The dark beginnings of Vienna’s famous New Year Concert

How Clemens Krauss and the Nazis set off a Vienna New Year tradition in 1939

When is the Vienna New Year's Day concert broadcast across the world?

A happy smile lit up the face of every listener, caused by the musical excitement of the wonderful waltz rhythms’. The reviewer’s comments refer to a ‘special concert’ mounted by the Vienna Philharmonic in the famous Golden Hall of the city’s Musikverein on the morning of 31 December 1939, a Sunday. Billed as a ‘New Year’s Eve Concert’, the event switched to 1 January in 1941, spawning an unbroken run of over 80 Vienna New Year concerts which continues to the present.

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The date of that first concert in 1939, the only one not to happen on New Year’s Day, is significant. Just four months earlier, the Second World War had erupted, so the intention was to lift morale among the German-speaking nations by broadcasting the Vienna concert on the radio. Proceeds from ticket sales would, additionally, be donated to a ‘Kriegswinterhilfswerk’ (‘Winter war relief scheme’) initiated by the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler.

And what better way to lift the spirits than the sparkling, infectiously rhythmic music of Johann Strauss II, the ‘waltz king’ of 19th-century Vienna? It now seems an obvious choice, but it was not viewed that way at the time. Large sections of the orchestra disliked playing Strauss family music, viewing it as light and frivolous when set alongside Beethoven, Brahms or Bruckner.

In the event, all ten items in the 1939 concert – lasting about half as long as today’s glitzy, well-heeled successor – were by Johann Strauss Jr, and included such well-known pieces as the Emperor Waltz, Pizzicato-Polka and Tales from the Vienna Woods. Just as interesting, however, are the pieces not performed on that December morning, which have since become immovable staples of the Vienna New Year experience.

There was no Blue Danube Waltz, for instance – that was first performed at the 1945 concert. Nor was the Radetzky March included – nowadays it’s invariably a crowd-pleasing encore, politely clapped along to. In 1939, the scheduled concert ended with the overture to Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus – ‘brilliantly played’, as one newspaper recorded.

The conductor of that brilliant performance was the Austrian Clemens Krauss, and a flavour of how the Vienna Philharmonic sounded under his baton can be gleaned from his superbly athletic recordings of Johann Strauss’s music. Yet the annual event soon became more closely entwined with the Nazis, notably with the music-loving Baldur von Schirach, Vienna’s Gauleiter from 1940. In 1942, during the Vienna Philharmonic’s centenary celebrations, Schirach was awarded its ring of honour – later restored to him in 1966, despite his having been convicted of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials including the deportion of 65,000 Jews to concentration camps.

The murky entanglements between the Vienna Philharmonic and the Nazi authorities – many of its players were party members – are now acknowledged on the orchestra’s website. One article posted there examines its pre-war purge of Jewish musicians, while another notes how the New Year concerts initiated by Krauss were quickly co-opted as ‘part of the Nazi regime’s propaganda-by-entertainment strategy’.

After the war, Krauss himself, though not a Nazi party member, was banned from conducting until eventually denazified by Allied authorities in 1947. He conducted seven more New Year concerts before his death in 1954, when Willi Boskovsky (the Vienna Philharmonic’s long-standing concertmaster) took over.

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Since Boskovsky stepped down in 1979, 15 different conductors – Herbert von Karajan, Riccardo Muti and Carlos Kleiber among them – have mounted the New Year podium, with up to 50 million viewers in 90 countries watching on television. The first ever Neujahrskonzert audience in 1939, though ‘vigorously applauding’ and smiling, could surely never have imagined that.