Vienna Philharmonic: Facing its Nazi Past But Struggling with Diversity

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Publicity photo)

Possibly no orchestra has prompted more hand-wringing and ambivalence than the Vienna Philharmonic. The 172-year-old orchestra is recognized the world over for a very specific sound that’s changed little over the decades, and a playing style that has been passed down from generation to generation.

But critics charge that it’s just that exclusive philosophy that may explain why there are few women and virtually no minorities in its ranks. Indeed, 16 years after the Philharmonic became one of the last big European orchestras to admit women, they are still an exotic sight onstage. Despite a blind audition policy, in which candidates are not visible when they play, the orchestra currently has just seven female members out of 130 total (four other women are serving a probationary period, standard for incoming members).

At the same time, the Vienna Philharmonic has shown progress by acknowledging its complicity during the Nazi era. After a team of historians looked into its World War II-era activities, the orchestra in December quietly revoked awards it gave to six Nazi leaders. Some observers wonder if this reckoning with the past may signal a broader policy of reform.

“I think it’s a question of an institution genuinely trying to evolve and how quickly you can evolve,” said James Oestreich, the retired classical music editor of the New York Times, who has been closely covering the orchestra. “I don’t think anyone is taking the position that there is nothing wrong with [its lack of diversity]. Of course there’s a problem.”

But Joshua Kosman, the classical music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, contends that the orchestra is not working hard enough to address its membership issues, in part because the classical music field mostly gives it a pass. “This has been an ongoing issue for a very long time and one that I’ve been surprised not to see any discussion of or any reckoning of it,” said Kosman. "It would be worth it if at least these matters were openly discussed."

In the 1990s, women’s groups, including the National Organization for Women, held protests outside of concert halls when the VPO toured the U.S. and music critics (including Oestreich and Kosman), have periodically challenged the orchestra on its policies.

Many orchestras, of course, besides Vienna have struggled with diversity issues of their own. As Oestreich notes, “you will not find a major American orchestra that has more than one, two or maybe three blacks. This has been going on for years and years and I don’t hear a lot of uproar about that.”

But Kosman says that is a concern rooted in the supply chain: historically, African-Americans haven't been encouraged to pursue careers in classical music as much as whites. “There’s not an analogous supply problem for minorities in European orchestras," he notes, "particularly for Asian musicians, as you can tell by comparing the roster of the Vienna Phil with any other comparable European orchestra."

Joel Bell, chairman of the Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, believes that change is a priority but it won’t happen overnight. “I find a struggling with the balance of speed of change to achieve what we would like to see as an end result, but without jeopardizing tradition and quality in the process,” he said. Bell believes the VPO should be judged not by the total number of women and minorities in the ensemble but by the percentage of women added since it opened its membership in 1997.

On Twitter, New York Magazine critic Justin Davidson observed in December that the VPO is “dodging the present by correcting the past” – comparing the Nazi-era revelations with the alleged lack of interest in diversification. Kosman hopes that the Philharmonic will take a harder look at itself. “I’m greatly hopeful that one self-examination is connected with many," he said. "One can only hope."

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Comments [25]

Saiful Rimkeit from San Jose, CA

RE: Shelby from Denver, Colorado

"Whenever I have had the ill-fortune to be in Austria/Germany I feel sick to my stomach and that translates to the VPO, even when I've heard it in NYC. I think it will take a few generations to wring out the affects of what it has done in complicity with the Nazis. That is just the way it goes. The laws of karma and all. You play, you pay."

Are you implying that American Karma is worry free and clean? Nazis in Europe only?? Better to read the oligarch American system and view how many Nazis lived in the U.S.
Who paid for the Russian revolution and its followup effects where 10s of millions died? Some of the money came from New York.
While the Vienna orchestra is still desiring to generate its own brand and unique style of music, ponder that the U.S. has massacred millions across the Planet from Vietnam to Afghanistan, the Maghreb and Iraq. Including the use of agent orange and nuclear waste munitions haunting the well being of the next generation. Then, think again about the karma the Vienna Philharmonic owes the World and itself for the immediate ancestors' misdeeds compared to what we are doing even as I type this.

Apr. 24 2015 05:16 AM
Saiful Rimkeit from San Jose, CA

How can you write "... and virtually no minorities in its ranks...." with a straight face.
That even sounds mildly and needlessly accusatory. The White folk on this Planet are, underscored, the minority. Even so, if you want to say that relative to Vienna's overall ethnic population, better to read the stats again. The Muslim kids are already outnumbering the Catholic kids in secondary schools with the primary schools soon fulfilling that takeover as well.

Apr. 24 2015 04:54 AM
Shelby from Denver, Colorado

Whenever I have had the ill-fortune to be in Austria/Germany I feel sick to my stomach and that translates to the VPO, even when I've heard it in NYC. I think it will take a few generations to wring out the affects of what it has done in complicity with the Nazis. That is just the way it goes. The laws of karma and all. You play, you pay.

Mar. 14 2014 09:25 PM
robin engelman

I don't spend much time thinking about the Vienna Philharmonic. I don't care if ther personnel is all male, all female, all white or all black, all Muslim, all Jew all Christian or any combination of the above. Most WW II Nazis are dead and if modern day Nazis exist in orchestras, it's thir issue, not mine. If an orchetra's socio-political ethos did offend me, there are plenty of great orchestras to satisfy my listening needs. All criticisms I hear come from the U.S.. We continue to carry the historically dibilitating White Man's Burden and beside all the countries in the middle and far east, once a year our politically correct cultualistas lay their burden on the Vienna Philharmonic, but never on the Israel Philharmonic. I am gratified by the existence of an almost)all male,(almost)all Austrian trained orchestra with its cultural traditions, rich history and I must assume Vienna has the orchestra it wants, perhaps needs. The last thing I want is the arts of the world to merge.

Mar. 06 2014 11:43 AM
william osborne from Germany

@ DuckDeadEye. There are several other documented instances of the exclusion of Asians from the orchestra or of members expressing the believe they should be excluded. The examples are much more recent. For details see:

The practice is also documented and discussed in an article published in 1992 by Roland Girtler, a sociologist at the University of Vienna. See:

"Mitgliedsaufnahme in den Noblen Bund der Wiener Philharmoniker Als Mannbarkeitsritual", Sociologia Internationalis, Beiheft 1 (1992).

From the mid 90s onward, the employment practices of the orchestra came under intense international scrutiny. Since then the members of the orchestra have been forbidden to speak to the press or others about the issue.

Historically, the visual criteria has not only been used to judge personality, but also race.

Mar. 03 2014 03:28 AM

@ william osborne -- Interesting quote from Herr Strasser (granted, it's from a 1970 source): "... the person, that one must not only hear, but also see, in order to judge him in his entire personality. [...]"

But not "her in her entire personality"? Plus, the visual and 'personality' are not mutually exclusive.


Mar. 03 2014 01:17 AM
Dave S. from NYC, NY

Complaints about "lack of diversity" are just another way of pushing discrimination against Whites.

This is completely inappropriate - especially in light of the culture of Classical music, which is profoundly European.

Mar. 02 2014 11:00 PM
william osborne from Germany

Mr. Kavesh - the Vienna Philharmonic holds its auditions in three rounds. The screen is removed for the third round. This is common for most orchestras. Unfortunately, the visual criteria is very undefined and can result in filtering out ethnic minorities.

In his memoirs, published in 1970, Otto Strasser, a former chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, described the problems he felt blind auditions caused:

“I hold it for incorrect that today the applicants play behind a screen; an arrangement that was brought in after the Second World War in order to assure objective judgments. I continuously fought against it, especially after I became Chairman of the Philharmonic, because I am convinced that to the artist also belongs the person, that one must not only hear, but also see, in order to judge him in his entire personality. [...] Even a grotesque situation that played itself out after my retirement, was not able to change the situation. An applicant qualified himself as the best, and as the screen was raised, there stood a Japanese before the stunned jury. He was, however, not engaged, because his face did not fit with the ‘Pizzicato-Polka’ of the New Year’s Concert.”

In reference to the comment below by NYMike, in June 2003, Yasuhito Sugiyama, a world-class tubist from the New Japan Philharmonic, was hired. From the outset, Sugiyama’s appointment was controversial. He did not pass his trial year at the Staatsoper and was fired. Soon afterwards, Mr. Sugiyama won the tuba audition for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

Mar. 02 2014 03:18 PM

Tuba player Yasuhito Sugiyama played in the VPO for three years before joining the Cleveland Orchestra. Evidently, the VPO didn't elect him to full membership.

Mar. 02 2014 01:35 PM
Richard Kavesh from Nyack, New York

Mr. Osborne - is the Vienna Philharmonic's audition process truly fair and unbiased? I remember reading that at all rounds prior to the final round, those auditioning were behind a screen so they couldn't be seen but that the screen was removed for the final round so that the decision makers (other members of the orchestra) could see who was in front of them. Is this true? How does the VPO conduct auditions these days?

Mar. 02 2014 06:58 AM
Bernie from UWS

I'm not sure why some people always revert to this strange argument that we should "just enjoy the music" and disregard institutional racism and sexism. If our local grocery store refused to hire blacks or women, would we still patronize it and shrug it off as, "just enjoy the groceries?" What about if the same prejudice occurred at your family doctor or your own workplace? Conscientious consumers make ethical judgments about where they spend their money all the time.

And to the commenter who compared the Vienna Phil to an all-male football team - that's ridiculous. Sports are gender-organized by nature. But anybody of any race or gender can play an instrument. There shouldn't be segregation in orchestras and when there is, it should be strongly condemned, end of story.

Mar. 01 2014 06:24 PM

How sad that we don't seem to move on from the prejudiced practice and pointing out others as prejudist. Our vocabulary is so tainted with the words, gay, black, white, women, asians, hispanics, etc, etc, that we cannot even enjoy life without making comparisons. Can we just learn to go see, listen and enjoy an orquestrat such as the /Vienna Philharmonic without tallying how mane these or that are in the orquestra? how boring, how ludicrous.

Mar. 01 2014 04:47 PM
John Borstlap from Amsterdam

It is disgusting to see the kind of 'Hetze' against an ensemble which is not allowed the freedom to choose the kind of membership they like. There are X number of orchestras in Europe where women / Asians / blacks can audition, and in Vienna alone there are many orchestras who would be all too pleased to hire minorities. There exist football clubs entirely for men, there are clubs for any subject under the sun who select their members on grounds that are irrational to outsiders. This type of critique - which merely serves to boost moral superiority feelings in its authors - is nothing more than totalitarian emotionalism disguised as politically correct social justice.

Mar. 01 2014 05:54 AM

Dear Mr. Lane,

Have you seen these guidelines? "Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief."

Give them a try.

I am not an echt heldentenor.

Mar. 01 2014 01:56 AM

Pleas capitalize "its" in your headline. It's a pronoun and deserves the same treatment as a noun. (How do WQXR writers not know this?)

Thank you,


Mar. 01 2014 01:24 AM
william osborne from Germany

About a quarter to a third of the students at Vienna’s University of Music are Asian, and have been for decades. And yet the Vienna Philharmonic has never in its history had a member who has an Asian family name. James Oestreich’s argument that the Czech Phil has also not had any Asian members seems like a calculated obfuscation. As he notes, the Czech Phil was behind the Iron Curtain for decades and since then has not offered salaries to draw international musicians. What he does not mention is that all major *Western* European orchestras offering competitive salaries have at least a few Asian players, and *especially* those in cities like Vienna where large numbers of Asians are trained.

It’s true, as Oestreich notes, that there are few Africian-Americans in US orchestras. The difference is that few apply for jobs, while the Vienna Philharmonic consciously excludes Asians because the orchestra feels such individuals would destroy the ensemble’s image of Austrian authenticity.

For documented information about the Vienna Philharmonic’s exclusion of Asians, see this article published by the M.I.T. Press:

From an ethical perspective, Joel Bell and the Chumir Foundation for Ethics should discuss in detail the orchestra’s current hiring practices. I suspect that outside of some face saving lip service concerning current hiring practices, the thoughts in the coming event will focus on a safely distant past. A discussion addressing “ethics” will ironically be more about public relations than truth.

There are several articles on my website about the Vienna Philharmonic’s hiring practices. You can find a couple of the more relevant and recent updates at these two URLs:

Feb. 28 2014 02:48 PM
william osborne from Germany

Joshua Kosman and Justin Davis are correct in their view that the Vienna Philharmonic is far more willing to talk about the Nazi era than the orchestra’s current hiring practices. The Nazi era is far enough in the past that the orchestra’s members can claim they weren’t responsible for what happened. The current lack of women and ethnic minorities is something for which they are responsible and thus reluctant to discuss.

The Vienna Philharmonic agreed to hire women in 1997, but for the first ten years (under the leadership of Chairman Clemens Hellsberg) they did not hire any outside of two harpists. (The orchestra has always used women harpists in an associate status since male harpists are rare.) The orchestra only began to hire women outside of harpists in 2007, and since then its rate of hiring women has been well below international norms.

In the 17 years since agreeing to admit women, the Vienna Phil has replaced well over half of its members, and yet there are only 7 women out of 130 positions. The m/f hiring ratios have been about 10 to 1, far below the international norm of 3 to 1.

It is thus notable that Joel Bell, chairman of the Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, has set up a series of discussions which *only* address the Nazi past and not current hiring practices. It is to be strongly assumed that if he had, the Vienna Philharmonic would not have agreed to participate.

Feb. 28 2014 02:46 PM

I don’t understand why anyone would be surprised that an institution that has a tenure system would be slow to change (unless those people didn’t apply any brain power…). The whole reason for tenure is to insure consistency over the long term. What is the length of the average career of a member of the Vienna Philharmonic?
Let’s call a duck a duck. Asians and Jews aren’t minorities when it comes to classical music. Think of your typical conservatory student these days. Did you think of an Asian girl? (If you didn’t maybe you should visit a conservatory.) So why isn’t anyone applauding the Vienna Phil’s promotion of a minority group (white, non-jewish males) in classical music…? Oops, I lumped a diverse group of humans together based on what they look like and their sex. I should remember that not all white men are the same….
Let’s assume the members of the Vienna Phil are a bunch of misogynistic racists. If the Vienna Phil gets governmental money, the citizens of Austria have a right to complain. The rest of us have no right. We can dislike it, we can boycott, but we have no right to tell them to stop. Are they still one of the best orchestras in the world? Is Wagner’s music terrible just because he was an anti-Semite? Have you ever used something or admired something invented by someone whose views you disagree with, a VW Beetle, perhaps, or jet plane?

Feb. 28 2014 12:52 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

I agree with David Hodes from Dobbs Ferry. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra maintains high standards and I don't think it is deliberately "excluding" anyone. Their performance of the Bruckner 6th Symphony on Wednesday evening was extraordinary. WQXR is just looking to create another conflict over nothing.

Feb. 28 2014 10:33 AM
Manny Jakel from NYC

Whether it's a lack of women on the VP or the lack of Jewish musicians, it is still the same with them, institutional racism, Wagnerian superiority, and the overall feeling that they do it the best of all.
These are the same persons or the sons of the fathers who were applauded by all of those living the lowest form life, of yesteryear wearing the swasitka on the jackets, shirts and hats, (SIG HEIL) and who were proud to be in the NAZI PARTY.


Feb. 28 2014 10:29 AM
Susan Elliott

Next time, talk to a few women in the business about the situation. They might just be in a better position to talk about it.

Feb. 28 2014 09:29 AM
David Hodes from Dobbs Ferry, NYT

If Julia Fischer auditioned for the Vienna string section and was turned down, you might have a reason to cry, with the rest of the crowd, "sexism." Since you don't know how many women or minorities (last time I was in Vienna I saw no blacks or Asians) applied to the orchestra, you are in no position to criticize. What's more important to you, music or "diversity." If the latter, please explain why.

Feb. 28 2014 01:29 AM
Frank from LES

It's obscene that an arts institution should have such a shoddy record of hiring women and minorities in 2014. There's no excuse for having 5 percent of your workforce being female. In this country they'd be sued out of existence. I know Austria has different workplace rules than the US but that's no excuse. I was going to hear the Vienna State Opera this weekend but now I'm making other plans for the evening. I refuse to support institutional discrimination.

Feb. 27 2014 07:42 PM
Eugene P Wolkow from Brooklyn

What is the ratio of blacks to Neonazis in Vienna? Perhaps that question would answer the question of its lack of diversity. But when it comes to women, I think of the phrase "Kinder, Kuche und Kirche". Use that as a factor times the ratio of women to men times the ratio of Neonazis to men in Vienna and you probably could explain why the orchestra has so few women. Do discussions as these make WQXR as stupid as WNYC? I think so!

Feb. 27 2014 05:10 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

I have lived in Wien, Vienna, across from the Theater an der Wien [the original venue of the world premieres of Mozart's DIE ZAUBERFLOETE and Beethoven's FIDELIO] and at the Hotel Reither a few blocks from the West Bahnhof, Vienna's major railroad station. I did my food shopping at the Farmers Market which like those in Barcelona and Sofia [Bulgaria] is both good and inexpensive. Some of my voice teachers were major opera stars who happened to be Jewish: Friedrich Schorr, Alexander Kipnis and Margarete Matzenauer and the symphony conductor, born in Vienna, Siegfried Landau [who founded the Brooklyn Philharmonic]. They in all the years that I studied with them never mentioned that there was any anti-semitic action against them. That might logically have been because they were so famous and accomplished in their art I LOVE WIEN, but I love New York more. I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor. I will sing the four song cycles that are most often performed in their orchestral garb:the complete Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," the complete Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," the tenor's music in Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" and Waldemar's music in Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder" at the New Life Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC on Saturday March 22nd at 6 PM in the Gold Room on the second floor. I have sung four three-hour-long solo concerts, the last two ALL-WAGNER concerts, in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall including programming the Wagner and the first named Mahler song cycle. One may hear my singing LIVE from the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium of CARNEGIE HALL, from my four three-hour-long solo concerts by downloading, FREE, 37 out of the nearly 100 selections that I have sung there by going to RECORDED SELECTIONS on my websites, and Roles represented from live performances are Otello, Siegfried, Goetterdaemmerung Siegfried, Florestan, Tristan, Parsifal, Siegmund, Walther von Stolzing, Rienzi, Lohengrin,Orfeo, Federico and, in oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus.

Feb. 27 2014 03:04 PM

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