The Vienna Philharmonic is coming to the Royal Albert, playing Haydn, Berg, and Stravinsky on Wednesday under Zubin Mehta, and Bruckner under Eschenbach on Thursday. In the "Critic’s Choice" box of last week’s Time Out, the last item reads simply "The Vienna Philharmonic… What more to say?" Well, there’s quite a bit more to say, actually. The Vienna Philharmonic is, in a lot a ways, for a lot of reasons, the greatest orchestra in the world. It is also an organization that had a long, long history of officially, in writing, excluding women for no particular good reason. Oddly less well-known, but much more disturbing, was the Vienna Phil’s official, in writing, policy of excluding those who don’t “look Austrian.” Yes, that means exactly what you think it means.
Okay, both of these policies were officially rescinded… in 2003, after the Austrian government threatened to cut their funding. Yes, there is now a female viola player, who was forbidden from talking to the media. Yes, there was a Japanese-born tuba player hired, and then promptly fired. In the words of a worthwhile recent forum post by William Osborne, "The ensemble is once again the only all-white major orchestra in the Western world." (Scroll down — the references at the bottom of the post are worth following as well…)
Hopefully it doesn’t need to be spelled out why this is a bad thing, legally and culturally. (Particularly in a country that hasn’t, very broadly speaking, dealt with its activities around the year 1938 quite as comprehensively as one might desire). As the often quasi-reactionary Norman Lebrecht astutely points out, the official explanations for these essentially indefensible policies (for example, that the patrilinear succession of the orchestra’s membership ensures the continuity of its unique sound) were always rubbish. What might be less obvious is how the failure to talk about such reprehensible histories in fact diminishes classical music.
Time and again, in forums ranging from scholarly journals to newspapers to interval bar chit-chat, when issues like racism are raised, the reflexive response is "but what about the music?". The peculiar and specifically nineteenth-century that "the music itself" dwells in a metaphysical realm beyond trifling matters of bigotry, misogyny, and supremacist nationalism has proved startlingly tenacious, even in the twenty-first century. As if music were somehow separable from the people making it and listening to it. As if the constant assertions of classical music’s "universality" could eventually make us blind to the facts of its productions there in front of our eyes.
But placing classical music — almost uniquely of all the arts — outside the realm of cultural criticism was simply a recipe for cultural irrelevance. Many of those who love classical music are fond of bemoaning the fact that the British public is not familiar with, engaged with, or even capable of talking about classical music in the same way that they can engage with literature, drama, painting, or even popular music. This phenomenon is complex and multifaceted (and, yes, utterly lamentable) — but as long as the entrance fee into the discussion includes checking your critical faculties and moral judgements at the door, we can’t remain too surprised.
Things are changing. More and more critics and historians are refusing to uphold the pernicious fiction of the apolitical aesthetic realm, and more and more audience members are refusing to swallow it. So, should you boycott the concerts Wednesday and Thursday? Probably not — it’s hard to see what good it would do. But should you be allowed to notice that there are no faces of a certain color on the stage, and should you be allowed to ask what that might have to do with the meaning of the sounds you hear? We’d be very worried if you didn’t.