28 March 1842

The first concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is given.

The Vienna Philharmonic, founded in 1842, is an orchestra considered to be one of the finest in the world.

The Vienna Philharmonic is based at the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria. Its members are selected from the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. Selection involves a lengthy process, with each musician demonstrating his or her capability for a minimum of three years’ performance for the opera and ballet. After this probationary period, the musician may request an application for a position in the orchestra from the Vienna Philharmonic’s board.

Until the 1830s, orchestral performance in Vienna was done by ad hoc orchestras, consisting of professional and amateur musicians brought together for specific performances. In 1833, Franz Lachner formed the forerunner of the Vienna Philharmonic, the Künstlerverein – an orchestra of professional musicians from the Vienna Court Opera; it gave four concerts, each including a Beethoven symphony. The Vienna Philharmonic itself arose nine years later, in 1842, hatched by a group who met regularly at the inn ‘Zum Amor’, including the poet Nikolaus Lenau, newspaper editor August Schmidt, critic Alfred Becker, violinist Karlz Holz, Count Laurecin, and composer Otto Nicolai who was also the principal conductor of a standing orchestra at a Viennese theater. Mosco Carner wrote in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians that “Nicolai was the least enthusiastic about the idea, and had to be persuaded by the others; he conducted the first concert on 28 March 1842.” The orchestra was fully independent, consisted of members of the Hofoper orchestra, and made all of its decisions by a democratic vote of its members; it had its day-to-day management handled by a democratically elected body, the administrative committee.

Nicolai and the orchestra gave only 11 concerts in the ensuing five years, and when Nicolai left Vienna in 1847, the orchestra nearly folded. Between 1854 and 1857, Karl Eckert – the first permanent conductor of the Vienna Court Opera– led the Vienna Philharmonic in a few concerts. In 1857, Eckert was made Director of the Hofoper – the first musician to have been given the post; in 1860, he conducted four subscription concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic. Since that time, writes Vienna Philharmonic violinist and president Clemens Hellsberg, “the ‘Philharmonic Concerts’ have been staged without interruption.”

In 1860, the orchestra elected Otto Dessoff to be the permanent conductor. According to Max Kalbeck, the Vienna-based music critic, newspaper editor, and biographer, the fame and excellence of the Vienna Philharmonic resulted from Dessoff’s “energy and sense of purpose.” Clemens Hellsberg gives specifics, writing that during the Dessoff years, the Vienna Philharmonic’s “repertoire was consistently enlarged, important organizational principles were introduced and the orchestra moved to its third new home, the newly built Goldener Saal in the Musikverein building in Vienna, which has proved to be the ideal venue, with its acoustical characteristics influencing the orchestra’s style and sound.” After fifteen years, in 1875, Dessoff was “pushed out of his position in Vienna through intrigue”, and he left Vienna to become conductor of the Badische Staatskapelle in Karlsruhe, Germany. In Karlsruhe the next year, he fulfilled the request of his friend Johannes Brahms to conduct the first performance of his Symphony no. 1 in 1873, Brahms had conducted the premiere of his Variations on a Theme by Haydn with Dessoff’s Vienna Philharmonic.

In 1875, the orchestra chose Hans Richter to take Dessoff’s place as subscription conductor. He remained until 1898, except for the season 1882/1883, when he was in dispute with the orchestral committee. Richter led the VPO in the world premieres of Brahms’s Second Symphony, Tragic Overture, and Symphony no. 3, the Violin Concerto of Tchaikovsky, and in 1892 the 8th symphony of Anton Bruckner. It was Richter who in 1881 appointed Arnold Rosé as concertmaster, who was to become Gustav Mahler’s brother-in-law and was concertmaster until the Anschluss in 1938. In order to be eligible for a pension, Richter intended to remain in his position for 25 years, and he might have done so, given that the orchestra unanimously re-elected him in May 1898. But he resigned on 22 September, citing health reasons, although biographer Christopher Fifield argues that the real reasons were that he wanted to tour, and that “he was uneasy as claques in the audience formed in favour of Gustav Mahler”. Richter recommended Mahler or Ferdinand Löwe to the orchestra as his replacement.

In 1898, on 24 September, the orchestra elected Gustav Mahler. On 30 May 1899, pro-Mahler and pro-Richter factions had a “heated committee meeting”; matters were finally resolved in August when Richter wrote to his supporters “gently refusing their offer”. Under Mahler’s baton, the Vienna Philharmonic played abroad for the first time at the 1900 Paris World Exposition. While Mahler had strong supporters in the orchestra, he faced dissension from other orchestral members, criticism of his re-touchings of Beethoven, and arguments with the orchestra and over new policies he imposed; ultimately, “his working relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic continued to be fueled by resentment and broke down completely in November 1900”. He resigned on 1 April 1901, citing health concerns as a pretext,  like Richter, but continuing to conduct actively elsewhere.

In 1901, Joseph Hellmesberger, Jr. briefly took his place; he remained only until 1903.

Vienna Philharmonic at the rehearsal, Felix Weingartner is conducting. Engraving by Ferdinand Schmutzer
In 1908, after an interval with no official subscription conductor, the orchestra elected Felix Weingartner to the post; he was to remain in it until 1927, and conducted at least 432 concerts with them in total, including the VPO’s first tour of South America in 1922. Weingartner’s interpretive stance was opposite to Mahler’s; but like Mahler, he considered himself primarily a composer, and between 1910 and 1923 led the orchestra in at least one piece of his own music per season. He was most renowned for his Beethoven – he programmed at least two symphonies per season, and complete cycles in 1916/17 and 1926/27. It was Weingartner who led the orchestra’s first concert devoted to entirely to the music of Johann Strauss, Jr., on 25 October 1925.
In 1927, when Weingartner resigned, the orchestra elected Wilhelm Furtwängler. He resigned at the end of the 1929/30 season because of increased professional demands in Berlin.

In 1930, the orchestra chose Clemens Krauss for the position. At the Salzburg Festival in the summers of 1929–33 he led the orchestra in an annual Strauss waltz concert, the forerunners of the New Year’s Day concerts he was later to institute. Krauss left in 1933 to become director of the Berlin State Opera.

1933 through 1945
Since 1933, the orchestra has had no single subscription conductor, but according to New Grove, “between 1933 and 1938, Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler shared the Philharmonic concerts between them, and during the Nazi period Furtwängler was the permanent conductor”; by contrast, the Vienna Philharmonic’s website history says, “Furtwängler was in actuality the main conductor of the orchestra from 1933 to 1945, and again from 1947 to 1954.” In support of New Grove ‘s assertion of Walter’s role, it might be noted that he made Vienna his home from 1933 until 1938, was Artistic Director of the Vienna State Opera from 1936 until 1938, and conducted the Vienna Philharmonic frequently, making a number of major recordings with the orchestra and taking the orchestra on tour to England and France in 1935. In support of the VPO website, Otto Strasser said, Furtwängler “influenced us so much that we became the true ‘Furtwängler orchestra’.”

Other conductors who worked with the orchestra in the mid-1930s before the Anschluss included Arturo Toscanini, Weingartner, Hans Knappertsbusch, Otto Klemperer, Adrian Boult, Victor de Sabata and George Szell. Walter conducted the last concert before the Anschluss, on 20 February 1938, featuring the world premiere of Egon Wellesz’s Prosperos Beschwörungen and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4.

After the Anschluss and during World War II the roster included Furtwängler, Krauss, Knappertsbusch, Willem Mengelberg, and Karl Böhm. The orchestra’s history during this period has been a topic of ongoing discussion and research, including a large amount commissioned by the orchestra.

Post-World War II era to present
In 1946, when these conductors were undergoing denazification – successfully in the case of Furtwängler, unsuccessfully in the case of Mengelberg – the orchestra was led primarily by conductors untainted by Nazi association, including Josef Krips, Erich Leinsdorf, Volkmar Andreae, Paul Paray, and Charles Munch. An exception was Herbert von Karajan, who made his debut with the orchestra with two concerts in January, but was unable to conduct a third scheduled concert when occupying authorities required him to undergo denazification. After clearance, he resumed conducting in late 1947 and developed a significant association with the orchestra.

In 1947, Bruno Walter reunited with the orchestra as conductor when it appeared at the first Edinburgh Festival. They performed a single work, Mahler’s song cycle Das Lied von der Erde.

In the postwar era, dozens of the world’s best-known conductors have led the orchestra. Among them were not only Walter, Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Krauss, Szell, Klemperer, and Krips, but also John Barbirolli, Carlo Maria Giulini, Erich Kleiber, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Lorin Maazel, Mariss Jansons, Daniel Barenboim, Valery Gergiev and Franz Welser-Möst. The orchestra made their first US tour in 1956 under the batons of Carl Schuricht and André Cluytens. Three conductors were given honorific titles by the orchestra in the later 20th century: Karajan and Karl Böhm, who were made Honorary Conductors, and Leonard Bernstein, who was made an Honorary Member of the orchestra. Pierre Boulez, who has conducted the orchestra often, was made an Honorary Member in 2007. Another significant relationship was with the famously reclusive conductor Carlos Kleiber, who appeared with the orchestra first in 1974 and last in 1994, his longest association with any ensemble, even if it included only 30 appearances; Clemens Hellsberg wrote of the “contrast between those dry numbers and the defining experience which each encounter with this brilliant interpreter represented.” Finally, István Kertész’ gramophone recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic during the 1960s and the 1970s represent a highlight in the orchestra’s history.

On 7 May 2000, the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the site of the concentration camp at Mauthausen, Austria, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of its liberation. Simon Rattle conducted, and soloists were Ruth Ziesak, Angelika Kirchschlager, Vinson Cole, and Thomas Quasthoff; all artists and the orchestra performed without fee and without applause at the end. The symphony was preceded by recitation of the Kaddish, the prayer of mourning, by Paul Chaim Eisenberg, the Chief Rabbi of Austria, and the funeral prayer El male rachamim sung by Shmuel Barzilai, the chief cantor of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien, accompanied by members of the orchestra and the Wiener Singverein; the orchestral arrangement was by Erich Schagerl, a violinist in the orchestra.

In 2005 the orchestra was named Goodwill Ambassador of the World Health Organisation. In 2013, Clemens Hellsberg received the Marietta and Friedrich Torberg Medal from the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien.

Each New Year’s Day since 1 January 1941, the VPO has sponsored the Vienna New Year’s Concerts, dedicated to the music of the Strauss family composers, and particularly that of Johann Strauss II; the first such concert was given on 31 December 1939 by Clemens Krauss, and led subsequent concerts on New Year’s Day from 1941 until 1945. The postwar series of concerts was inaugurated in 1946 by Josef Krips. They were led by Krauss, then by concertmaster Willi Boskovsky from 1955–1979, and since 1980 have been led by a variety of leading conductors invited by the orchestra.