home | news | roster | MadAminA! | about maa | contact maa      

Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien:
A Chronology

Vienna, 1945. The air attacks have become more frequent. Prudence has dictated removal of the archives, library, and collections from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien, the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna. Far from suffering a decrease in concert activities, the management reports unprecedented bookings and sold out, albeit unheated, houses. Then, a few days before war's end, the Musikverein (music association) building takes a hit and is damaged. But as early as July 3, barely a month after cessation of hostilities and before most of Europe can adequately contemplate its ruins, a Lieder evening is scheduled in the Brahms-Saal and on September 16 in the GrosserSaal, the Vienna Philharmonic under Josef Krips presents a festival, a kind of consecration/ reopening in honor of the reconstruction of the Musikverein.

Nothing could be more in keeping with the role that music has always played, consciously and unconsciously, in the soul of this city. Nothing in Vienna has more Selbstverständlichkeit (inevitability) than music, and its people are near — unanimous in their wish to assign a very high priority to this form of human expression. At the very core of this yearning for music-this insistence that the musical culture of a people can transcend all that is base and shoddy and elevate a nation to a lofty summit of civilization — is the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien. Not only is the Society far older than its building but, being composed of passionately enthusiastic men and women, it is indestructible so long as it is fueled by the dedication of its members.

Although the official establishment of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde was celebrated with a concert only as "recently" as November 29, 1812, the earliest mention of such a society goes back to August, 1785 when a notice appeared in the Wiener Zeitung: "A society of esteemed musical amateurs and professionals has for several weeks been entertaining the public here on Monday mornings, weather permitting, in the Belvedere Garden..." It was clear that a group of volunteers was assembling on a regular basis to form a community whose common denominator, it appeared, was the love of participating in the musical experience, either as performer or listener or both. There was no standing orchestra in Vienna at that time, all orchestral events being of an ad hoc, freelance nature (unless a theatre orchestra was engaged on an off night to play a program of straight orchestral music). And there also were no impresarios or presenters as yet, most orchestral dates being produced (and paid for) by composers or performers who hoped to make their mark with the public.

Although the Belvedere Garden concerts were short-lived, one continued to hear intermittently about a society of amateur and professional musicians which was organizing this subscription series or that single concert (such as the performance on March 27, 1808 at which the venerable Joseph Haydn ventured forth for his final public appearance to hear the premiere of his oratorio The Creation conducted by Antonio Salieri). But it was only on April 12, 1812, after a series of financial debacles, that a benefit concert had such a resounding success that a "Society of Noble Women for the Furtherance of the Good and the Useful" undertook the task of presenting a second concert which would give the impetus of putting the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde on a permanent footing. On November 29 and December 3, in the Royal Winter Riding School, a chorus of 280 and orchestra of 299 presented Handel's Alexander's Feast or The Power of Music, a setting of the Dryden text translated into German and presented as "Timotheus oder Die Gewalt der Musik. " Most of the winds and contrabasses were professionals; all the rest were "dilettantes," a word which had no pejorative connotation whatsoever at the time, meaning merely that they did not earn their living by making music.

The Gesellschaft had become an institution. Its three main functions were to present concerts, to establish a conservatory, and to assemble a collection for the documentation of music and musical life. By January 1813 a listing of 507 charter members was published and thereafter the fledgling organization's scrolls grew by leaps and bounds. The nucleus of the conservatory was a singing school founded by Salieri, who organized its first concert subscription series.

Ludwig van Beethoven offered "to produce a large work for the Gesellschaft." The most that ever came of it was his decision to write an oratorio (Der Sieg des Kreuzes Christi) for which he collected an advance of 400 Gulden, but which he never delivered. It was not to be the only mutual disappointment. Hoping to have the Gesellschaft underwrite the premieres of his Ninth Symphony and Missa solemnis, Beethoven noted the Society's regrets on the grounds that a second performance — proceeds from the first were to go to the composer — was likely to incur a deficit. He nevertheless became (1826) the Gesellschaft's first composer to be named as an honorary member. Upon his death the following year, a memorial concert was given by the Society at which Cherubini's C minor Requiem was performed, and the Society acquired some of the master's manuscripts at an auction (without deducting the advance for the undelivered composition, a recent Gesellschaft chronology whimsically states!).

Meanwhile, another of the Society's regulars was drawing a small but loyal band of admirers. Franz Schubert's Erlkönig appeared in one of the "musical evening entertainments" as early as January 25, By 1826, we learn that he was dedicating his Great C Major Symphony to the Gesellschaft, for which gesture he received a gift of 100 Gulden from the dedicatee. However, when the conservatory students ran through the work, the general consensus had it that it was too long and too hard. In 1827, Schubert was elected as a member of the Society's house of delegates, and the concert hall was made available to him for the presentation (on March 26) of an all-Schubert program. In November, he was dead at the age of 31 and the Gesellschaft organized (December 23 in the Augustine Church) another of its incessant memorial tributes. Among the mourners in attendance was a celebrated and devoted member, the poet and playwright Franz Grillparzer.

In 1831, the Society's own 700-seat concert hall was opened. It was the very first auditorium in Vienna expressly built for music-making, previous venues being either theatres or multi-purpose halls. Amid political unrest and a sudden and massive attrition of members, the Gesellschaft fell upon hard times in the '40s. Subscription concerts had to be cancelled and for a time instruction at the conservatory curtailed.

It was in the middle of the century, with all its upheavals and sociological turmoil, that new social strata and classifications began to evolve. In music, virtuosos set new standards for instrumental excellence, commissioning composers to write music that would display their technical facility, in turn resulting in the creation of a new and more complicated music, not as accessible to performance by laymen. Words like "amateur" and "dilettante" began to take on a tainted meaning. The age of specialization had arrived. The Gesellschaft, too, reflected these changes, converting itself from a corps of participating performers into a larger community of discerning listeners, a highly gifted audience for Europe's emerging music professionals. By the mid-'50s, the public demanded more than simply local talent, obtaining the finest musical luminaries, especially in the vocal arts and chamber music, that Europe had to offer. In thus revamping its self-image, the Society could once again represent itself as the voice of Austrian music. From then to the present day, it took on the function not only of musical standard setter but also of a community — a highly cultivated and politically powerful one — within a community. People of means (such as the Beethoven student, pianist, composer, and pedagogue Carl Czerny) bequeathed significant parts of their fortunes to the Gesellschaft.

The reorganization begun in 1851 was achieving remarkable results. In the orchestral sector alone, three ensembles became regular constituents of the Society — its own orchestra, the Philharmonic, and an excellent body of volunteer players — while the choral sector, too, boasted both a professional and an amateur chorus. The public up to this point had been most eager for the new and newest in musical composition. Now it began to clamor also for the monuments, the great works of the past which were to become the staple of the repertory. The 50th anniversary (1862) was marked by a performance (attended by the royal family, many dignitaries, but also by many young people including the young Johannes Brahms, recently arrived in Vienna) of Handel's Messiah. The Society's top guns took advantage of the jubilee's fervor by promoting plans for a new and larger building to house three auditoria and administrative offices. In 1865, concert director Johann Herbeck conducted the world premiere of Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony; the following year, he presented the first three (and only existing) movements of Brahms's German Requiem; and 1868 was given special impetus by Anton Bruckner's move from Linz to Vienna in order to take up his new duties as a professor at the Gesellschaft's conservatory.

Emperor Franz Joseph l presided over the official opening (January 1870) of the new building with its Great Hall, the Kleiner Musikvereinsaal (today called Brahms Hall), and Chamber Music Hall. For the 1872/73 season, Johannes Brahms was appointed concert director, a post he had to relinquish in 1875 owing to the heavy demands on his time. A new student, Gustav Mahler, entered the conservatory on a partial scholarship that year, where he met another music student, Hugo Wolf. Whereas the performance of the second version of Anton Bruckner's Second Symphony had been a great hit (1876), the world premiere at the Gesellschaftskonzert of December 16, 1877 of his Third Symphony was a crushing disappointment for the composer, with swarms of listeners walking out during the Finale and only about 25 people remaining through to the end. Even failures, however, were an indispensable ingredient to the cultural ferment of the era. In 1884, Hans Richter took over as concert director, the only person ever to occupy that post simultaneously with his music directorship of the Vienna Philharmonic. The possible appointment of Mahler to be the new concert director was discussed (1895) but came to naught. Two honorary members to remember the Society handsomely in their testaments were Brahms (d. 1897) and Johann Strauss (d. 1899).

The expenses of running the conservatory privately were becoming an increasing burden. In 1909, the conservatory was turned over to the State, thus eliminating one of the original mandates undertaken by the Society. The Great Hall and public areas of the building were remodeled in 1911 and, after a five-month hiatus, reopened with an all-Beethoven concert featuring the Violin Concerto (performed by Adolf Busch) and the Ninth Symphony. When the Conservatory — with all its practice rooms and cavernous spaces — vacated the premises, considerable square footage was freed and converted to office space, housing (to this day) the publisher Universal Edition, the piano manufacturer Bösendorfer, administrative offices for the Vienna Philharmonic and other performing organizations, as well as the box office.

Life during World War I was difficult. Still more trying were post-war conditions with the end of the monarchy, the terrifying inflation and social unrest. But musical life at the Gesellschaft went on at an increased pace, so much so that the position of a second concert director had to be established. One of these posts went (1921) to Wilhelm Furtwängler. In addition to the subscription and festival concerts, a special events program was launched under whose auspices celebrations were organized in honor of Schubert (1922), Reger (1924), Richard Strauss (1924), Johann Strauss (1925), Beethoven (1927), Schubert again (1928), Brahms (1933), and Bruckner (1938). And, of course, the Society functioned as the principal booking agent of Austria, making its various halls available to the superstars among international recitalists and performing groups.

On March 12,1938, Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. The music that was played and the artists that played it had to be approved by the new regime.

The curator of archives, library, and collections, Karl Geiringer, was dismissed and found a new home in Santa Barbara, California. For the seven years that followed, not only the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien but all of western civilization were in jeopardy.

As the dust settled and the war ended, there was relief at the realization that the Musikverein had not been more severely damaged. But military hostilities were soon replaced by personality clashes. Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had again become concert director, resigned after a bitter feud with Herbert von Karajan who became director for life in 1950. While the initial refoiling of the Great Hall was undertaken as early as 1954, it was not until 198688 that the entire building was overhauled and restored to its former splendor. The most recent refoiling of the gold in the Great Hall — the 1954 renovation had turned out to be all too temporary — took place in 1986 and finally brought back the characteristically warm hues of the shrine which is the Musikverein, the great building of the historic Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien.

Contemplating programs and playbills of our day, one may not find the signs of the extraordinary social and artistic growth and vitality of yesteryear, but one must nevertheless admire the style and panache of the Gesellschaft's musical offerings. The subscription concerts are a model of balancing, presenting the finest of music, both ancient and modern, performed by the most stellar soloists and ensembles. Not only are these concerts a showcase for a steady stream of artists from every corner of the globe, but conservative Vienna has finally opened its doors and ears to the music of other cultures. In addition to the works by Continental European composers, one may find on the program representative pieces by British, Asian and American composers. (Charles Ives seems to have become something of a staple but the sounds of Scott Joplin or Heitor Villa-Lobos may be new to many a Viennese concert goer.) The Schubertiade, an opportunity of hearing the complete works over a span of many years, continues in its tenth season. The Haydn-Tage festival of 1992 resembles Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart in that it featured music either by, or related to, the great Austrian composer. And the annual Festival Weeks Concerts provide occasions for keeping the great repertory alive, for spotlighting the creativity of those from the distant and immediate past and from the present day whose contribution to our musical heritage has been the raison d'être of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien and its Musikverein.

home  |  about maa  |  roster  |  MadAminA!  | news & events  |  contact us

© 2002-2005by Music Associates of America. All Rights Reserved
music associates of america // 224 king street // englewood // new jersey // 07631