Fritz Trümpi, translated by Kenneth Kronenberg
Chicago University Press
Hardback, £35

The symbolic positions of these two great orchestras create the foundation for this ground-breaking book. Author Fritz Trümpi is well-positioned to write such a study, being assistant professor of music history at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna. The author’s starting point is his 2006 debate with Simon Rattle, concerning the ‘German’ sound of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Early in his book Trümpi states that his intention is to gain a better perspective of the polarity that existed between the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. At the beginning, no competitive relationship was present between the two. In Trümpi’s analysis, Austria-Hungary was for a long time regarded by the German Reich less as a rival than as a stabilising factor for its global goals, the real challenge being England which, at the time, was Europe’s leading economic and colonial powerhouse.

Trümpi begins by examining how these very different orchestras related to modernism and modernity. The author then considers the consequences of this politicisation, examining the political climate during the Weimar Republic (1918-33) and the Austrian First Republic (1919-34). Trümpi’s third chapter gives an account of the history of both orchestras during their respective shifts from republics to fascist regimes. Included here is an examination of the changes that resulted from the takeover by Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda in January 1934. This leads to a consideration of how the annexation of Austria affected the activities of the two orchestras and, ultimately, how the many changes which came about affected the public reception of the two orchestras.

By strange coincidence, The Political Orchestra was published at the same time as the transmission of SS-GB, a British drama series produced for the BBC, based on the 1978 novel of the same name by Len Deighton. The series is set in a 1941 alternative timeline in which Nazi Germany, having won the Battle of Britain, is now a tough occupying force in the United Kingdom.

Trümpi’s account of the story of these two orchestras brings facts and specialist comment to this appalling notion, and thus has a welcome topicality.