Beautiful music does not drown out shameful history of the past

By Norman Lebrecht, March 15, 2013
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The longest-serving concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra spent his declining years in a house in Blackheath. During the Blitz he took out his Stradivarius and entertained his neighbours in the bomb shelter. None would have been aware that Arnold Rosé had been the premier violinist in Europe's finest orchestra for 56 years, brother-in-law and confidant to its most famous conductor, Gustav Mahler. In South London, that was a distant culture. In Vienna, it had been erased.

Rosé was kicked out of the Philharmonic 75 years ago this week as Hitler's forces marched into Vienna. He was spared the worst indignities of Nazi rule and escaped before the year was out, but his fellow-concertmaster Julius Stwertka died in the Terezin concentration camp in 1942 and Rosé's only daughter, Alma, was murdered in Auschwitz. News of her death, said the old concertmaster, "finished me off".

In 1946, Rosé was approached by the Vienna Philharmonic and invited to resume his seat. He refused, telling his son that there were 56 Nazis still playing in the orchestra, as opposed to just six in the Berlin Philharmonic. His son considered that an embittered exaggeration. This week, we learned that Rosé was precisely right.

A report by three Austrian historians into the VPO's activities in the Nazi era confirms much of what we already knew - that it and many of its musicians were willing instruments of a racist regime. The orchestra's official history, published by its present chairman Clemens Hellsberg 20 years ago, notes that 13 Jewish players were sacked under the Nazis and six murdered, and that the VPO once gave a concert in an SS barracks; a pleasant evening for mass murderers. It could not, you think, get worse than that.

The Vienna orchestra was infected with Nazism

But it just did. Setting out the facts dispassionately, the three historians find that the orchestra was infected with Nazism long before the Anschluss and well after the war. Almost half the orchestra, 60 players out of 123, were Nazis in 1942, an exceptional show of enthusiasm. Its most successful and enduring event - the New Year's Day Concert - was invented in 1939 as a propaganda show for the master race.

Worst of all, the VPO's cherished Ring of Honour was awarded as late as 1966 to a major war criminal, Baldur von Schirach, who as Gauleiter of Vienna presided over the ethnic cleansing of the city. Two decades after Hitler's death, the Vienna Philharmonic still wanted to be best friends with his henchman.

The orchestra, in a first response to these findings, blamed the Schirach award on a rogue member - Helmut Wobisch, principal trumpet from 1939 to 1945 and again from 1950 to 1968. Wobisch was an ardent blackshirt who joined the Nazi party in 1933 and the SS the following year. He was also an agent for the Gestapo.

After the war, he was one of 10 players suspended for denazification. He was readmitted in 1950 and, three years later, was elected to be the VPO's business director. Wobisch knew how to make himself agreeable. Leonard Bernstein, the American Jewish conductor, referred to him jovially as "my dearest Nazi". Georg Solti told Bernstein, in a letter shown to me this week: "I am aware of Wobisch's political past, as surely you were before you went to Vienna. However… despite everything he is probably one of the few trustworthy members of that orchestra."

Wobitsch's SS record was no secret. The idea that he could have honoured Schirach on the orchestra's behalf and without its knowledge is absurd. What the historians have exposed is a protracted cover-up by the Vienna Philharmonic of its involvement with the Nazis in power and its continued sympathy with them after defeat.

Why should this still matter? Because the New Year's Day Concert is the world's most-watched classical broadcast, seen by 50 million. It is high time that the glittering occasion was prefaced by a minute's silence for musicians sacked by the VPO and murdered by its Nazi allies.

More needs to be done to cleanse the orchestra of its past. The VPO remains a bastion of discrimination. In violation of European law, it admits few women players - six, at most, and bars Asians and Afro-Caribbeans. The appropriate remedy would be for Vienna to turn a new leaf and become an open, fair and egalitarian orchestra without damage or compromise to its singular sound. It is a viable remedy, but I don't expect to see it applied in my lifetime.

Norman Lebrecht is a music writer, author and cultural commentator

Last updated: 11:16am, March 15 2013