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The universal shock resulting from the catastrophic tidal wave in south-eastern Asia and its grave ramifications not only cast a shadow over the New Year's Concert 2005, but also obscured an important orchestral anniversary. It was fifty years ago, on January 1, 1955, that Willi Boskovsky conducted the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Concert for the first time.
Although the New Year's Concerts had begun 14 years earlier, and Boskovsky was, after Clemens Krauss and Josef Krips, already the third conductor of this event, he succeeded in putting his own unique stamp on the event. Until 1979, Boskovsky conducted the concert 25 times, and it was in his era that the live television broadcasts by the Austrian Broadcast Co. were initiated, which quickly transformed the annual homage to the Strauss family into an international celebration of the start of the New Year. In addition to the music of the Strauss family, the special date of the concert, the beauty of the Golden Hall of the Musikverein, and the Viennese musical tradition, it was Willi Boskovsky's telegenic personality which contributed greatly to the extreme popularity of the broadcasts. Although he himself was only 9 years old at the time the Hapsburg monarchy collapsed, he managed to embody the romantic elegance of that historic era from Austria's past which, with the exception of the Strauss' music, remained only as a nostalgic memory. The magic he conjured was enhanced by the fact that, as did the "King of the Waltz" himself, he led the orchestra with violin in hand.
The beginning of this era however was anything but promising, emerging from the shadow of Boskovsky's predecessor, Clemens Krauss. Having conducted the event 12 times (1941-1945 and 1948-1954), Krauss had already made the concert well known beyond Austria's borders, and in the process set new musical standards. How much he monopolized the concerts became evident after his death in May 1954. It was only at a surprisingly late date, on September 8, 1954, that the Philharmonic deliberated the future course of the concerts. No personnel decision was made at that time, but it was noted that "the New Year's Concert should be held without a conductor, with the concertmaster leading, while playing his violin standing up."1 Misgivings must have arisen as to the wisdom of this decision however, and it is recorded that on October 29, 1954, a vote was held to determine if, after the death of Krauss, the concert should even continue to be held at all. Out of 72 present, only one was against continuing the tradition, but the tendency was to invite another conductor for the concert, and the vote over who that should be brought some surprises. Erich Kleiber was nominated with only one vote against him; second choice was the composer and opera conductor, Franz Salmhofer, with 37 votes, followed by Josef Krips with 24 votes. Only two members thought that Wilhelm Furtwängler, otherwise the pre-eminent conductor of the era, would be suitable to conduct music of this particular genre2 (the choice of Furtwängler could have jeopardized the concert, as he died on November 30, 1954, at the age of 68).
On November 25, 1954, the orchestra faced the next problem, as Erich Kleiber had turned down the offer to conduct the concerts. In the ensuing discussion, confusion and lack of direction were evident. According to the previous vote, the next candidate should have been Salmhofer, but now doubts were raised about the wisdom of this decision, and Chairman Erich Obermeyer suggested another vote about whether "…Boskovsky should conduct. The results were 32 yes, 12 no, 1 for Max Schönherr, 1 for Krips, and 1 for Salmhofer."3 As late as December 13th, 12 days before the rehearsals were to begin, the committee finally agreed with Boskovsky on the technical details, and only at this point could the concert, the tickets for which were already in "high demand"4, be considered to be assured. Thus was a decision finally made, albeit in a gradual and contorted manner, which nevertheless proved to be one of the most prescient in the orchestra's history.
Boskovsky reacted to his appointment with a gesture of good will and waived his fee for the concert, prompting the orchestra to present him with a valuable ring instead.5 In the following years, there were no more recorded discussions or votes about who the conductor of this concert was to be. Boskovsky retained the leadership, and even in 1957 he remained adamant in his refusal to accept any remuneration for his services. This led to the unanimous decision to pay him a honorarium of 5,000 schilling.6
In the 25 New Year's concerts which Willi Boskovsky conducted, he did not confine his choice of repertoire to the well known highlights of the unique Strauss family. Working closely with the congenial director Dr. Hermann Lanske (who incidentally collapsed and died in the broadcasting booth during the first New Year's Concert of the post-Boskovsky era), he always made an effort to present a broad spectrum of the family's works, with the compositions of Johann and Josef Strauss dominating. With about one hundred various compositions and some 320 performances (not including the Blue Danube Waltz), these two brothers maintained a monopoly of nearly 90% of the programming. Eduard Strauss was represented by eight compositions being performed some thirteen times, reflecting the different musical world of this youngest family member, while Johann Strauss, Sen. and his contemporary, friend, and competitor Josef Lanner were awarded only a small portion of concert time. Strauss, Sen. was represented with 7 works in 11 performances (not counting the Radetzky March), and Lanner received a mere 9 renditions of 4 of his compositions, which corresponds neither to the quality of their works nor the music-historical significance of the creators of the classical form of the Viennese Waltz. It is noteworthy how consistently the attention of Boskovsky and Lanske focused on Strauss and Lanner: with Carl Michael Ziehrer (3 performances), Franz Schubert and Franz von Suppé (1 performance each) there were only three "outsiders" who ever appeared on the programs.
Even though the era of Willi Boskovsky appeared as timeless as the music of the Strauss family itself, it was destined to draw to a conclusion. In October 1979, when the artist was forced to cancel the New Year's Concert 1980 because of ill health, a fundamental decision about the future was made, also incrementally. The Philharmonic chairman at the time, Alfred Altenburger, made the decision to entrust the designated director of the Vienna State Opera, Lorin Maazel, with the direction of the 1980 concert. Handing over the baton to a conductor of international renown was a logical and correct decision. Willi Boskovsky was a singular phenomenon, inimitable by any other concertmaster. On the other hand, it proved to be less in the style of the times to rely on one single conductor for the definition of a new era. After 7 successful concerts with Lorin Maazel (1980-1986), the orchestra departed from the concept of a single personality and began each year to invite a different artist each year from among its subscription concert conductors. Since then such outstanding conductors as Herbert von Karajan (1987), Claudio Abbado (1988,1991), Carlos Kleiber (1989,1992), Zubin Mehta (1990, 1995, 1998), Riccardo Muti (1993, 1997, 2000, 2004), Lorin Maazel (1994, 1996, 1999, 2005), Nikolaus Harnoncourt (2001, 2003), and Seiji Ozawa (2002) have stood on the podium. For the New Year's concert 2006, Mariss Jansons will make his debut.
Thus, the era of Willi Boskovsky remains a unique milestone in the history of this concert. Fortunately the ORF, which has contributed greatly to the success of the concert over the years, along with Deutsche Grammophon, have worked together with Boskovsky's widow Elisabeth to create a commemoration of this golden anniversary of Boskovsky's debut with a noteworthy DVD. The result is moving: the charm with which Boskovsky presented this music is as timeless as the work of the Strauss family itself, whereas the chronology of changes in the orchestral membership, and the developments in audio and video recording techniques over the years provide in this small mosaic an attestation to the changes taking place continually in the world, and in us as well. The DVD contains the complete second half of the 1974 New Year's Concert (this itself is a cultural-historical miniature - through 1990, only the 2nd half of the concert was broadcast!), as well as 19 recordings from the years 1963 through 1979.
Willi Boskovsky, who from 1939 through 1970 imbued the orchestra with his artistic stamp as concertmaster, and as conductor of the New Year's Concerts from 1955 through 1979, turned the annual homage to the Strauss family into an international event. The Vienna Philharmonic has awarded him its Honorary Ring, the Nicolai Medal, and Honorary Membership. In addition to this, he has earned a permanent place in the history of our orchestra, an honor confirmed by countless music fans throughout the world, who experienced him live or over television, and consider him to be the classic interpreter of this most Viennese of all music.
1 Historisches Archiv der Wiener Philharmoniker (HA/WPH), A-Pr-035-13.2 HA/WPH, A-Pr-035-18.3 HA/WPH, A-Pr-035-22.4 HA/WPH, A-Pr-035-23a.5 HA/WPH, A-Pr-035-28.6 HA/WPH, A-Pr-035-40.