The dark beginnings of the famous New Years concert in Vienna

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A Happy smile lit up the face of every listener, provoked by the musical excitement of the wonderful rhythms of the waltz ”. Critic’s comments refer to a “special concert” hosted by the Vienna Philharmonic in the city’s famous Golden Hall Musikverein the morning of December 31, 1939, a Sunday. Billed as a ‘New Year’s concert’, the event moved to January 1 in 1941, spawning an uninterrupted series of over 80 New Year’s concerts in Vienna which continues to this day.

The date of this first concert in 1939, the only one not to take place on New Year’s Day, is significant. Just four months earlier, World War II had broken out, so the intention was to boost the morale of the German-speaking nations by broadcasting the Vienna concert on the radio. The proceeds from the sale of tickets would also be donated to a “Kriegswinterhilfswerk” (“winter war aid program”) launched by the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler.

And what better way to cheer up than the sparkling, infectious beat music of Johann Strauss II, the “waltz king” of 19th century Vienna? It seems like an obvious choice now, but it wasn’t seen that way back then. Large sections of the orchestra disliked playing Strauss family music, seeing it as light and frivolous when it was alongside Beethoven, Brahms or Bruckner.

In fact, the ten elements of the 1939 concert – about half the duration of today’s glitzy and well-heeled successor – were by Johann Strauss Jr, and included pieces as well known as the Imperial waltz, Pizzicato-Polka and Tales from the Vienna Woods. Equally interesting, however, are the pieces not performed on this December morning, which have since become a staple of the Viennese New Year’s experience.

There was not Blue Danube Waltz, for example – which was first performed in the 1945 concert. Mars Radetzky included – these days it’s invariably a crowd-pleasing reminder, politely applauded. In 1939, the planned concert ended with the opening of Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus – “brilliantly played”, as one newspaper noted.

The conductor of this brilliant performance was Austrian Clemens Krauss, and insight into how the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra sounded under his baton can be gleaned from his superbly athletic recordings of the music of Johann Strauss. Yet the annual event soon became more closely linked to the Nazis, most notably with music lover Baldur von Schirach, the Vienna Gauleiter of 1940. In 1942, during the centenary celebrations of the Vienna Philharmonic, Schirach received his ring of honor – later restored to him in 1966, although he was convicted of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials, including the deportation of 65,000 Jews to concentration camps.

The murky tangle between the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Nazi authorities – many of its actors were party members – are now recognized on the orchestra’s website. An article published there examines his prewar purge of Jewish musicians, while another notes how the New Year’s concerts initiated by Krauss were quickly co-opted as part of “the entertainment propaganda strategy of the Nazi regime “.

After the war, Krauss himself, although not a member of the Nazi Party, was banned from conducting until he was finally denazified by Allied authorities in 1947. He conducted seven other New Years concerts. Year before his death in 1954, when Willi Boskovsky (the longtime Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra principal violin) took over.

Since Boskovsky resigned in 1979, 15 different leaders – Herbert von Karajan, Riccardo Muti and Carlos Kleiber among them – stepped on the New Year’s podium, with up to 50 million viewers in 90 countries watching television. The very first Neujahrskonzert the audience of 1939, though “vigorously applauding” and smiling, surely never could have imagined that.

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