was the first port of call for those who wanted to keep musically up to date. 

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Musical milestones

Four evenings, of course, occupy a special place in the early history of the Wiener Symphoniker, and indeed in the history of music in general. On January 25th, 1905, two great symphonic poems were premiered under Zemlinsky: his own ‘The Mermaid’ and Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Pelleas and Melisande’. And then of course the three great events of 1913. On February 23rd, the Wiener Tonkünstlerorchester, founded in 1907, joined with members of the Concertvereinsorchester — a portent, as it were, of their later merger, initiated for the practical reason of having at least one functioning orchestra in the city during the First World War — to premiere Schönberg’s monumental ‘Gurrelieder’ in the Musikverein under Franz Schreker. This unanimous success was followed on March 31st in the same venue with the legendary ‘Watschenkonzert’, the mother of all concert scandals: Schönberg conducted works of his own, by Zemlinsky, Webern and Berg; but the planned performance of Mahler’s ‘Kindertotenlieder’ had to be scrapped due to the brawl that broke out. Both declared supporters and opponents of the Schönberg school clashed, but many laymen also contributed to the explosive mixture of people: due to the poor sales, the architect Adolf Loos had bought up a large number of tickets and given them out indiscriminately to random passers-by. The war between whistling, hissing, applause and cheers led to the demanding of duels and punch-ups having legal repercussions. The brawlers could only be brought to order by turning off the lights in the hall. Though the orchestra had been involved in this unprecedented musical controversy, it was entrusted at the start of the new season with a rare honour: on October 19th, 1913 under Löwe’s direction, the Concertverein performed the gala concert to mark the opening of the Wiener Konzerthaus. In the long term, the orchestra had gained a new venue and, in the Konzerthausgesellschaft, a new partner. In the short term, however, it had to get around the catastrophe of the First World War, which would also affect Vienna’s orchestral landscape. ‘There are sins of omission in the arts’, Eduard Hanslick once stated; Max Kalbeck, as we have seen, had also used this admonishing phrase. But, already in their first incarnation, the Wiener Symphoniker had countered the sins of the past with sonorous good deeds in Vienna, the city of music.