Blind Auditions and Moral Myopia


The gender/racial ideologies of the Vienna Philharmonic and the employment practices that allow them to continue.)


by William Osborne


Three years ago, in response to massive international protest organized by the International Alliance for Women In Music, the Vienna Philharmonic/Vienna State Opera Orchestra announced that it would allow membership to women.   To deflect the protests, the orchestra immediately gave their affiliate 2nd harpist, Anna Lelkes, an official position.  Since then the orchestra has hired only one other woman, who is also a harpist.  Her contract begins in the year 2000, and after three years she will be eligible for membership in the Vienna Philharmonic.   Since the VPO/Staatsoper has always used women harpists, their employment does not represent a change in the orchestra's discriminatory employment policies.


This was confirmed a year after Lelkes' appointment, when _The Los Angeles Times_ revealed that the orchestra had prevented a highly qualified woman from the Berlin Philharmonic, Gertrude Rossbacher, from even auditioning for an open viola position[1].  With her elite professional experience, she would have been an excellent candidate, especially since she was born in Vienna and trained at the Wiener Hochschule für Musik. 


The Philharmonic's auditions are held in three rounds. In the first two the musician plays behind a screen, but in the third it is removed. This allows the physiognomy of the applicant to be evaluated to make sure it matches the orchestra's ideology that gender and ethnic uniformity give it aesthetic superiority. After the Second World War the Philharmonic instituted blind auditions, but they were soon eliminated.  In his memoirs,

Otto Strasser, a former Chairman of the Philharmonic, described the problems blind auditions caused:


"I hold it for incorrect that today the applicants play behind a screen; an arrangement that was brought in after the Second World War in order to assure objective judgments. I continuously fought against it, especially after I became Chairman of the Philharmonic, because I am convinced that to the artist also belongs the person, that one must not only hear, but also see, in order to judge him in his entire personality. [...] Even a grotesque situation that played itself out after my retirement, was not able to change the situation. An applicant qualified himself as the best, and as the screen was raised, there stood a Japanese before the stunned jury. He was, however, not engaged, because his face did not fit with the 'Pizzicato-Polka' of the New Year's Concert."[2]


The orchestra feels "that to the artist also belongs the person", and that the individual's accomplishment, and -marketability-, are determined by race and gender. They thus changed their auditions procedures so that the applicant could be seen for the final round.  They also require a photo with the job application.  The desire to "assure objective judgments" was set aside to maintain a special form of orchestral uniformity.   The orchestra feels that people who are visibly of other races would destroy the ensemble's image of Austrian authenticity.  Not coincidentally, the Vienna Philharmonic is the only major orchestra in the world without a single non-white member.


Many members of the Philharmonic have explained why they feel this gender and racial uniformity is necessary.  In an interview with NPR, Hans Novak (a former 2nd violinist with the orchestra) said women destroy orchestral unity because they cause intrigues: "... you can have people falling in love with each other and all kind of jealousies."[3]  Another second violinist, Helmut Zehetner, also feels the Vienna Philharmonic has a special "emotional unity" as an all-male ensemble. He was asked about the possible entry of women into the orchestra:


"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 that this organism currently has. My worry is that it would be a step that could never be taken back."[4]


And concerning the woman harpists, he added:


"... 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."[5]


This "emotional unity" is maintained by auditions that allow the male musicians to start "cooking" without women around. Dieter Flury, the orchestra's solo-flutist, agrees with Zehetner, and adds that ethnic uniformity is also essential:


"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 worthwhile to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards."[6]


The belief that racial minorities would damage the orchestra's -image- as an authentic representative of Austrian culture is shared by some other Austrian orchestras, and has been documented by Dr. Elena Ostleitner, a Professor at the Institute for Music Sociology of the Wiener Musik Hochschule fuer Musik. She recorded the following statement by an Asian woman:


"I auditioned for an orchestra, and I led in the point tabulations as long as I played behind a screen. Due to my name it was not apparent that I am an Asian. But when the screen was removed [for the final round], I was rejected without comment. Friends in the orchestra confirmed my assumption. They do not take foreigners, and if they do, then only those in which [foreign appearance] is not visible."[7]


The purpose of the visual criteria in the final round is clear. Another Viennese sociologist, Prof. Roland Girtler, of the University of Vienna, has made similar observations:


"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!"[8]


It is not merely musical performance, but also the racial physiognomy of Asians that is the critical issue--though Girtler does not view this as racist. Similar beliefs were reported in a radio broadcast of the Austria National Broadcasting Corporation. A public school teacher who had taken his class to a rehearsal of the Vienna Philharmonic reported that a girl in the class asked why only men were in the orchestra. Werner Resel, the orchestra's chairman at the time, answered that the "Vienna Philharmonic is an orchestra of white men playing music by white men for white people".[9]


This policy is problematic, since almost half of the students at the Wiener Musik Hochschule are foreigners, and a large number of them are Asian. Many of them marry Austrians and become permanent residents of the country.


Wolfgang Schuster, a percussionist in the orchestra, also believes that music has special qualities determined by gender: "Many musicians, even if they won't admit it, secretly believe there's a difference in the sound produced by a man and a woman. I know three conductors who say this."[10] It's not necessarily an inferior sound, Schuster says, just different. He also speaks of male musicians that have a feminine sound, lacking the attack and strength that the orchestra wants: "I know a lot of men that sound like women. But not with us, mind you. [...] This is something that we label our personal style. And it is, if you want to characterize it, masculine."[11]


The orchestra thus feels that all women and some men lack the requisite virility to play

in the Vienna Philharmonic. Ironically, among the world's major orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic has one of the most soft, mellow sounds, and one of the most rhythmically elastic styles—characteristics generally coded as feminine.


On January 16, 1997, in response to the IAWM's protests, the Director of the Vienna State Opera, Ioan Holander, said he would force the orchestra to allow women to audition, but in an interview with the Austrian State Television, he insisted that women are not appropriate for some of the more "masculine" instruments:


"There are, indeed, differences that nature has made between man and woman.

Naturally, these differences have an effect on instrumental performance. Naturally, there are different lung constellations between men and women, and naturally there are different mouth constructions, and naturally there are different lips between men and women. And for certain instruments, women are less appropriate than men. That is a fact."[12]


These differences would presumably be noticeable behind a screen, but the Vienna State Opera, which is owned and operated by the Austrian Federal Government, refuses to use blind auditions, and even requires a photo with the applications.


Dr. Elena Ostleitner has been fighting these attitudes for 20 years. She is a Professor at the Institute for Music Sociology at the Wiener Hochschule fuer Musik, and has led a campaign to end the Philharmonic's ban on women. She says: "It's ridiculous to think there's any difference in the musical performances of women and men. It's not true, it's absolutely not true, and I'm sure if a woman is playing behind a curtain they won't

notice it, you cannot hear it, it's impossible."[13]


Shortly after the Vienna Philharmonic said it had changed its policies, she correctly predicted that the first women auditioning would still encounter prejudice from the male judges: "After the first listening in the audition behind the curtain, she will be in front of a curtain.  And then they will say 'yes she played very well, but the man was better because the sound is different.' That will happen."[14]


Since only women harpists have been employed in the three years since the orchestra stated that its doors are open to women, Prof. Ostleitner's suspicions seem to be well founded.


Until recently, these problems also existed in the United States. Prof. Claudia Goldin (a Harvard Economist) and Princeton's Cecilia Rouse recently completed a study of blind auditions in symphony orchestras in the USA. They found that the use of a screen increased the chances of US women in the first round of auditions by 50%, and in the final rounds by 300%. The overall effect of blind auditions has helped increase the presence of women in US orchestras over the last 20 years from about a 5% representation to 36%. It is thus notable that the Vienna Philharmonic refuses to hold blind auditions, even though it claims to have changed its ideologies.


In the music magazine _Strad_, Rainer Kuchl, a former concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, reveals how deeply embedded the orchestra's ideologies are:


"Our goal has always been to employ people from regions where we have the same 'feeling'. Nowadays new orchestras are formed with players from totally different backgrounds, all stirred together in the same pot and all with a totally different concept of tone. Then all they have to do is play with precision and that's the current idea of a good orchestra. There's a lot more to it than that."[15]


And _Strad_ asked: "So are all his players Austrian men? Are there no Czechs, Slovaks or other central Europeans, perhaps those who have studied in Vienna?" Kuckl responded: "We don't need such players. They might play like gods but they wouldn't fit in."[16]


In the case of the most qualified women, even the removal of the screen is not a sufficient safeguard to protect the unity of "feeling" Kuchl describes. Some women are so much better than their male competition, that their exclusion would be scandalously obvious if they were allowed to audition. This was illustrated by the treatment of violist Gertrude Rossbacher. Never mind that she plays like a god, and was born and educated in Vienna. Gender and racial purity are still the ruling deities in the Vienna Philharmonic.


William Osborne

(You may forward this post.  Please include the endnotes.)



[1] Jan Herman, "For Violist, the Rules Never Seem to Change," _The Los

Angeles Times_ (February 27, 1998).

[2] Otto Strasser, _Und dafuer wird man noch bezahlt: Mein Leben mit den

Wiener Phiharmonikern_ (Wien: Paul Neff Verlag, 1974)

[3] NPR "Morning Edition" broadcast on Friday, February 28, 1997.

[4] "Musikalische Misoggynie" broadcast by the West German state Radio,

February 13, 1996. See also: William Osborne, "Art Is Just An Excuse:

Gender Bias in International Orchestras," _Journal of the International

Allicance for Women in Music_ (Vol. 2, No. 3, October 1996):6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Elena Ostleitner, _Liebe, Lust, Last und Lied_ (Wien, Bundesministerium

fuer Unterricht und Kunst, 1995) p. 6.

[8] "Musikalische Misogynie," broadcast by the West German State Radio,

February 13, 1996. See also: Roland Girtler, "Mitgliedsaufnahme in den

Noblen Bund der Wiener Philharmonicer Als Mannbarkeitsritual", Sociologia

Internationalis (Beiheft 1, Berlin 1992).

[9] "Von Tag zu Tag", broadcast by Austrian National Radio and Television,

December 11, 1996, 4:05-4:45pm.

[10] _Der Kurier_ (February 26, 1997)

[11] Ibid.

[12] "Achtung Kultur", February 24, 1997, 10:30 pm, Second Austrian State


[13] NPR "Morning Edition" broadcast on Friday, February 28, 1997.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Evelyn Chadwick, "Of music and men" _The Strad_ (December, 1997):


[16] Ibid.