Monday, 30 January 2012

Hausmusik from the Salon Wittgenstein

Haus Wittgenstein, 29/01/2012

Franz & Matthias Bartolomey, cello duo

Offenbach: Duo for two cellos op. 52, no. 3
Popper: Gavotte from the Suite for two cellos, op. 16

Principal cellist of the Wiener Philharmoniker Franz Bartolomey shares a family history with the orchestra stretching back over three generations to 1892. In the first of two concert lectures at Vienna’s Haus Wittgenstein yesterday afternoon he spoke to music journalist Wilhelm Sinkovicz about the family’s rich past and, looking to its future, performed cello duets with his son Matthias, a gifted cellist in his own right.

One usually expects equivocation from the Vienna Philharmonic, but Bartolomey is a candid narrator whose warts and all account was an object lesson in Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which in its more constructive form I take to imply an absence of Austrian ‘balance’ on the one hand and the ingratiating apologetics Germany’s culture of contrition can lead to on the other. ‘If only it had been 1937,’ remarked Bartolomey at his father’s 1938 admission into the Philharmoniker, which came at the expense of the Jewish musicians who were expelled from the orchestra. And expressed in a tone of personal disappointment sensitive to those exiled rather than sitting in judgement on the father, who resisted joining the Hitler Youth. Bartolomey the father, a violinist, was relegated from the Philharmoniker after the war and served for a while at the Volksoper, which alongside the Theater an der Wien had been taken over by the Staatsoper (bombed in the final days of the war by the Americans, who with typical pinpoint precision had been aiming for an oil refinery in Floridsdorf). [Important clarification: he was readmitted to the Staatsopernorchester and the Wiener Philharmoniker in 1946]. The Volksoper director at the time was composer and cultural factotum Franz Salmhofer, who in a previous family connection had studied the clarinet with grandfather Bartolomey.

The first in the line, also named Franz but born Frantisek Bartolomej, had an background uncannily similar to Mahler’s: born in Bohemia to a shoemaker father who came from a family of wine growers (Mahler’s father was an innkeeper and brewer), he was a precociously musical child in a family that wasn’t at all musical. His musical career began in Prague, where he was solo clarinettist at the National Theatre from 1889 to 1892. Not speaking a word of German, he moved to Vienna in 1892 and got a lucky break by successfully auditioning for first clarinettist of the Wiener Hofoper, where he played under Richter and Mahler (his son of course played under Strauss). ‘I was not a Wunderkind, I had to be disciplined and work hard,’ said Bartolomey, suggesting that the same may have been true for his grandfather. But evidence from the time shows that Bartolomey was held in high regard as a clarinettist: in December 1892 he was invited by the Rosé Quartet, who didn’t just play with anyone, to perform Beethoven’s Septett in the legendary Bösendorfersaal on the Herrengasse (by all accounts Vienna’s Wigmore Hall; appallingly, the building was demolished in 1913 for commercial reasons). The Rosés had him back at short notice the next month to play the Brahms Clarinet Quintet – a concert for which Bartolomey replaced an ill Richard Mühlfeld, the most important player of the time, a close friend of Brahms and the work’s dedicatee. The Neue Freie Presse praised Bartolomey’s ‘sweet tone’ and elsewhere he was acclaimed for the ‘dignified beauty of his playing’. Bartolomey also made a significant contribution to the Philharmoniker’s unique pedagogical tradition, an influence which his grandson traced down the line of subsequent clarinettists all the way to Ernst Ottensamer, the Philharmoniker’s current principal. It was with this that the inevitable discussion of the Wiener Klangstil came up, with a regrettable intervention from Wilhelm Sinkovicz (otherwise a great moderator, much better than I expected): ‘you go to Covent Garden and the Met and you think great performance, respectable playing. And then you come back to Vienna and hear how it should really sound.’

I’m well versed in historical sources on the Wiener Philhamoniker from Mahler’s time on, so apart from some of the family history I was familiar with much of what Bartolomey said. But he has done his own archival research (Clemens Hellsberg has competition, it would appear) and revealed many new details I didn’t know. This is all going into a book which will make for an interesting release. My only reservation on the wissenschaftlich side of things was to do with accounts – mostly anecdotal – of the Wiener Staatsoper: the troubles to do with the 1963 Karajan/Freni Bohème seemed accurately reported, but to reduce the house’s history from 1938-45 to geschlossene Vorstellungen for the Wehrmacht and Kraft durch Freude – true, and some pretty grim stuff happened backstage too – neglects new sources which suggest that the director at the time, Erwin Kerber, was not as sympathetic to the regime as was previously thought. But a longstanding complaint about the Philharmoniker is that they aren’t sufficiently critical about their past and what I think Bartolomey proved, as much as I enjoy my Philharmoniker conspiracy theories, is that even if the comparatively much less open Clemens Hellsberg represents majority opinion within the orchestra (as he must if he wants to keep his job), the Philharmoniker isn’t necessarily a lock-step monolith on these issues. For those more interested in the orchestra’s present than its past, the next instalment in this series promises to be similarly critical (for details, see here).

The musical part of the afternoon showed how well the Klangstil has passed from father to son. Matthias, whom I’ve heard a couple of times before, is one of those rare breed players who – and what better way to test versatility than with cello duets – would slot right into the Philharmoniker or could have an interesting career as a soloist. Franz was the less dominant, allowing his son most of the flair and colour, but Matthias blended well – particularly when the Popper goes into G major and a lyrical motif gets rolled from one player to the other. Popper is not a beloved name to most cellists (least of all this one) for his ball-breaking op. 73 studies, and aside from this lyrical moment and Bartolomey senior’s underscoring of the piece’s wit aside, the duets don’t have much to offer beyond their pedagogical value and the connection to the topic under discussion (Popper was another Bohemian-born member of the Hofopernorchester). The Offenbach is a more engaging piece, and very tightly organized despite having everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it in the way of musical devices. Towards the end the melodic line turns operatic and the Bartolomeys made that sound like a convincing development without letting the sudden incongruity pass unnoticed. There was also the incongruity of a senior member of the Vienna Philharmonic giving this material the best performance it’s likely to receive outside of the Musikschulen, which never really cropped up – and without father and son affecting an overly serious demeanour.

The location and timing for this event couldn’t have been more apt: Salongespräche and Hausmusik was the Sunday afternoon routine back in Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein’s day, though not commencing until after the household had dutifully attended the Wiener Philharmoniker’s 11:00 Soirée at the Musikverein.

Wilhelm Sinkovicz & Franz Bartolomey

Image credit: Sophie Bartolomey


  1. There are many ironies surrounding the father-to-son traditions in the Vienna Philharmonic. The Orchestra’s centennial in 1942 was commemorated with a book by Wilhelm Jerger entitled Erbe und Sendung (Inheritance and Mission). Jerger was the Chairman of the orchestra during the Third Reich and was also a Lieutenant in the SS. His book includes the genealogies of several prominent father-to-son generations that formed a historical continuum within the ranks of the Philharmonic, and every "non-Aryan" listed in the tables is indicated with a special asterisk by his name. Jerger explains that the Aryan stock of these Philharmonic families was so "tough" that the purity of their "blood" was never notably damaged by what racists refer to as "dysgenic influences":

    "And here it is demonstrated, that in spite of manifold influences of blood from elsewhere, this Mind [Geist] continues to implant itself with great toughness through the ancestral lineage, and that it is often very sharply imprinted. It is understandable, that such an inheritance must beget outstanding musicians, who in their stylistic education and in their experience of orchestral playing are already extraordinarily schooled. This is Mind from Old Mind, which helps tradition and inheritance, a dominant trait [überkommene Anlage] to a special development and fulfillment."

    Schooling is acknowledged as important, but only in the context of a special "blood" inheritance that transmits "Mind". This follows National Socialism’s ideology of Ahnenerbe, which asserts that cultural traits are genetically inherited.

    Even if the lines are not direct, these ideas are uncomfortably close to the orchestra's recent comments about the special qualities of the "central European soul”, their exclusion of Asians, and notions about music-making revolving around white males.

    We want to think these connections have become remote, and its probably reasonable to assume they are, but the atmosphere in Vienna sometimes makes it difficult to hold to that view. Just this week, for example, news broke that a Prof. at the WU Wien was fired for Holocaust denial. He is also a founding member of the Human Way Party which is known for anti-Semtic beliefs. Their website speaks about “Money-Jewdom” and the “anacrhonistic Jewish leadership” of the US government. So what are we to think when the Philharmonic, which is in effect the national orchestra of Austria, practices another form of racism by excluding non-Caucasions? Should our fears be left unspoken?

    I thus appreciated the irony of your sentence, “Matthias, whom I’ve heard a couple of times before, is one of those rare breed players who…” Indeed. And then there is the humor of describing the Popper Op. 73 as “ball-breaking” in regard to an orchestra known for its exclusion of women. You devil, you. :-)

    1. ‘Rare breed’ and ‘ball-breaking’ were written off-the-cuff, but thanks for pointing out the unintended irony...

      I have of course read Wilhelm Jerger’s book, which is self-discrediting and has value, like musicological publications of the period, only as a source for critical historical discussions of music and Nazism. But I see that you don’t address any of my comments about Franz Bartolomey, who, as this talk demonstrated, could be relied on to dismiss Jerger’s claims with an appropriate tone of contempt. And his remarks about having to work for his place in the orchestra should be taken as an indication that despite his family history he doesn’t hold much truck with the notion of hereditary membership. His son has certainly disabused himself of any birthright; Matthias could be in the orchestra by now but is choosing to keep his options open and explore other things.

      At the risk of saying something positive about the orchestra, this event was the type of critical discussion you and others, with some justification, have accused the Philharmoniker of avoiding. Incidentally, it was not stage-managed by the orchestra and their leadership was not present. Too little, too late? Maybe. But I’m not going to hold Franz Bartolomey responsible for that after he gave such a candid and informative talk. There’s a time and a place for frying bigger fish.

      More worrying than Professor Hörmann is HC Strache’s overheard claim last week that ‘we are the new Jews.’ The FPÖ under him and Haider have often claimed this. But the reaction to it this time has been head-buryingly depressing. First thing spineless ÖVP leader Spindelegger did was refuse to rule out a future coalition. And I heard Strache turn the thing to his advantage in an interview (incompetent journalist). Now he looks the victim and Ariel Muzicant (head of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde), who's threatening him with a Wiederbetätigung lawsuit, as overstepping the line according to public opinion. All this coming from a party which uses Nazi iconography, draws from Hitler's lexicon and associates with neo factions. There is also the irony, almost too painful to bear, of the FPÖ’s decades-long vilification campaign against Austria’s Turkish community, which can claim with some authority to being targeted as the Jews once were in this city.

    2. Perhaps there’s a better time to “fry the bigger fish,” but one can’t help but notice that 67 years after the war, the WP cooks are still delaying. Did Herr Bartolomey say anything about the orchestra’s exclusion of Asians? If not, he is still carefully skirting fundamentally important topics. What did he say about the orchestra’s exclusion of women? Or was that not mentioned in yet another traditional father-son presentation that reinforces the orchestra’s values?

      These are not some sort of monothematic considerations. They are the elephants in the room, and to overlook them in just about any context is a form of intellectual dishonesty. The biggest problem in all of this is not the WP’s ideologies, but the coziness with which the classical music community overlooks it all. They always have a gracious excuse to look the other way while celebrating an orchestra that is egregiously sexist and racist.

      An interesting article appeared in Slate yesterday about the growing Asian demographic in classical music. It notes that, “Asians make up just over 4 percent of the U.S. population, but 7 percent of U.S. orchestra musicians are Asian, and the figure rises to 20 percent for top orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic. At the elite Julliard School for music, one in five undergraduates—and one in three Ph.D. students—is Asian.”

      Same story at Vienna’s University of Music for the last 40 years, but never one has entered the Vienna Philharmonic. That’s racism, and if Herr Bartolomey and his colleagues want to be moral and intellectually honest individuals, they should speak about it. Instead, there is nothing but dead silence.

    3. Indeed William, those who came to a talk about the history of the Bartolomey family in the Vienna Philharmonic from 1892-1966 expecting a denunciation of the orchestra's hiring practices would have been disappointed. I'm afraid you've not convinced me that the orchestra's exclusion of women is relevant to this context and insisting that it's not monothematic under the circumstances protests too much.

      You are more than welcome to hold forth when I report from the last event in this series: the topic is 'The Wittgenstein family and the Vienna Philharmonic', but there's a sub-heading of 'music, integration and women in culture' and the speakers are Clemens Hellsberg and Albena Danailova. This, I believe, is the time and place to fry that bigger fish, and I won't hold back if it's undercooked.

  2. Sorry for the much delayed response. I had forgotten about this thread until I saw a message from you on Norman Lebrecht’s blog. To claim that Bartololey’s discussion of the orchestra’s racism regarding Jews during the Third Reich does not lead directly to discussion of its on-going racism is not only ridiculous, it’s shamelessly evasive and intellectually dishonest.

    1. Glad you got that little outburst off your chest?

      As I have already explained – and don’t particularly care to repeat ad nauseam – this was a two-part event, devoted to the history of Franz’s family in the Philharmoniker from 1897-1966 and 1966 to the present day. What you are slurring him for avoiding would have come, if at all, in the second part (which I couldn’t attend).

      As for the intemperate rhetoric, well, this is no way to debate these issues William, and you know it.