Musikverein, Vienna, Austria | Photo: Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Happy New Year from Vienna

A brief history of a tradition that marks the beginning of every new year for European lovers of Western classical music.

Every year, on 1st January at 11.15 in the morning CET, the Vienna Philharmonic ushers in the New Year with a concert of music by the Johann Strauss family and its contemporaries. The first encore, after the official end of the programme, is a fast polka. The third HARMONY and final encore is the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss during which the audience claps along under the conductor’s direction. This practice started in 1958. In between these two encores comes The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II, the introduction of which is interrupted by audience applause and the conductor, on behalf of himself and the orchestra, greets the audience with the traditional New Year’s greetings “Die Wiener Philharmoniker und ich wünschen Ihnen Prosit Neujahr” (“The Vienna Philharmonic and I wish you a Happy New Year”).

The orchestra performs the same concert on 30th and 31st December and on 1st January. These concerts, the tickets for which have to be booked almost a year in advance, delight not only the audience in the Musikverein where they are held, but also television audiences in over 90 countries in which the final concert is broadcast. The broadcast also includes cutaways to ballet performed to the waltz or polka being played by the orchestra.

A NEW RHYTHM

Apart from the polkas, quadrilles and overtures, the core of the music is of course, the waltz. For three centuries, waltz has dominated the city of Vienna. It grew in the suburbs of Vienna; in Heiligenstadt and Grinzing; in the inns near the Vienna Woods played by small bands of three or four musicians, probably playing a violin, an accordion, a clarinet and a guitar. It grew in the Stadtpark and the Volksgarten. It was the music of ordinary folk who could hear it any time they cared to go to the nearest bandstand. In spring, it vied with the birds and quickened with the leaves; in summer it wafted over the rich gardens and mingled with the scent of the flowers; in autumn it mellowed and saddened; in winter it flourished in the hothouses of the Sofiensaal and other great places of entertainment. Everyone felt the insistent beginnings of the new rhythm breeding its own race of “waltz kings”— Josef Lanner, the Strauss family and Franz Lehár. Well-bred parents forbade their daughters to dance to the “naughty” rhythm, only to eventually find themselves dancing to it.

Strangely, this beautiful and enchanting music was ignored for a long time by the Vienna Philharmonic as not being worthy of performance at its concerts. This attitude changed gradually and one important factor for this was the highest respect the Strauss family enjoyed among major composers like Brahms and Bruckner. Brahms, who greatly admired Strauss, happened to stroll into the Theatre an der Wien when Strauss’s operetta Waldmeister was being rehearsed. Looking at the open score on the conductor’s desk, he noticed the waltz theme scored for the flutes which is heard near the beginning of the overture. Where this is repeated by the flutes near the end of the overture, he pencilled in a counter-melody for the first violins. This writer was privileged to be shown this entry on the original score when he visited the Musikverein library in 1986. In recent times, this counter-melody is played by the concertmaster and the lead cellist.

In 1921, things began to change. On the occasion of the unveiling of the Johann Strauss memorial in Vienna’s City Park, the great conductor Arthur Nikisch conducted the waltzes Artist’s Life, The Blue Danube and Wine, Women and Song. The final breakthrough occurred at the celebration of Strauss’s 100th birthday on 25th October 1925, when Felix Weingartner conducted, for the first time, a Vienna Philharmonic concert consisting solely of Strauss’s works.

THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE

The conductor who truly founded the Strauss tradition of the Vienna Philharmonic was Clemens Krauss, Director of the Vienna State Opera from 1929 to 1933, during which time he conducted an annual concert of Strauss compositions at the Salzburg Festival which heralded the future New Year Concerts in Vienna. It all began on 1st January 1941, with a matinee entitled “Johann Strauss Concert”. Krauss conducted these concerts until the end of the war and then seven more concerts from 1948 up to 1954. In the intervening years, 1946 and 1947, Josef Krips conducted these concerts.

When Krauss suddenly died on 16th May 1954, the orchestra was hard put to find his successor. After much deliberation, the members chose the orchestra’s concertmaster Willi Boskovsky to conduct the concerts. The soundness of the decision was borne out by Boskovsky conducting the New Year Concerts, violin in hand, 25 times between 1955 and 1979 making such an impression that his resignation amounted to the end of an era.

In 1980, the orchestra made a fundamental change by choosing the internationally prominent maestro Lorin Maazel who conducted the concerts through 1986. At each concert, he would play one piece on the violin along with the orchestra. After this the musicians decided to select a different conductor every year, including Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim, among others.




The 2023 Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert will be presented under the baton of Maestro Franz Welser-Möst in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna. In 2021, the concert was broadcast online and on TV with no audience in attendance. It was capped at 1000 in 2022. This will be the first time since the pandemic that the concert will be performed to capacity audiences, ringing in the New Year in the most memorable musical manner there is.

Conductors of the New Year’s Concert

Herbert von Karajan (1987)

Claudio Abbado (1988, 1991)

Carlos Kleiber (1989, 1992)

Zubin Mehta (1990, 1995, 1998, 2007, 2015)

Riccardo Muti (1993, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2018, 2021)

Lorin Maazel (1994, 1996, 1999, 2005)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (2001, 2003)

Seiji Ozawa (2002)

Mariss Jansons (2006, 2012,2016)

Georges Prêtre (2008, 2010)

Daniel Barenboim (2009, 2014, 2022)

 Franz Welser-Möst (2011, 2013)

Gustavo Dudamel (2017)

 Christian Thielemann (2019)

Andris Nelsons (2020)


By Cavas Bilimoria. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the December 2022 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.