AMID WAR clouds over Europe in 1939, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra began playing its New Year’s Concert to break the gloom of a world hurtling into a world war. Performed on New Year’s Day, the concert has been played at Vienna’s Musikverein, home to the Philharmonic, which is acclaimed as one of the world’ top 10 orchestras. It was built mainly on the repertoire of the lively and nostalgic music (waltzes, marches, and polkas) of the Strauss family, Johann Strauss I and II.
The concert has so captured the hearts of millions of people all over the world, such that by 2013, it has become the most popular concert in most of the world. Last New Year’s Day, the concert was watched and broadcast through radio and TV to 81 countries—unfortunately, not including the Philippines, reputedly a country of music lovers. Among Filipino music lovers, who does not recognize the lilting tune of “Blue Danube Waltz,” or who does not clap to the rhythm of “Radetzky March” in unison with the orchestra?
Why we are not part of the international audience of the New Year’s Concert is due to the fact that our TV-radio networks have not considered it commercially profitable to wire ourselves to the circuit of followers of classical music. The only station in the Philippines that plays classical music is dzFE, but most networks are amplifiers of assorted noise passing for music.
According to the literature about the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert, the concerts began “during a dark period of Austria’s history,” and were “initially conceived for a local audience as a reminder of better times and a source of hope for the future.” In the 1930s, Hitler annexed Austria, a Germanic race, as part of his Third Reich. Prior to the annexation, Austria had been on a decline way past its glory days as the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a colossus that strode across Austria and Hungary over the River Danube that divided Western Europe and Eastern Europe. The Habsburg Monarchy, seated in Vienna, was the counterfoil of Christian Europe to the onslaught of the Ottoman Empire of the East and the Russian Empire. Indeed, Austrian historians have claimed that the repulsion of the Ottoman siege of Vienna in medieval times saved Christendom and Western Europe from the advance of the Ottoman Turks. Legend has it that a favorite gastronomic item in Western cuisine—the croissant—originated from the siege of Vienna. Austrian bakers created the croissant in the shape of the crescent—the standard symbol of the
Ottoman armies—to celebrate the defeat of the Turks’ siege.
The Strausses built a body of waltzes probably to remind the rest of Christendom that their waltzes echo the salvation of Western civilization from invaders with a different religious belief. According to other sources: “Today millions of people throughout the world are similarly encouraged by the light-hearted yet subtly profound character of this music, and draw joy for the year ahead.” Sad to say, we don’t have that kind of music from which to draw inspiration and joy.
For the past 10 years, I have been collecting CDs of the New Year’s Concerts, each year with a different conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. I was fortunate to watch its performance either at the Musikverein or the Vienna State Opera when I made a tour of Eastern Europe in 1968 during the Soviet-led invasion of Eastern Europe by the Warsaw Pact armies. In Manila, it is impossible to make a collection of these vintage musical pieces because they are unavailable here and we have been isolated from this cultural gift because of our own self-imposed wall. I also watched on TV these concerts, with all their sound and color, during my long exile in Australia.
The Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert 2013 was conducted for the second time by the Australian Franz Welser-Möst, general music director of the Vienna State Opera and musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra, also a highly rated international orchestra. He also conducted the 2011 New Year’s Day concert.
According to its program, the concert featured 11 compositions which had never before been played in a New Year’s Concert, including pieces by Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, both of whose bicentennials are being commemorated this year. The concert was broadcast to 81 countries around the world, double the number of countries which received the broadcast years ago.
The first New Year’s Concert, in 1939, was conducted by Clemens Krauss. The concerts have been held at the Large Hall of Musikverein, close to the Imperial Hotel. Each year, different world-famed conductors directed the Philharmonic. From Krauss, this succession of conductors followed: Josef Krips, Willi Boskovsky, Lorin Maazel, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Carlos Kleiber, Riccardo Muti, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Seiji Ozawa, Mariss Jansons, Georges Prêtre, and Daniel Barenboim. Although the repertoire is mainly works of the Strauss dynasty, it is immensely pleasurable to listen to the nuances and accents of various interpretations.
The program for the 2013 concert features: Josef Strauss, the Soubrette Polka; Johann Strauss Jr., Kiss Waltz; Josef Strauss, Theater Quadrille; Johann Strauss Jr., From the Mountains Waltz; Franz von Suppe, Overture to the Operetta “Light Cavalry”; Richard Wagner, Prelude to Act III of the opera “Lohengrin.”
Happy new year.