The Viennese Sound
The Vienna Philharmonic sees itself as having inherited a body of instrument types which at the end of the 18th century reflected the prevailing intellectual spirit and value system, not only of central Europe, but to a certain extent of the entire continent. The emergence of national schools of composition in various countries at the beginning of the 19th century led to variations in the way instruments were constructed. The works of the French impressionists, for example, and their underlying sound concepts required not only modified instruments but also reflected a change in the attitude behind the music, which had been dominated all over Europe, at least until the French revolution, by the idea of musical rhetoric. In Vienna, this change did not take place. Viennese music remained essentially faithful to concepts of sound originating from the Viennese classics, although there were some developments.
Viennese StringsIn the field of the Viennese strings, which are justly famous for their sound, in-depth studies have still to be carried out. Although there is a clearly perceptible continual development there is no fully standardized Viennese violin school. There can be no doubt that the Viennese string instruments themselves, unlike the winds, are not of prime importance in producing the orchestra's unique sound. With a few exceptions, the quality of the instruments of the string section is not particularly outstanding. More important is that the string section of the Vienna Philharmonic is more like a workshop in the middle ages, where newly-arrived musicians are initiated into and absorb the secrets of the orchestra's special musical style.
Viennese Woodwind and Brass InstrumentsThere are significant differences between Viennese woodwind and brass instruments and those of other symphony orchestras. The fingering on the clarinet is different, and the mouthpiece has a different form which in turn requires a special kind of reed. The bassoon has largely the same form as the German version, but with special fingering and reeds. The trumpet has a rotary valve system and in places a narrower bore.
The trombone has a narrower bore as well which enables improved tone color and dynamics, as does the (Viennese F-) tuba, which also has a different valve system and fingering. The flute is largely the same as the conventional Böhm flute which is widely used all over the world. However, it did not replace the wooden flute in Vienna until the 1920's. Here too, as with all wind and brass instruments in the Viennese classics, vibrato is used very sparingly. Up to that time vibrato was regarded as a form of embellishment rather than a permanent way of beautifying the note and it was reserved almost exclusively for the strings. It is interesting to note that an increasing number of international wind instrument soloists are rejecting vibrato as stylistically inappropriate in their interpretations of the Viennese classics. Of course, the Vienna Philharmonic winds use vibrato in pieces where it is intended as a stylistic element.
The greatest differences between Viennese and internationally used instruments are to be found in the Viennese (F-)horn, which has a narrow bore, an extended leadpipe and a system of piston valves. The advantage of these valves is that the individual notes are not so sharply detached, making smoother legato playing possible. Viennese horns are also constructed of stronger materials than conventional double horns.
The Viennese oboe, played only in Vienna, differs from the internationally played French oboe in that it has a special bore shape, a special reed and special fingering.
With the exception of the flute and, to some extent, the bassoon, the typical differences in tone of Viennese instruments can be described as follows:
They are richer in overtones, i.e., the sound tone is brighter. They have a wider dynamic range, thus making possible greater differences between "piano" and "forte". They enable greater modulation of sound: The musician can alter the tone color in many ways.
The way an orchestra sounds is a result of tradition and the concepts of sound arising therefrom. The roots of the Viennese brass tradition are to be found in Germany. Hans Richter played a vital role in the development of this tradition. Due to him, a great many Vienna Philharmonic brass players were invited to play at the Bayreuth Festival, and numerous German brass players, mainly trombone and tuba players, were engaged to play in Vienna.
Viennese PercussionViennese percussion has the following unusual features: The skin of all the membraned instruments is genuine goat parchment, which gives a richer range of overtones than artificial skins (www.wienerpauken.at). The adjustable kettle of the Viennese timpani is pressed against the skin. The manually operated tuning screws allow greater tuning accuracy compared to instruments which are tuned with the feet. Of the various types of drum, preference is given to those which have a cylinder with no drawbar/tie rod mounting and can thus vibrate freely. Since these instruments developed from clapperless hand bells they are cast and not made of sheet metal like today's instruments. The tonal differences between these and instruments used internationally can be measured and charted using digital analysis.
Thus, an orchestral sound is created which essentially corresponds to that which the great composers of the Viennese classics, Viennese Romanticism and the 2nd Viennese School intended when they were writing their works.