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Boys Club as Orchestra: The Wiener Philharmonic Interview

This is a transcript and translation of segments from a one hour broadcast made by the West German State Radio at 10:05 A.M., Feb. 13, 1996, entitled "Wie so geh'nie so".

The first half was devoted to the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra that categorically forbids membership to women. In interviews for this program they elaborate their belief that ethnic and gender uniformity creates aesthetic superiority in orchestras. Five people were interviewed:

1. Roland Goettler, a Vienese sociologist specializing in the study of social groups who are separated, or who separate themselves, from social norms. To these groups belong not only such people as rogues and confidence men, but also elitist organizations such as the Vienna Philharmonic.

2. Elke Mashe-Blankenberg, a choir director based in Cologne who specializes in performing the works of unknown composers who are women.

In addition three members of the Vienna Philharmonic are interviewed:

3. Helmut Zaertner, a 2nd violinist.
4. Wolfgang Schuster, a percussionist.
5. Dieter Flurie, a 1st flutist.

All the interviews were recorded and edited for broadcast. The interviewer's questions were generally not included. Any statements enclosed in parenthesis are my own editorial comments.

Zaertner: "There is one common fight in the field, a battle cry, so to speak, and that is 'artistic quality'. One wants to have music of top quality and sell it in the world. All other interests, including private interests, are of less importance."

Goettler: "Music is something special. It is a special deep knowledge, it has something to do with magic. I think many men's groups are to be understood in this way. They carry secrets that are involved with music and tones, just like in Australian aboriginal or Indian cultures where men play certain instruments, and not the women."

"Every scientist must discover, and invent the correct term: the human as 'anima ambiozone', a being that strives for a place, that calls for applause, that wants to be better. And so it is with the (Vienna) Philharmonic. They want to be good, and there are even small groups within this group that set themselves apart. That's what's exciting, that's what's good. It's not bad. And it annoys the others."

(The Vienna Staatsoper/Vienna Philharmonic performs approximately 300 operas per year, and 80 symphony concerts. The orchestra has 149 members who divide the work. Women are allowed to play in the Staatsoper, but only men are allowed to play in the elite Philharmonic. The Philharmonic believes women take too much sick leave.)

Zaertner: "Of course women can also fulfill this double burden (opera and symphonic). There is no question about that. It is just the question of whether one takes women in fig leaf positions as some orchestras do--that is, in backrow positions where they are easy to replace during sick leave--or whether they can be given full rights. (If given full rights) then naturally one must accept that they would be allowed in the first chair positions of a world class orchestra. Once there, they can't really be replaced, if they take sick leave--which would, of course, be their right. It wouldn't be too easy to simply pull a substitute first flute out of the woodwork."

Elke Mashe-Blankenberg: "I've noticed that in 1976 or 7, when I started counting the number of women in orchestras in concerts I attended, that women comprised about 10% of the membership. And now after 20 years, it's about 15% in the orchestras of the Federal Republic of Germany. That means a very minimal increase has taken place. And when one notes that over 50% of the music school graduates are women, while only 15% sit in orchestas, then one must assume that the women are in private music areas such as teaching, or that they give up their careers and are simply women with children. After so much emanicipatorial work, one can conclude that society, and especially musical society, has changed very little."

"It is notable that in almost all of the buildings where symphonies work, that there are no women's dressing rooms or warm up rooms. They must use the restrooms or store rooms, even though women also work all day everyday. The whole conception of the symphony orchestra is as a men's organization through and through."

"The Berlin Philharmonic's bi-laws state that they were a military orchestra. (The Berlin Philharmonic has 121 men and 6 women with normal contracts--5 tutti strings and a harpist.) The symphony orchestra, as we experience it today, is 160 years old. We have inherited this very established structure. It has been traditionalized as such, and thus its entire foundation, ideologically and socially, is established as something purely for men."

"And if we go into the areas of orchestras where it is especially difficult for women, such as the contrabass sections, or all the brass sections--that is, trombone, trumpet, and horn--then we find things like pin-up pictures of naked women hanging on the walls of the warm-up rooms. If a woman comes into the orchestra, it has to be taken down."

"In the music world there are many . . . er . . . let us say, little erotic jokes told that have to do with sexism. This doesn't flow so freely if a woman trumpeter is sitting there. Then, as the men in the group say, they must remain clean. I've heard this argument many times, that women destroy the atmosphere, and that the men want to remain unto themselves."

Goettler: "What I have noticed that is interesting, is that the Vienna Philharmonic would also never take a Japanese or such. If they took one, this also would somehow by appearances put in question the noble character of Viennese culture. But this is not racist!"

Zaertner: "From the beginning we have spoken of the special Viennese qualities, of the way music is made here. 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."

"So if one thinks that the world should function by quota regulations, then it is naturally irritating that we are a group of white skinned male musicians, that perform exclusively the music of white skinned male composers. It is a racist and sexist irritation. I believe one must put it that way. If one establishes superficial egalitarianism, one will lose something very significant. Therefore, I am convinced that it is worth while to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards."

Goettler: "One respects women, of course. One applauds a good singer. There's a good story about that. A famous singer had terrible nervousness because she was going to sing for the Vienna Philharmonic. But she was surprised how they applauded her. They had high regard, but from a distance, as in isocratic groups. They were polite, like buddies, but allowing no real inclusion."

Goettler: "I have noticed that the Philharmonic has an initiation ritual, an entrance ritual, that is similiar to Australian aboriginies. It is expected that the young man who is to be taken into the men's group must show that he can accomplish certain things. He must submit to certain tests of courage, he must show a certain ability. But then, he must also clearly and outwardly show that he is a carrier of secrets."

"This is also the case with the members of the Philharmonic, at least when you observe the audition rituals. I mean the procedure that is carried through when someone is accepted into the masculine union of the Philharmonic. He must audition behind a screen. There are about 25 who carry out the testing. Those auditioning cannot see them, which produces a horrific stress. They must audition through two or three rounds, they are sought out, and then they must present themselves. And then they must submit to a sort of initiation of novices. (Presumably he means a probationary period in the orchestra.) Only after about three months are they informed whether or not they will be admitted. It is like in a monastery. This is exhibited by all men's groups."

(Wolfgang Schuster comments that the only goal of the orchestra is the "bitter reality" of maintaining the highest artistic standards. He then asks:)

Schuster: "The question is, must an artistic organization inevitably be the mirror of our social reality."

Elke Mashe-Blankenberg: "If Germany is going to train so many male and female students, then the country must also ensure that decisions are made upon quality and not gender. And it is provable that the quality and grade average of the women students in music schools are equal to those of the male students. And yet it is quite openly known that here in Germany, and unfortunately in the whole of Europe, that positions are filled on the basis of gender instead of quality. And when it comes to women, these aphorisms that you hear such as 'Quality always wins', are a pure farce."

(The three orchestra members are asked how they would feel if women were allowed into the orchestra.)

Zaertner: "It would absolutely not be a shock, no surprise, absolutely not. The only consideration is whether an established structure already existing as a unified whole, should be frivolously tossed overboard."

Schuster: "If we need this or that person, then we will take them without regard to race or gender. Otherwise, we couldn't remain on the top." (The moderator asks if he finds this good.) "I find this good. If a woman comes who is old enough, and is in a position to take a position and fill it properly, then the orchestra would not object."

(He did not explain how women could show they are qualified, since they are not allowed to audition.)

Flurie: "No, truthfully said, I wouldn't be indifferent. I would have an uneasy feeling in the situation. And that is because we would be gambling with the emotional unity (emotionelle Geschlossenheit) that this organism currently has. My worry is that it would be a step that could never be taken back."

(The sociologist's comments are added:) Goettler: "In the 1840s the Philharmonic was founded as a men's group, which was typical of the time. And the Philharmonic has been able to maintain this character as a men's group up to the present, and somehow even with an excitement. This disturbs some. But it is tragic to explain."

(The moderater notes that the tradition of the Philharmonic goes back to the Imperial Court Ensemble when values were common such as, "Women must remain silent in church", or to Vienna's Court Opera, which filled all women's roles with castrati.)

(Zaertner asserts that the sound of the strings of the VPO has been scientifically analyzed, and is different from any other orchestra. He refers to this as a "miracle". The moderator asks how the phenomenon can be explained:)

Flurie: "One can probably not find any technical explanation. The explantion in all probability--and this is my very personal opinion--is in what my two other colleagues have already mentioned: the soul. Musical sensibility--for whatever reason it has developed--is oriented to transmute the significant in music, namely, to transport life energy."

(Zaertner maintains that digital measurements of string section tremolos show that the sound of the VPO is different from the orchestras of Clevland, New York, and Berlin. He says it is doubtable that this can be attributed to the male unity of the VPO, but notes that it is an "interesting aspect". He makes no mention that unlike those other orchestras, the VPO strings all use instruments especially produced for them by one instrumentmaker.)

(The sociologist discusses perceived problems with women:)

Goettler: "Pregnancy brings problems. It brings disorder. Another important argument against women is that they can bring the solidarity of the men in question. You find that in all men's groups."

"And the women can also contribute to creating competition among the men. They distract men. Not the older women. No one gives a damn about the older ones. It is the younger ones. The older women are already clever, they run to you! But the 20 or 25 year olds. . . . They would be the problem. These are the considerations. In a monastery it is the same. The alter is a holy area, and the other gender may not enter it, because it would cause disorder. Such are the feelings."

Zaertner: I believe it would surely be pleasant in every day situations if women colleagues were next to one, when it comes to human interactions, because mixed gender groups deal with each other differently than pure men's groups. In pure men's groups statements are probably clearer, more unmerciful, more brutal."

(In Europe the harp has traditionally been the only instrument acceptable for women in an orchestra. I have documents demonstrating that the two women described below do not have regular contracts with the VPO, even though they have played with the orchestra for years. Only the man mentioned has a regular contract. Goettler confirms that women can occasionally perform with the orchestra, but that they are not allowed to become members.)

Zaertner: "We have a male harpist, and two ladies. If you ask how noticable the gender is with these colleagues, my personal experience is that this instrument is so far at the edge of the orchestra that it doesn't disturb our emotional unity, the unity I would strongly feel, for example, when the orchestra starts really cooking with a Mahler Symphony. There I sense very strongly and simply that only men sit around me. And as I said, I would not want to gamble with this unity."

(Goettler concedes that if women are allowed educations, they should be given professional opportunities.)

Goettler: "In today's situation, occupational groups such as professional musicians, must open themselves up, because there exists a wonderful and large offering of women musicians who want to offer their services. Earlier they didn't have free entrance to the universities and conservatories. But if women are allowed to enter universities, and if they can develop high artistic ability, then they must be let into orchestras. I can understand that. Indeed. It is just that from the men's perspective art is fun. It's fun, it's all about fun. It's not just about art. That's just an excuse.

The second half of the program is devoted to women who relate their experiences with sexism. One of them is the trombonist, Abbie Conant. You can read about her extraordinary experiences in the Munich Philharmonic in the Journal of the International Alliance of Women in Music. One will also want to look at this addendum (February 1997).

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