Monthly Archives: March 2013

Purity and the Vienna Philharmonic

The Vienna Philharmonic in all its white male glory

The Internet has been abuzz this week with debate about gay marriage in the United States.  The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the constitutionality or otherwise of California’s ban on same sex marriage, Proposition 8.  Meanwhile, the similarly-themed Defence of Marriage Act, which denies married gay couples federal benefits, will be undergoing similar scrutiny. For what it’s worth, we at Lelio hope the Supreme Court sees sense and rules against discrimination and in favour of equality.

In Britain, much the same debate has taken place in recent months, with MPs finally voting overwhelmingly in favour of gay marriage in February.  But what has fascinated me about the debate on both sides of the pond is how few of those opposed to gay marriage have been willing to come out (as it were) as actively anti-gay.  This is understandable, perhaps, as actual bigotry is not a quality easily tolerated in today’s more enlightened society.

Instead, the conversation has been turned on its head in both countries.  It is not a question of discriminating against gay people, you see, but one of “protecting a sacred tradition” – a tradition which happens to only be open to straight people.  Those who hold this particular tradition dear see themselves as the ones under attack, by forces who wish to disrupt and transmute their centuries-old certainties.  Thus the law under discussion in the US is not called the Ban on Giving Equal Rights to Homosexuals Act, but rather the more caring and concerned-sounding Defence of Marriage Act.

The Economist has a good article on why this sort of logic is loopy.  It is an indefensible (and ultimately untenable) position to argue that discrimination should be enshrined in law in order to protect the rights of those for whom discrimination is a way of life.  And this brings me to the real subject of this post.

The Vienna Philharmonic – one of the world’s great orchestras – has for years maintained a shoddy record on equality.  Attending one of their concerts reveals an orchestra that is not only very, very male but also one which is very, very white.  Only seven of its 129 members are women (5%), and the only non-white musicians are two half-Japanese violinists.

Natürlich, the orchestra no longer has any official policy preventing women or non-white players from joining, but it has instead relied on its white male gene pool to self-select other white men and eliminate outsiders.  Like most top orchestras, the VPO has a ‘blind auditioning’ process, during which an applicant plays behind a screen so as to focus the judges’ attention solely on the quality of playing.  Unlike other orchestras, however, the screen is lifted for the third and final audition.  It is at this stage that the white men doing the judging decide whether the player will be a good ‘fit’ for the group, and naturally – perhaps even understandably – find themselves favouring other white men.

For the VPO, this process is crucial to maintaining the orchestra’s secret ingredient: its “soul”.  In 1996, a year before the ban on women was lifted, principal flautist Dieter Flury expressed his concerns that women would upset the “emotional coherence” of the group.  During the same radio interview, violinist Helmut Zehetner said:

“The way we make music here is not only a technical ability, but also something that has a lot to do with the soul. The soul does not let itself be separated from the cultural roots that we have here in central Europe.  And it also doesn’t allow itself to be separated from gender.”

In other words, it’s not that the VPO’s members are against women or non-white players.  They are merely the humble defenders of a great institution which, they fear, will be ruined if too many non-white, non-male members are allowed in.

Of course, that was back in 1996.  But this kind of thinking is still pervasive in 2013.  Although the orchestra now numbers a woman amongst its four concertmasters – a big step in the right direction – chairman Clemens Hellsberg remains adamant that “you cannot put quotas on art.”  In a recent radio interview he brushed aside the orchestra’s woeful record on equality by saying that “what matters is the performance, and we would be crazy if we did not take the best [players] we can get.”  Given the approximate 15-to-1 hiring ratio of men versus women since 1997, it can only be assumed that the best players are mostly male.  And given the unshakeable racial uniformity, mostly white too.

The reason this exceptionalism is so troubling is that the VPO is an organisation desperately trying to close the book on another, much darker chapter of its history.  Earlier this month, historians revealed that almost half the orchestra’s members had been Nazi Party members during World War II.  Thirteen Jews were cast out during the War, five of whom perished in Nazi death camps.  Most astonishingly, Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s managing director from 1954 all the way through to 1968, was revealed to have been a member of the Waffen SS, a Gestapo agent, and a “convinced hardcore Nazi”.  This was a man who, in 1966, saw fit to present a replica of the orchestra’s ring of honour to the former head of the Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach.  These National Socialist tendencies are not, one imagines, the sorts of traditions the VPO wants to uphold.  Yet the orchestras’s ongoing attempts to maintain “purity” sound extremely worrying when placed in this context, particularly given the clear racial bias amongst its members.

If this orchestra truly wants to put its past behind it, then it must fully embrace the notion that one group of people is not inferior to another on account of ethnicity or gender.  If Dr Hellsberg is serious that the only thing that truly matters “is the performance”, then it is time to start holding completely blind auditions and selecting musicians purely on the basis of their playing.  Until that day, the charge of bigotry will continue to haunt this superb group of musicians, and detract from its otherwise well deserved reputation.