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The New Year tradition with a dark history

New Year's Day concert, Vienna, 1 January 2013 Image copyright AFP

The New Year's Day concert of classical music in Vienna has become an annual tradition - but it's not as old as some expect and there is a dark side to its history.

Twinkling chandeliers hang over the Graben, the avenue that has been Vienna's main shopping street since the 12th Century.

Halfway down, an ornate, baroque, marble and gold column stands in memorial to those who died in the virulent plagues of the 17th Century. Temporary stalls have been set up around the monument, selling mulled wine and sweet cakes.

They are staffed by volunteers from local Lions clubs, that international organisation dedicated to community work. By day, presumably lawyers, accountants, thoroughly modern business people.

But while the men wear warm quilted jackets, the women are in red and white dirndls, the national dress of old Austria.

History is all around here, much more so than in the other capitals of old Europe. The civic architecture speaks of a city running a vast empire. The grand palaces that are now hotels and shopping arcades were once the townhouses of a noble and rich aristocracy.

The power may have gone but the past is ever present - in cafes that have been serving coffee since Mozart lived here, at the Spanish Riding School where once young army officers practised dressage, at the dancing academies preparing the city's youth for the annual ball season.

Image copyright AFP

You could be forgiven for assuming that the Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Day concert is also part of this roll-call of tradition.

The annual performance of waltzes, polkas and marches by Johann Strauss, his three sons and their contemporaries, seems timeless. Everything about the event, from its formality, its charmingly contrived humour, its home in the almost overpoweringly rich Golden Hall of the Musikverein, suggest something that dates back to the heady days of the 19th Century.

In fact the history of the New Year's Day concert is rather more recent. It was a Nazi invention.

The first ever performance took place on New Year's Eve 1939, raising money for the Winterhilfswerk, an annual fundraising drive masterminded by the National Socialist Party to buy fuel for the needy in the coldest months of the year.

When the Strausses were alive, the Vienna Philharmonic was a little sniffy about their music. Why would such an advanced and adventurous orchestra want to play popular tunes?

They started taking it more seriously in the late 1920s - but the idea of a seasonal Strauss gala really gained traction when the Nazi party's cultural commissars hit upon the idea of a unifying event that could be broadcast live across the Third Reich. The concert moved to New Year's Day in 1941.


The Strauss family

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Johann Strauss the Elder was born in Vienna in 1804 - the son of an innkeeper, he was one of the architects of the Viennese Waltz and three of his sons became musicians
  • Johann Strauss the Younger (right), born in 1825, is the most famous member of the family, known as The Waltz King
  • Josef Strauss, born in 1827, was an architectural draughtsman and foreman who designed a horse-drawn revolving-brush street-sweeping vehicle before he turned to music - he left more than 300 original dances and marches
  • Eduard Strauss, born in 1835, was in the diplomatic service before joining his brothers as a conductor - he wrote more than 320 pieces of music

Source: The Johann Strauss Society of Great Britain


As it became obvious the war was not going to be over quickly, the Blue Danube Waltz and Fledermaus overture were seen as a helpful way of shoring up flagging morale.

When it emerged that Strauss had some Jewish ancestry, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels himself ensured the news was hushed up.

When the war ended, not a beat was missed - the concerts simply continued, their awkward history quietly forgotten.

As recently as the 1960s, the Vienna Philharmonic saluted a wartime supporter - Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi gauleiter, or governor, of Vienna who deported tens of thousands of Jews.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Baldur von Schirach (right) with Hermann Goering wearing Tyrolean costume, circa 1935

He was awarded the orchestra's prestigious ring of honour in 1942. Staggeringly, after the medal was lost, he was given a replacement when he was released from Spandau Prison more than 20 years later.

That fact emerged after independent historians were allowed access to the Vienna Philharmonic's vast archive and their often shocking reports on its attitude during and after the war have now been published on the orchestra's own website.

Since then, the orchestra has revoked awards it made to six leading Nazis including von Schirach.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Baldur Von Schirach after his release from Spandau Prison, pictured with his son

Today demand for tickets means there are now three New Year concerts - each one with the same programme.

New Year's Day itself is the grandest - seats cost up to €1,100 (£860, $1,340) but without doubt many in the audience will have paid agents and brokers far more.

On New Year's Eve it's a more Viennese crowd, reflected by the foyer crush of men in thick green Loden coats, and women in heavy furs.

And at this season's first performance on 30 December, the guests of honour were once again the Austrian military, who filled the balcony.

Some of the young soldiers, with their drab olive uniforms and brutally short haircuts, looked a little confused as to why they were there - their officers appearing more comfortable, perhaps contemplating a morning of popular music, followed by a decent lunch in the mess.

They are members of a modern European army, which plays a major role in international peacekeeping operations.

Yet looking up at the martial sea of green and grey, set against the rich gilt of the Golden Hall, it's hard to completely forget the dark history of this now global event.

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