The Vienna Philharmonic’s Letter of Response to the Gen-Mus List.


In February 1996 members of the gen-mus list sent a letter of protest written by Jeanice Brooks to the Vienna Philharmonic protesting its categorical exclusion of women.  I include the gen-mus letter here along with the VPO´s reply, and some explanatory notes:


"Dear General Manager of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra,"

 "A group of concerned musicians and scholars is compiling information on policies concerning gender equity in large orchestras.  The end result of this inquiry will be a list of orchestras which do not discriminate against women, which we will forward to individuals, and to those persons at universities and colleges responsible for the acquisition of recordings, so that buyers of recordings may make better-informed decisions about their purchases.  As part of our collecting process, we would like to obtain official information

from your orchestra concerning the following policies.  What steps are taken to ensure that women are allowed equal opportunity with men to audition for vacant posts in the orchestra?  How are players selected for audition?  Are auditions conducted anonymously?  If not, how are they conducted?  When women are successful in auditioning for vacant posts, what steps are taken to ensure they are treated fairly once admitted to the orchestra?


"If you could write us a short letter explaining your policies, we would be very grateful.  Please send your response to Dr L.J. Brooks, Department of Music, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1 BJ, England, who will ensure that all signatories of this letter receive a copy of your response.  Thank you verymuch.


(Co-signed by members of the gen-mus list from around the world, mostly in academia, including deans and heads of departments.)




Note: To understand the VPO´s response it is necessary to know that the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Philharmonic are the same orchestra under different names.  The opera orchestra is owned and operated by the Austrian Federal government, but the Philharmonic is a nominally private enterprise the musicians run on the side.


In Austria and Germany, as in many European countries, there are strong maternity laws.  Mothers are legally entitled to a paid leave of absence before and after giving birth.  Men are also allowed to take a leave of absence after the birth to care for the infant, instead of the mother.  As in most countries, it is not legal for anyone, man or woman, to sign away general rights guaranteed by law.  Pregnant women can, however, voluntarily use the rights to the minimum, and take a short leave of absence.


This is my translation of the letter that was typed-out from the hard copy by Anagret Fauser and placed on the gen-mus list.  Lisa Feurzig has also made a translation and placed it on the gen-mus list, in case you would like to make comparisons.  Sometimes the sentences are convoluted and awkward.  I tried to help where I could, but I also had to consider accuracy.  All statements in parenthesis are theirs.  My commentaries and some German words are in _square_ brackets.


William Osborne


The Vienna Philharmonic's letter of response:


Vienna, April 19 1996


Dear Dr. Brooks:


In reply to your letter of February 25, 1996, may I first say that theVienna Philharmonic has no General Director, but only a democratically elected administrative board with a chairman at its head.  At the same time may I explain how the orchestra is organized:


To start with, the orchestra musicians of the Vienna State Opera are employees of the federal government.  In 1842 these musicians founded the Vienna Philharmonic Union, which is private and independent.  The two historical roots of the orchestra are the court music chapel, founded in 1498, which was responsible for church services; and the other is the orchestra for the court opera.  In both musical bodies, naturally, there were no women.  You obviously know that today this is still true in the Vienna Philharmonic, otherwise you wouldn't have written to us.


The reasons for this are generally accepted by most women who are informed of our problems in detail, and I will presently come to them.  Militant feminists, who are more interested in equal rights than artistic efficacy, will obviously reject them.


The orchestra, as a whole, that is the State Opera orchestra and Philharmonic taken together, presently has 147 musicians.  Between September and June each year they complete about 300 opera performances, as well as 110 rehearsals.  In addition there are about 80 to 85 symphony concerts here and abroad, also with an appropriate number of rehearsals, and beyond that the Salzburg Festival in July and August.


Television productions, record recordings, etc., are added to that, as is the chamber music activity of most members, which is absolutely necessary to maintain orchestral quality.


To continue the Vienna instrumental and musical tradition (the Vienna Philharmonic uses wind instruments directly descended from the late 18th century), it is also necessary to send teachers to the Austrian conservatories which pass on this tradition. All together this is a horrendous amount of work.


[Note: For the musician´s protection their contract puts a maximum limit on the amount of work that can be completed within any given six week period.]


All these activities are only possible through the voluntary renunciation of claims to (sometimes minimal) social rights, which are otherwise taken for granted and guaranteed as legal worker protection.  Every member has the right to an unpaid one year leave of absence once in his life.  (Experience has shown that after longer absences artistic reintegration is very difficult, indeed even impossible.)  This can, however, be revoked at any time at short notice, if the orchestra finds it artistically necessary.  Our first solo flutist, for example, painfully discovered this, when he had to cancel his leave two weeks before it began, and thus cancel solo concerts around the world.


We are currently in consultation with the Women's Ministry of the Austrian Republic concerning the solution of the question of admitting women, without finding, to date, an acceptable result that would permit us to uphold the artistic organization in the present successful form.  Even our discussion partners do not yet see how to get a grip on the problem of compensating for the expected leaves of absence [if women are allowed in] without a further enlargment of the orchestra (192 members would be artistic ruin, because the pool of musicians would then fall into two parts) and without creating a two-class society with different social rights.  Other world-class orchestras do not have this problem, because they are either opera or concert orchestras, and because they are mostly supported by the public hand;  and it is absolutely not a problem at all for orchestras that aren´t quite first class, because it isn't so difficult to find adequate substitutes.


I fear that these arguments will not impress you.  First, because you surely lack the time to make yourself familiar with the problematics here on the spot [an Ort und Stelle].  And secondly, because it is not music that stands in the forefront of your thoughts, but rather a socio-political goal.  This can be derived from the observation, that in your opinion, the aquisitions of academic institutions, such as record archives and libraries, should not follow artistic, but rather socio-political perspectives placed superior to them.


It should be noted that we are also not happy with the status quo, namely, that we must renounce many first-class women musicians.  We are very conscious of the fact that women are discriminated against in public life.  Looking just a few kilometers south of our border [i.e., to former Yugoslavia], one is gripped by an indescribable horror at what people are capable of doing to one another, and in this case especially to women.  Not to mention the social position of women in many cultures of the earth. The need for urgent remedies does not even need to be discussed.


One should discuss, however, whether artistic organizations must automatically be the mirror of society, or whether there should not be some leeway in this area.  Does it not follow, that the consequent demands for equal rights would produce absurd results?


May quartets only appear these days with gender parity?


That is naturely a ridiculous question.  But what about an octet, or a larger chamber music ensemble?  Where do you set the limits here?


It is, of course, understandable that every citizen of this State has a fundamental right to work in an orchestra financed entirely by the state, if they have the necessary qualifications.


But the situation with the Vienna Philharmonic musicians is rather different: The tax contribution by the orchestra musicians is higher than the state expenditures for the two organizations.  This is because the State Opera pays low wages, and because the state hardly subsidizes the Philharmonic at all.  This assures a large measure of independence and protection from state intervention.


One can, of course, very correctly argue against this, that it has nothing to do with the basic morality of this group of artists, and that it is a sign of this bad morality that women are excluded.  And thus, it would follow that a boycott of these musicians is a worthy goal.  But here we move beyond the woman question into the basic one:  women are indeed only ONE among the many underprivileged groups.  If I thus establish a record archive from the perspective of the woman question, then I must also ask:  How many colored people belong to this American orchestra whose CD I would like to buy?   Does this correspond to their proportion in the population--or will someone claim that colored people are less gifted in the area of classical music? [Note: Colored is not an antiquated term to many German speakers.]


Do the great London orchestras reflect the combination of the population of that city? How many Palestinians or Christians play in the Jerusalem Symphony?


You must ask yourself all these questions, if you´re not primarily and exclusively lobbying for women.


I personally believe that artists and their works cannot be judged primarily by moral criteria.  (I hope you agree if I put musicians--with this term we mean both the male and female gender--under the concept of artist.)  If we are already so picky [heikel] about the morality of interpreters, how much more severely must we then condemn the creative artists!


What about Mozart's Baesle letters, and--according to Constanze's complaints--his "chambermaideries" [thanks to Lisa Feurzeig for her translation of "Stubenmaedelien"]; what about Haydn who wrote to his beloved:  "In order for us to finally be united, four eyes must first be closed." (those of his wife and the husband of his beloved); what of the bordello patron and syphilitic, Schubert; what about Wagner, accustomed to seducing the wives of his patrons; how can the works of all these misogynist monsters belong in our record collections?


In this letter I have made an effort to convey some thoughts to you and your female colleagues [Note: many men signed the letter he is responding to], and indeed with such thoroughness as to show you that we take you, your concern, and the entire woman question seriously.  We know about the seriousness of this problem, and know also how many female musicians--in some cases outstanding ones--there are in Austria.


All this will not protect us from standing out on your watch list as a particularly despicable example.


Should you ever come to Vienna, and nevertheless have an interest to discuss-and-take-apart-our-problems [ausseinandersetzen] here on the spot, please let us know well in advance, so that we can take time for you and for your questions.  You are warmly welcome at any time!


Yours sincerely,




Wolfgang Schuster

Head of the Press Department