1. Early History

Until the first Philharmonic concert on March 28, 1842, the City of Vienna did not have a professional concert orchestra, despite the presence of composers such as Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Concerts of symphonic works were played by ensembles specially assembled for the occasion. Orchestras composed entirely of professional musicians were found only in the theaters.

Vienna Philharmonic 1864 Zoom Vienna Philharmonic 1864

The Founding

Otto Nicolai (1810-1849) was appointed conductor at the Kärntertortheater in 1841. Encouraged by influential figures of Vienna's musical life, he revived Lachner's idea and on March 28, 1842 conducted a "Grand Concert" in the Großer Redoutensaal which was presented by all the orchestra members of the imperial "Hof-Operntheater". This "Philharmonic Academy", as it was originally called, is rightly regarded as the origin of the orchestra, because all the principles of the "Philharmonic Idea", which still apply today, were put into practice for the first time:

  • Only a musician who plays in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (originally Court Opera Orchestra) can become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic.
  • The orchestra is artistically, organizationally and financially autonomous, and all decisions are reached on a democratic basis during the general meeting of all members.
  • The day-to-day management is the responsibility of a democratically elected body, the administrative committee.

The Philharmonic Subscription Concerts

Under the leadership of Otto Dessoff (1835-1892) the repertoire was consistently enlarged, important organizational principles (music archives, rules of procedure) were introduced and the orchestra moved to its third new home. At the beginning of the 1870/71 season it began playing in the newly built Goldener Saal in the Musikverein building in Vienna, which has proved to be the ideal venue, with its acoustical characteristics influencing the orchestra's style and sound.

When Otto Nicolai left Vienna permanently in 1847, the young enterprise almost collapsed, having lost in one person not only its artistic but also its administrative leader. Twelve years of stagnation followed before a new innovation brought about the long-awaited change of fortune. On January 15, 1860, the first of four subscription concerts took place in the Kärntnertortheater under the baton of then opera director Carl Eckert, and since that time, the "Philharmonic Concerts" have been staged without interruption. The only significant change in all those years was to switch from having one conductor for a complete season of subscription concerts to the present system of having various guest conductors within a season.


2. The Golden Era