Vienna Faces the Music: Do Men Play Better?

By Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

Vienna Faces the Music: Do Men Play Better?


Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Is one of the last bastions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire about to crumble under siege from a group of energized American women on the Internet?

For months, reports have been circulating that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) may finally go co-ed, admitting women as full-fledged members for the first time in its 155-year history. The discussion is to be taken up again today.

Vienna is to classical music what Saudi Arabia is to oil. And, not surprisingly, the VPO is widely regarded as one of the world's finest orchestras. The orchestra's international success, however, subjects it to examination through other cultural lenses. The International Alliance for Women in Music, which has been lobbying, largely over the Internet, for change in Vienna, has pronounced itself "dismayed" by the orchestra's failure so far to vote "yes" to admit women. A statement from IAWM, based at George Washington University in Washington, blasted what it called the VPO's "utter contempt and blatant disregard for basic principles of equality." But for advocates of the status quo, it's as if National Football League teams were being pressured to admit women. A man's view of music Equality is not the main event here, the men of the VPO assert. "There is one common fight in the field, a battle cry, so to speak, and that is artistic quality," Helmut Zehetner, a second violinist in the VPO, said in a radio program last year. He went on to say, "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." For advocates of gender equality, such remarks are, not surprisingly, a bit off key. Austria, however, for all its sophistication and affluence, is still a conservative, hierarchical society. It's been less than 80 years since an emperor reigned supreme. Here if you don't know someone's title, you can hardly go wrong asking - with a straight face - for "Herr Doktor Professor." Views like violinist Zehetner's are not only held but voiced with no apologies for political incorrectness. The orchestra is scheduled to visit the United States next month, performing in Costa Mesa, Calif. …

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