Honorary Conductors

Honorary Conductors

Emotional Attachment

So far only two conductors have been honoured with the title of Honorary Conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker; both true legends of music history: Georges Prêtre and Wolfgang Sawallisch.

George Prêtre

There is no doubt that when it came to Prêtre concerts, the term “conventional” never applied. Prêtre, who was born in Waziers in 1924, never saw himself as a conductor, and many orchestral musicians did agree with him on this point. He thought of himself more as an Interprêtre in the absolutely French sense of the word: an ecstatic high priest of music, an intermediary for the inspiration that flows from the great works. Criticism ceases entirely in the face of such Greats – unless they express critical opinions about Austrian affairs. And since Georges Prêtre did never do so, because music was his mother tongue, the Viennese critics didn't have to oblige to observe their well-documented, standoffish scepticism and were able to gratefully lose themselves in reverie at Prêtre concerts. As in medieval representations of benefactors, we saw small figures of critics all over the concert hall, holding rosaries in lieu of musical scores. They kneeled humbly before their patron saints at priedieux and, on the morrow, offered up their panegyrics as donations in feuillton offering boxes. A little splendour from their marvellous superlatives fell upon the orchestra, as well.

The musicians saw things from a more straightforward perspective coloured by professional experience, and they were the ones who had to play the concert after all. Nevertheless, they were of one mind in their admiration for the mental and physical feats of the French Maître, who assumed the position of Principal Guest Conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker more thaan 30 years ago. He still performed at an age when orchestral musicians of the same age had been retired for almost a generation. And even if we concede that conducting offers the ideal basis for preserving vitality through a combination of calisthenics, sublimated exercise of power and public renown, many important conductors have faced physical limitations that never seemed to apply to Georges Prêtre. The way in which his mental and physical agility transmitted to the orchestral musicians was nothing short of magical: it spurred them on to give their utmost and provides motivation for peak performance, which was also due to the extreme, heightened and ultimately exhausting tension that efficacious decoding of Prêtre’s cryptic, not to mention oracular gestures required.

What gave Prêtre’s music–making its shock-like, intensely experiential character was the constant “breach of the stimulus barrier”, to use Freudian terminology. And this is precisely the meaning that Walter Benjamin conveyed in his remarks on Beaudelaire: “The greater the amount of shock factor in individual impressions, [...] the sooner they meet the definition of non-integrated experience”, and “the less they are integrated into experience.” Benjamin’s illuminating recognition places Prêtre’s artistic singularity within the great French tradition at a time when Paris was the “nineteenth-century capital”. Conversely, it also explains the truly remarkable fact that, even in the case of frequently interpreted works, no “tradition” has been able to spring up around Prêtre’s musical renditions. And where the experiential approach fails to satisfy, we become addicted, incessantly exposing ourselves to unexpectedly fascinating and astonishing surprises.

Perhaps the secret of his success lies in the wise decision to connect times of secluded leisure with clearly defined “repertoire sans repertoire”, i.e., an intensively studied canon of works that are not in danger of becoming routine.

Georges Prêtre died in January 2017. The Wiener Symphoniker will never forget him.

Wolfgang Sawallisch

The critic Franz Endler summed it up in February 1993: “Even the musical life of Vienna would be in need of an artist of his quality as a permanent institution – a phrase that will certainly be written after every Wolfgang Sawallisch concert.” Three decades beforehand, Sawallisch was the first Chief Conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker (1960-1970) during the post-war transition to normalcy of what was then a locally safeguarded institution with an increasingly internationalized profile. Under his direction, the orchestra first toured the USA in 1964 and Japan in 1967 as part of a worldwide tour. The great success of these tours turned this important Viennese concert orchestra into an internationally recognized ensemble. Through a considerable number of LP recordings, including the complete orchestral works of Brahms, Sawallisch also succeeded in creating a prominent place for the Wiener Symphoniker in the recording world.

As the Karajan cycle concluded in the early 1960s, he provided the impetus for the emerging symphonic cycle that centred mainly around cyclical presentations of symphonic works by the great Classical and Romantic composers. During the economic boom of the 1960s, a kind of three-pillared model of orchestral performance developed that would remain in effect for quite some time. This model combined close attention to the orchestra’s core duties within Viennese concert life with international touring activities and a presence in the record market. After being absent for a decade, it was a pure stroke of luck for the Wiener Symphoniker that Wolfgang Sawallisch returned to the podium in 1980 to lead an extended European tour in honour of the orchestra’s eightieth birthday. This resulted in ongoing collaborations that would last for another quarter century. And so a period of forty-eight years lay between the first and last appearances of this great conductor with the Wiener Symphoniker, an interval of collaborative music-making that hardly any other conductor has equalled.

The musicians appreciated his unpretentious directness, which radiated collegial understanding and occasionally turned into Bavarian grouchiness: “My dear first violins, please play this passage piano for me! Of course you can do it!” With Sawallisch, one always felt in good hands: In the Interest of Clarity is the title of the first book that he wrote about music, and technical as well as interpretive clarity characterized his way of making music. Exhibitionistic displays were abhorrent to him, for he still belonged to the generation of conductors who placed the music – and not themselves – at the centre of their consciousness and considered it their sole, as well as their most distinguished obligation. This sometimes earned Sawallisch the reputation of a dry-dust academic among a fraternity of critics who increasingly presumed that originality of interpretation was the ultimate sign of quality. In their estimation, he always brought predictable results to the table, particularly because he did not get involved in the interpretive changeover as symbolized by the original instrument movement and Urtext editions. But anyone who ever made music with him could feel his passionate, unfailing love for music, which always stood at the forefront of his efforts to fittingly express it, efforts that were always shaped by a great sense of responsibility.

When Wolfgang Sawallisch gave up his active musical career for health reasons in 2005, an era that has a special place in the orchestra’s history truly came to a close.

Ferdinand Löwe
to the conductors since 1900