The Vienna Philharmonic is a legendary orchestra known for its unique sound and famous immersive waltzes played at its New Year’s Concert.
But what makes it so special? What is the secret behind the Viennese sound?
“The special thing and somehow the whole world envies us is the rhythm and how we feel it. The anticipation of the second note that comes a little earlier, and the third note that comes a little later. And that becomes combined with a beautiful melody that is tailor-made for our orchestra”, says the first violin and president of the Vienna Philharmonic, Daniel Frogauer†
Passion and craftsmanship
But the signature Viennese sound goes way beyond iconic waltzes. It is also shaped by passion and craftsmanship.
Benjamin Morrison regularly takes his instrument to the violin maker. For the New Zealander, care and precision are vital to maintain the instrument’s rich sound.
“I notice this time and again in sound settings, especially when musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic come to me, that the focus is on the quality of the sound, on a richer sound and a warm timbre”, Violin maker Matthias Wolff said Musica.
“With a few little things you can change the sound incredibly. First of all, of course, the bridge, where it stands, how much has been cut out. At the bridge alone, there are so many elements that can have a huge effect on the sound,” Wolff adds.
Shaping the sound through the way a musician plays is key for the Austrian clarinetist Daniel Ottensamer and French bassoonist Sophie Dervaux†
“It’s very difficult to pin it down to one thing. Of course it has a lot to do with tradition, but I’m not sure if it’s just the sound,” says Ottensamer.
Dervaux agrees: “It’s something special…for example, you would never play too fiercely. You play very around, very softly.”
Ottensamer explains the dark quality of the Viennese sound, adding: “What always strikes me is the subtlety in the sound. You try not to play too directly in certain passages. Notes rise gradually and don’t always have a clear start .”
Timing but also tools
Some of the orchestra’s instruments are very different from those played elsewhere in the world.
“The [Viennese] clarinet is built with a little more wood. It is somewhat thicker, more voluminous and therefore gives a darker sound. This brings us to the Viennese sound itself. This sound fits very well with the other instruments in the orchestra”, says Ottensamer.
But the sound they produce is so distinctive that it has become the focus of scientific research.
At the University of Music and Performing Arts in ViennaGregor Widholm and his team revealed the secrets behind one of these unique instruments, the Viennese timpani.
“Goat skins are used in Vienna and only in Vienna. These goatskins have a special property. Along the spine, the skin is very thin and therefore certain modes of vibration that are formed are much stronger.”
Widholm explains in more detail: “You can really see here in this 3D image how the rhythms die out evenly after the beat compared to the international timpani with the plastic skin which has more irregular frequency intervals between the vibration modes. This means that the sound structure of the Viennese timpani has a more musical tone, while the international timpani is more percussive.”
He describes the deep timbre his instrument produces, timpanist Thomas Lechner told Musica.
“It is a sound that gives me rhythmic brevity on the one hand, but always homogeneously transitions into the orchestral sound. You can always feel this heartbeat. When the sounds of the instruments in the orchestra merge – this is the Viennese sound for me. And there are moments in the concert I feel that this sound wraps itself like a warm jacket around my chest and touches my heart and soul.”
The Eternal Quest for Excellence
Since the 19th century, the orchestra’s constant quest for excellence has been forged in the orchestra’s home, the Wiener Musikverein.
Froschauer describes how the concert hall helped shape the orchestra’s signature style, saying: “That sound – let’s not forget that – if you had been in our orchestra in 1875, you would have played with Verdi in the opera.” And then you would go to the Musikverein and play with Richard Wagner – and this all affected our sound. And this sound has always remained. We pass it on from generation to generation without talking about it.”
Legendary maestro and pianist Daniel BarenboimThe relationship with the orchestra goes way back.
“The first time I played with the orchestra was in Salzburg sometime in the 1960s. I sat there at the piano, surrounded by 60, 70 musicians playing as a community. It was about being together and creating together. And this was really a dream.”
But how does it feel to be part of one of the great orchestras known worldwide for its unique style?
“There’s a special feeling here when you tell people you’re a musician, they take you very seriously. It’s not like elsewhere where you say ‘I’m a musician’, and people ask you ‘and what else do you do for a living?’” Dervaux says with a laugh.
Ottensamer agrees: “Of course Vienna, as we all know, is a global music capital and this presence, this importance, which I would say has music here, but also the culture of the city as a whole is extraordinary, and because of that , you just feel like you’re doing something really special because it’s so important here.”
In summary, Barenboim tells Musica: “Vienna and all of Austria are proud of the Vienna Philharmonic and I think this is very important.
“The orchestra is unique. When they play, they become one and that makes up everything… and that’s the most important word – together – spiritually, together.”