Advocacy: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

by Monique Buzzarté

as published in the IAWM Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, June 1997, pp. 3-8. 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; 
indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” 
American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

Membership Granted to Women
On Thursday, February 27, 1997 the Vienna Philharmonic granted membership status to Anna Lelkes, a harpist with the orchestra since 1974. Ms. Lelkes, aged 57, is the first woman musician ever to become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic, and her admittance brings down a barrier against women musicians that has existed since the orchestra’s inception in 1842.

The Vienna Philharmonic was the last major orchestra to refuse women membership, and it had stood steadfast in its policy of exclusion despite criticism which had increased after the Berlin Philharmonic admitted its first women in 1982. The Vienna Philharmonic maintained that as a private institution it was not obliged open its membership to women musicians. However, the Vienna Philharmonic draws its membership entirely from the publicly-funded Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Since the orchestras have virtually identical personnel rosters, in order for the Vienna Philharmonic to retain its all-male ranks women had also been excluded from membership the opera orchestra. In addition to Ms. Lelkes gaining membership status with the Vienna Philharmonic, women will now be permitted to apply to audition for positions in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, which is currently composed entirely of male musicians aside from two female harpists, one of whom is Ms. Lelkes.

The Vienna Philharmonic voted to grant membership to a woman because pressure to do so on all fronts – by the Austrian government, the music community, feminist groups, and individuals – was widely publicized in the international media. However, changing deeply entrenched attitudes within the orchestra will take time: the integration of women into previously all-male domains is rarely a smooth process, and transitions from tokenism to full equality are usually measured in decades, not in years.

Although this historic decision by the Vienna Philharmonic set a precedent for the orchestra, it marks just the first step of a very long journey. Several factors serve to temper our celebration at this announcement with moderate amounts of cautious optimism. First, the actual composition of the Vienna Philharmonic has not changed with this announcement. Although she was not a member of the orchestra, and was therefore denied the right to vote on orchestra matters, Ms. Lelkes had performed as the second harpist for the Vienna Philharmonic for over twenty years. Granting her membership “effective immediately” after over two decades of service is a far cry from admitting women as members into the orchestra directly through the audition process.

Audition Procedures
Another reason for wariness is that audition procedures remain unaltered for the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, the orchestra from which all members of the Vienna Philharmonic are drawn. The opera orchestra will hold auditions for trumpet, tuba, double bass, solo viola and solo cello positions in June, and while these auditions mark the first time that applications from women will be considered, there are no assurances that any women will actually be invited to attend the auditions. Since a photograph of the applicant is still required with the audition application, and since the final rounds of the auditions will continue to be played without a screen, it remains to be seen if the orchestra will be truly open equally to women.

Ms. Lelkes is now the token woman member of the Vienna Philharmonic, and it is vital that she be rapidly joined by other women for the process of gender integration in the orchestra to continue. Since prospective members of the Vienna Philharmonic must perform with the opera orchestra for three years before becoming eligible for membership in the Vienna Philharmonic, it will be at least several years before any other women can join Ms. Lelkes. In the meantime, Ms. Lelkes will continue as the sole woman in the Vienna Philharmonic. However, since she is the second harpist (performing at the very edge of the orchestra) and since the repertoire performed by the orchestra does not often require the services of two harpists, audiences at many performances of the Vienna Philharmonic will still observe on-stage an ensemble composed entirely of white male musicians.

The progress of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in accepting qualified musicians without regard to non-musical factors will be monitored by the VPO Watch, with information available on the VPO Watch web site.

Chronology of Vienna Advocacy Project
When the IAWM commenced our Vienna Philharmonic advocacy effort in November 1996, we joined a movement whose efforts to overcome discrimination faced by women orchestral performers stretch back to the beginnings of this century. What follows is a brief chronology of actions that have taken place between October 1995 and April 1997.

William Osborne’s Contribution
The most recent push to open the ranks of the Vienna Philharmonic began with the efforts of William Osborne, a composer who is now also writing a book about the Vienna Philharmonic for Garland Press. Mr. Osborne began posting information about the Vienna Philharmonic on the internet in October 1995. In January 1996 he posted documented information about the Vienna Philharmonic’s exclusion of women.

In February members of the Gender and Music email list wrote directly to the Vienna Philharmonic, requesting specific information about the orchestra’s hiring practices and suggesting that the orchestra could be faced with boycotts in the future if it remained closed to women. In May of the same year Mr. Osborne posted on the internet a translation of a panel discussion that had been broadcast in February on West German State Radio, where members of the orchestra spoke in utterly contemptuous terms of women musicians. The Austrian parliament began to exert pressure on the Vienna Philharmonic in August to change its position of women musicians since the orchestra received a subsidy from the state. Werner Resel, the orchestra’s chairman, then issued a statement that women members would be a non-issue within ten years, which was widely reported to mean that women would become members of the orchestra within ten years. This statement was immediately followed by the clarification that what he had meant by this statement was that the public would lose interest in this issue within ten years, not that women would join the Vienna Philharmonic within that time. “Art is Just an Excuse” , Mr. Osborne’s article on gender bias in international orchestras appeared in the October 1996 IAWM Journal . (Vol. 2, No.3).

IAWM Advocacy Action
A post from Nora Graham sparked renewed discussion on the IAWM email list regarding what we could do to protest discrimination against women orchestral player, both as individuals and as an organization. When a newly created board position focused on performers was filled by Monique Buzzarté in November, the IAWM was able to undertake an advocacy action and actively participate in efforts to confront the Vienna Philharmonic’s discriminatory policies. As a volunteer organization, the IAWM faces great limitations in the allocation of physical resources to projects. However, by tapping into the vast power of the internet to make information about the Vienna Philharmonic’s policies instantly available, we were able to substain a concentrated effort that brought international attention to this issue, and at the same time brought worldwide exposure for the position of women in music in general.

Web Sites
The first step we took was to add an “Advocacy” page to the IAWM web site which gave information about the IAWM’s involvement in this issue and directed those interested in more specific information on the Vienna Philharmonic action to “Zap the VPO,” a web site and email list developed by Ms. Buzzarté and linked to the IAWM web site. “Zap the VPO” web site served as a central repository for all types of information relating to the Vienna Philharmonic, and proved to be a very successful way of reaching large numbers of people, especially those outside of the women-in-music community.

The Media
Since broad media coverage is the most powerful, effective, and far-reaching tool available to reach the general public and heighten their awareness on any issue, we chose to focus on drawing the attention of the media to the existence of the Vienna Philharmonic’s discriminatory policies. In mid-December we began mailing letters to individuals in the media as well as to Austrian officials and concert presenters, and we sent a letter to the Vienna Philharmonic informing them of our actions. Included with these letters was a reprint of Osborne’s “Art is Just an Excuse” and a fact sheet about the Vienna Philharmonic. (The text of these letters appeared in the February 1997 IAWM Journal .) Vice President Sally Reid coordinated all aspects of the preparation this mailing.

The Vienna Philharmonic’s discriminatory policies had begun to come under increasing public scrutiny throughout Europe since the summer, and were the subject of a public symposium held in Vienna in early December (Board Member Regina Himmelbauer’s “The Situation of Women Musicians in Austria,” a report from the symposium, appeared in the February 1997 IAWM Journal .) In mid-January the director of the Vienna State Opera publicly expressed his opinion that women should be allowed to audition for vacant positions in the opera orchestra. When the outgoing Cultural Minister announced that he had reached an agreement with Mr. Resel to open the orchestra’s rank to women, the orchestra’s spokesman responded the next day with outright denial that any such agreement had been made, adding that the orchestra would not allow itself to be “dictated to” by politicians, that only the orchestra as a whole could decided such matters, and that their next General Assembly would be in mid-February. Both stories were widely reported.

As the advocacy project grew, additional personnel was necessary to maintain our role. Board Member Catherine Pickar agreed to serve as an additional media contact for the IAWM, while Board Member Clare Shore solicited statements from high-profile individuals. They were joined by Nora Graham, who volunteered to serve as the West Coast Protest Coordinator.

February’s General Assembly of the Vienna Philharmonic was eagerly awaited. With the Vienna State Opera director on record as supporting the entrance of women into the opera orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic vigorously denying the outgoing Cultural Minister’s report of an agreement, and concert presenters in the United States facing protest demonstrations, all sides were anxious for a resolution. During this time media coverage in the United States began to build, beginning with a report on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” immediately followed by a full page article in the Village Voice and the first of many articles in the Los Angeles Times .

Events in Vienna
The Vienna musicians met on February 18th in what was reportedly a very heated discussion. Despite new Chancellor Viktor Klima’s plea to “use the creative potential of the other half of humanity” the orchestra chose not to make any decision regarding the admission of women into the Vienna Philharmonic, postponing the vote until a later time. The IAWM statement issued in response to this meeting stated that “the orchestra’s continued refusal to allow qualified women as members into the orchestra openly demonstrates to the world their utter contempt and blatant disregard for basic principles of equality” and we vowed to continue our protests against the discriminatory policies of the orchestra in order to bring those policies to the attention of the general public and the international media.

In the days following this assembly Resel threatened to disband the orchestra rather than admit women, and suggested that if the ensemble admitted women it might be unable to perform due to potential simultaneous pregnancies. Comments such as these subjected the orchestra to increasing ridicule from even the more conservative press. The director of the State Opera announced that since there was no order forbidding women he would begin admitting women to auditions, and that if the musicians wished to separate themselves into the opera orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic they would only divide themselves.

On February 27th the musicians met again, the day before their departure on the international tour which brought them to the United States in early March. This time the members voted to allow women to audition for positions with the opera orchestra, and granted immediate membership in the Vienna Philharmonic to harpist Anna Lelkes. The orchestra’s struggles over the issue of admitting women had been front page news in Austria for weeks, and it was now a front page story in the international press as well, including in The New York Times .

The VPO Visits the USA
When the orchestra arrived in the United States they were met by peaceful informative protest demonstrations held outside of the concert halls in California and New York. These were jointly sponsored by the IAWM and South Orange County NOW and NYC-NOW, the local chapters of the National Organization for Women. These protests were instrumental in keeping the media focused on issues of discrimination in the music world, and affirmed the commitment of the IAWM to support women musicians. In keeping with our mission to educate and inform the public, leaflets were distributed to audience members by protesters. While congratulating the orchestra on their decision to admit women, the leaflets gave a brief synopsis of the issues and warned of the temptation of allowing the hiring of Ms. Lelkes to serve as the orchestra’s token gesture towards providing equal opportunities for all qualified performers.

Mr. Resel resigned from his administrative position in April, citing “personal reasons” for his departure. Resel had been chairman since 1987 and will remain as a cellist with the orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic spokesperson insisted that the decision to admit women into the orchestra had nothing to do with Resel’s resignation. Dr. Clemens Hellsberg, the current vice-chairman, will assume Resel’s duties until the next elections are held. Dr. Hellsberg, who plays first violin, is the also orchestra’s archivist and the author of The Democracy of Kings (Demokartie der Koenige : Mainz, Musikverlag Schot; Zurich, Schweizer Verlagshaus, 1992), a history of the Vienna Philharmonic published in celebration of its 150th year.

Role of Advocacy
The increased visibility the IAWM derived from this advocacy campaign provides opportunities for our organization to comment on the position of women in many areas of music. Although focused on the relatively narrow issue of discrimination against women orchestral musicians as practiced by one particular orchestra, over the course of the Vienna Philharmonic advocacy effort, the achievements and difficulties of women composers and conductors were also highlighted in the media.

Building coalitions with other groups is essential for successful advocacy work, especially for an organization such as the IAWM with a relatively small membership widely dispersed geographically. The protest demonstrations were jointly sponsored by the IAWM and the local chapter of NOW (South Orange County NOW for protests in California, NYC-NOW for protests in New York), and the participation of NOW members in the demonstrations was crucial.

Statements from prominent individuals and other organizations helped to demonstrate the breadth and depth of support for equal opportunities for women musicians. Along with a statement from Gloria Steinem, we were able to present letters written to the Vienna Philharmonic from Locals 802 (NY), 47 (LA) and 9-535 (Boston) of American Federation of Musicians, as well as the International Conference for Symphony and Opera Musicians, all urging the Vienna Philharmonic to open its ranks to all qualified musicians without regard to their gender or race.

We have an unparalleled opportunity before us to use the success of this effort as a springboard for launching other advocacy projects. Although the IAWM is comitted to advocating for women in music as an organization, as individuals we also can engage in advocacy work of our own each day. Each one of us can make a difference.

Media Coverage
Media coverage was comprehensive, and included international coverage in large markets on network television (ORF, CNN, ABC, CBS), radio (ORF, BBC, National Public Radio), wire services (Associated Press, Reuter’s, Knight-Ryder), news magazines (including News, Time, and Newsweek ) and newspapers (front page stories in many Austrian and United States papers, including Kurier, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times ). For a complete listing see the media coverage page on the “VPO Watch” web site . Links off this page provide the texts of many of the stories.

As we celebrate this historic occasion, and our role in the process, let us each also acknowledge and cherish the contributions of all those who have spent years – in some cases their lives – working on behalf of women in music, along with others who battle injustice and discrimination in every field. Many of these pioneers worked in obscurity, and while a few fortunate ones were able to see tangible results from their labors, many more did not. How lucky we are to have been a part of this effort, and to have witnessed such substantial changes occurring within such a short period of time.

I extend my heartfelt thanks and deepest appreciation to all those who participated in this effort, at every level. Each of us gives what we can, as we can, when we can, and the success this endeavor would simply not have been possible without the support of a great number of people, both within and without the IAWM membership.

The following people were closing involved in the IAWM advocacy effort: Anne Conners (President, NYC-NOW), Nora Graham (West Coast Protest Coordinator), Regina Himmelbauer (IAWM International Liaison – Europe), Pauline Oliveros (IAWM Advisor), William Osborne (Composer and Author), Elena Ostleitner, (Music Sociologist), JoAnn Perlman (South Orange County NOW), Catherine Pickar (IAWM Board Member), Deon Price (IAWM President), Sally Reid (IAWM Vice President), and Clare Shore (IAWM Board Member – Concerts). All were extraordinary generous in donating their time, energy, and expertise, often at the expense of their personal and professional lives. Thank you.

Monique Buzzarté is a free-lance trombonist based in New York City. She is a member of the IAWM Board of Directors, serving as spokesperson for the organization along with representing performers’ interests. She was the coordinator of the Vienna Philharmonic advocacy effort and will to continue to actively champion issues related to women. You may contact her at: [email protected] and: [Currrent author contact information:  [email protected] and – MB]