A Difficult Birth

Re-auditioning after Maternity Leave In the Vienna Philharmonic


by William Osborne


(February 1997)


Recently the Vienna Philharmonic has met with increasing protest due to its ideology that gender and ethnic uniformity give it aesthetic superiority.(1) The Austrian government is pressuring the orchestra to admit women, the international media is raking them over the coals, and protests are planned at coming performances in Los Angeles and New York.(2)  Since the Vienna Philharmonic cannot openly defend its ideologies, it has been forced to fall back on the excuse that they exclude women due to artistic problems caused by maternity leave.  Many European orchestras have shown, however, that maternity leave does not present significant problems, even with Europe’s relatively liberal maternity laws.  Nevertheless, the Vienna Philharmonic has remained adamant and is proposing that women be allowed into the orchestra only if they re-audition after taking maternity leave.  In this article I will discuss why maternity leave is not really a problem, the lack of gender parity in the new regulations, and the psychological appeal the proposed re-audition procedures have to the misogynist mind-set.


The protest against the Vienna Philharmonic reached a turning point on January 16, 1997.  Ioan Holender, the Director of the Vienna State Opera, announced that women would be allowed to audition for the Philharmonic's parent organization, the Vienna State Opera orchestra, effective immediately.  (Currently the only women in the opera orchestra are two harpists.)  "From this moment on," he declared, "I want to see the applications for the auditions, and to know how many qualified women applicants will be invited. And I have also explained my standpoint, that from this moment on women must be employed if they win an audition."  


It has now been over three years since Holender's pronouncement, but no women have been accepted except harpists.


Even though the Vienna Philharmonic is nominally a private and self-governing organization, its charter requires it to draw its members exclusively from the State Opera orchestra.  It will thus  be only a matter of time before the Philharmonic will also be forced to accept women--probably about six to ten years.


In response to Holender's decision, the Philharmonic's leadership and officials of the Austrian government, formulated new leave-of-absence regulations for the orchestra, which they openly state are aimed at reducing or discouraging maternity leave.  The Philharmonic says this will insure its “artistic continuity”.(3)  If a woman takes a maternity leave of less than one year she must re-audition upon her return, but without competition from other candidates.  If she is gone more than one year, her position will be advertised and she must compete against other applicants.(4) The orchestra says this stipulation must be established before they will allow women membership.(5) Women would thus associate maternity with the possible loss of their jobs.


The Vienna Philharmonic insists that the new regulations are necessary due to Europe's strong maternity laws.  In Austria women are barred from working for eight weeks before and after the birth of their child.  This is called “Mutterschutz.   This leave can be voluntarily extended up to 18 months, and this longer period is referred to as “Karenz.”(6)  The Vienna Philharmonic says that women would take Karenz leave for years and damage the artistic quality of the orchestra.  Wolfgang Schuster, the orchestra’s Press Secretary, has even suggested the Philharmonic would have to increase its personnel by 25% due to the absences.(7)


These claims seem unfounded.  Simple monetary considerations indicate that women would not unnecessarily extend maternity leave.  The compensation for Karenz is only $450 per month.(8)  By contrast, a woman at work would average about $8,000 per month from the Vienna Philharmonic on top of her salary from the Vienna State Opera.(9) 


The Philharmonic's concerns also seem unfounded because numerous studies show that absenteeism by professional men and women is approximately equal. This conclusion is further substantiated by studies which demonstrate that women in prestige positions such as the Vienna Philharmonic have fewer children, and that they consider their careers more important than extended maternity leave. 


These rather obvious observations were confirmed by Holender, "I have young singers in the ensemble, even those who have had children on the side.  For them, career was more important than pregnancy leave."(10)  It is also to be noted that  Austrian law allows fathers to take post-natal paternity leave.  These factors indicate that there is little justification for excluding women or altering their maternity leave rights.


This view was confirmed by Sabine Meyer, one of the world's premiere clarinet soloists in an interview in Der Spiegel, which is Germany's largest news magazine.  When questioned about the Vienna Philharmonic's maternity leave concerns she was incredulous:


" ...oh God, the same old story.  Naturally it can happen that a pregnancy doesn't proceed as unproblematically as one expects.  And so?  That can't be a reason for not hiring a woman.  Men, through accident or sickness can also be suddenly absent.  I felt great during my two pregnancies, I never played better or more beautifully!  Even in the eighth month I was standing on the stage.”(11)


Meyer was also disdainful when asked about the belief that maternity reduces musical quality:


"Rubbish. Children can enrich a musician enormously, give her strength, improve her expressive capabilities. One is quite quickly back at one’s performance level.  It is a question of organization--and by the way, also on the part of the orchestra." (12)


Meyer’s views are shared by a wide spectrum of European society and it has become very rare for orchestras to raise the maternity leave issue. 


The Vienna Philharmonic was thus very concerned that their maternity leave proposal  be written in a “politically correct” fashion.   It states that all "men and women" who take an extended leave for any reason must re-audition upon their return.(13)  This does not disguise the irony that the stated purpose of the regulations is to dismantle the job protection of pregnant women.  Some question that the regulations will even stand up in court.


It is also ironic that the Philharmonic wants to reduce the rights of women, since men have long enjoyed special privileges as members of the orchestra.  They are exempted from Austria's compulsory military service.  And they are allowed a one time, one year sabbatical with no re-audition requirement.(14)  Re-auditioning for “men and women” was deemed necessary only when it became apparent women might enter the orchestra.


One of the most interesting aspects of the proposal is that the men are sacrificing their right to take leave without re-auditioning, since they feel the same privilege cannot be trusted in the hands of women.  But the reduction of rights for both men and women does not necessarily create parity.  Since men do not bear children, they are not as dependent on taking leave.  The men are giving up considerably less than women.


In reality the Philharmonic has raised the maternity issue because it detracts attention from the fact that 149 white men are making music based specifically on an aesthetic ideology of gender and ethnic uniformity.  On February 18th the Vienna Philharmonic will vote on this maternity issue.  No women will vote, since none are in the orchestra.  With no representation by or for women, women’s rights will be dismantled.


These ironies explain why the Vienna Philharmonic is the only orchestra in the world to advocate the grotesque idea of “postpartum re-auditioning”.


Perhaps it would be less ironic to briefly examine some of the psychological factors that explain why the proposal has a special appeal to the misogynist mind-set.  It should be clear that forcing a woman to re-audition after giving birth allows men to subject her to a particularly demeaning form of objectified control that could provide sadistic satisfaction.  It is essential to the misogynist psyche to objectify women, particularly in regard to their sexuality.  Women are thus reduced from being individuals with a creative identity to a mere  “phenomenon of nature” with a reproductive function.  This view informs the Vienna Philharmonic, which assumes that if the biologically determined nature of women were left unregulated it would destroy the artistic quality of the orchestra. 


As absurd as all of this may seem, the same motives inform the postpartum “cleansing” rituals surrounding female sexuality in many cultures.   These rituals presumably ensure that women who have given birth are once again made acceptable to participate in society.  Similarly, women in the Philharmonic would be subjected to an audition procedure to ensure that they are once again acceptable to participate in the ensemble.  In many “primitive” societies these rituals were invented by women and presided over by them, and are definitely associated with the “holiness of woman” as the bringer of life.  But in the Philharmonic the rituals would have a different function.  They would enforce and inform a secondary status for women as a birth-giving “phenomenon of nature” in contrast to the socially conditioned creative autonomy of men.


The special testing proposed by the Vienna Philharmonic thus contains a clear element of denigration which serves a particular function in the employment policies of a misogynist orchestra.(15)  By forcing women to re-audition after maternity, they would be subjected to a subtle and almost voyeuristic form of gendered testing which would discourage them from entering the orchestra, and which could eventually even drive them out of it.  The proposed regulations are thus another example of the misogynist trials and tests with which the history of many cultures are replete, and whose purpose has often been the sadistic objectification and control of feminine creativity on the reproductive, spiritual, and intellectual levels.(16)


In conclusion, we have seen that Austria’s current maternity laws  would not hinder the “artistic continuity” of the Vienna Philharmonic, and that there is no reason to further limit maternity leave.  There are, however, four principle motives that explain why the Vienna Philharmonic proposes that women re-audition after maternity, and they can be summarized as follows:


1)      The maternity leave proposal is a subterfuge to detract public attention from  the orchestra’s belief that gender and ethnic uniformity produce aesthetic superiority. 

2)      Through reaudition procedures which emphasize the reproductive role of women, they are subtilely denigrated and thus discouraged from entering the orchestra.  

3)      Forcing women to reaudition after maternity provides a subliminally sadistic and sexually oriented satisfaction to the misogynist psyche of the orchestra.

4)      A postpartum ritual is a psychological aid that helps the orchestra accept and control the creative power of women. 


It is therefore understandable that many women feel the Vienna Philharmonic's re-auditioning proposal is an act of bad faith, and that the orchestra is not serious about allowing them membership.  As one women put it, “To have a baby, and then to be trotted in front of your own orchestra to prove you can still play is an affront to human dignity, and unworthy of any cultural institution.”(17)


1.  For documentation of these ideologies see: William Osborne, "Art Is Just An Excuse: Gender Bias In International Orchestras," Journal of the International Alliance for Women In Music (Vol. 2, No. 3, October 1996) pgs. 6-8.  See also: "Musikalische Misogynie," broadcast by the West German State Radio, February 13, 1996.  I have translated and transcribed the relevant segments of the broadcast.  A link to them is on the world wide web at http://www.dorsai.org/~buzzarte/zapvpo.html

2.  For a collection of these reports see the world wide web at: htt://www.dorsai.org/buzzarte/zapvpo.html

3. "Philharmoniker und die Frauen: Sonderloesung bei Karenzen," Der Standard (January 25, 1997).  It is essential to note that the maternity agreement will be made between the government and the Vienna State Opera which is the parent organization of the Vienna Philharmonic.  The Philharmonic considers itself a private and autonomous organization.  They might eventually claim they are not bound by the same regulations.

4. ibid.

5. ibid.

6. "Kommen nun wirklich Philharmonikerinnen?," Die Presse (January 24, 1997).

7. A note for journalists: for specific information concerning maternity laws in Austria contact the Women's Ministry in Vienna at tel. (+43) 1 536 330.

8. This assertion was made by Wolfgang Schuster, Press Secretary of the Vienna Philharmonic in a letter dated April 19, 1996.  He was answering a letter written by Jeanice Brooks inquiring about the orchestra's employment policies.  Brook's letter was co-signed by 30 people from 12 countries.

9.  The orchestra is reported to have a yearly income of approximately 15 million dollars.  There are 149 members.  This would make the mean salary of individual members about 100,000 dollars.

10.  "Holender entschiedet sich fuer Gleichberechtigung," Kurier (January 17, 1997).

11.  "Die Welt ist voll Gedudel," Der Spiege (August, 33/1996).

12.  ibid.

13.  "Philharmoniker und die Frauen: Sonderloesung bei Karenzen," Der Standard (January 25, 1997).  It should be noted that the Philharmonic has been very reluctant to reveal the complete details of the maternity leave proposal.  One of my sources will be meeting on February 12, 1997 with politicians who might have knowledge of the agreement. 

14. Clemens Hellsberg, Demokratie der Koenige (Zurich: Schweizer Verlagshaus, 1992) p. 615.

15.  In a celebrated case of such testing, trombonist Abbie Conant was demoted from her first chair position in the Munich Philharmonic by Sergiu Celibidache with the declaration, "You know the problem, we need a man for the first trombone".  To regain her position the courts required her to prove she had the "necessary physical strength to lead the trombone section of a world-class orchestra".  She had to have her lungs measured in a hospital, and endure nerve-wracking examinations by a trombone specialist before the judges were satisfied.  For complete documentations see: William Osborne, "You Sound Like A Ladies' Orchestra" available on this website.

16.  For discussion of related topics see: Sophe Drinker, Music and Women (New York: Coward-McCann, 1948); Michelle Rosaldo and Louis Lamphere, eds. Women, Culture, and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974) especially the article by Sherry B. Ortner entitled “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?”; and see the commentary on Ortners article by Ellen Koskoff, “Is Female to Male as Postmodern is to Modern? Implications for a New Ethnomusicology” (Procedings of the Goteborg Gender and Music Confernece 1996).

17.  A statement by Abbie Conant in converstation with the author.