March 15, 1961: Music in Vienna

Wilhelm Backhaus in 1907

March 15, 1961

Music in Vienna

By George Trask, IES Spring 1961 participant from Davidson College, hometown Beaufort SC, written November 18, 2010.

Classical music became my passion when I was a young teenager. My father owned a radio station, which gave me access for $1.00 per long-play recording to the entire classical catalog. In 1954 when I was 14, I constructed a DynaKit amplifier with KT-88 tubes and a Heathkit preamplifier, got a Garrard turntable and a Bozak speaker (this was in the days before stereo), and had a state-of-the-art rig.

When I got to live classical music in Vienna, I was in heaven. Here is the first music program I saved from those Vienna days:

I remember this concert as if it were yesterday. Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) was an old man when he performed  at the Musikverein on Wednesday, March 15, 1961, just a few days shy of his 77th birthday, but he sounded as young as he looked in the 1907 photo.

Backhaus was the greatest interpreter of Beethoven’s piano music of his day, and he has never been surpassed.  He played a Bösendorfer piano, made in Austria, which has 97 keys for more bass notes in contrast to the standard 88 keys.

“The Bösendorfer sound is usually described as darker or richer than the more pure but less full-bodied sound of other pianos like the Steinway & Sons or Yamaha. On the Imperial Grand, this characteristic tonal quality in part derives from the inclusion of 9 additional bass notes below bottom A”, according to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia continues: “Among the earliest artists to be associated with Bösendorfer was Franz Liszt, who at least once opined that Bösendorfer and Bechstein pianos were the only instruments capable of withstanding his tremendously powerful playing. Renowned twentieth-century American composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein has also played a Bösendorfer when he performed. Another great pianist who championed Bösendorfer pianos was Wilhelm Backhaus.”

The Musikverein where Backhaus played Beethoven’s piano music that March evening in 1961 has perfect acoustics “and is considered to be one of the five finest concert/opera venues in the world”, according to Wikipedia. It has two concert halls, the Great Hall and the more intimate Brahms Hall. On the rear of the program for the Backhaus concert I attended was the following list of upcoming concerts, showing the breathtaking abundance and frequency of world-class classical music here:

Wikipedia describes the Musikverein as follows:

The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (English: Society of Music Friends in Vienna / Society of Music Lovers in Vienna, also known as the Musikverein, English: Music Association), was founded in 1812 by Joseph von Sonnleithner, general secretary of the Court Theatre, Vienna, Austria. Its official charter, drafted in 1814, states that the purpose of the Society was to promote music in all its facets. The Society accomplished its goals by sponsoring concerts, founding the Vienna Conservatory in 1819, founding the Wiener Singverein in 1858, constructing the Musikverein building in 1870, and by systematically collecting and archiving noteworthy music-history documents. It is now one of the world’s leading music archives.

The first music director was Anton Rubinstein (appointed in 1871), who was followed in 1872 by Johannes Brahms. Other notable music directors include Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. Membership in the Gesellschaft has included a who’s who of notable 19th- and 20th-century musical figures, including composers, conductors, and instrumentalists.


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