October 28, 2012

Die Fledermaus: Secret Police, Cholera and Revolution?

Metternich: "Every step you take..."
Virginia Opera's gala production of Die Fledermaus opens in two weeks, so today begins a series of posts about this greatest of all Viennese operettas (sorry, Lehar). I love this piece for many reasons, both musical and extra-musical. I wrote about my participation in the 2010 OperaFestival di Roma production in my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates (see below for more info), and Strauss's music will henceforth evince warm memories of the city, the friends made, and of course...

...the gelato...  But enough of Memory Lane. On to Insight.

The title above is meant to appear, shall we say, counter-intuitive. Admit it: when you think of Fledermaus, you immediately think of some or all of the following:
  • Champagne
  • Waltzes and polkas
  • Linzertorte
  • Sachertorte
  • Gelato (for me, anyway... it was a really fun festival!)
  • Steaming coffee with schlagobers (Don't speak German? Google it.)
  • Attractive men and women dressed to the nines, dancing divinely, and kicking up their heels in some uninhibited, frisky, slightly adulterous hijinks.
Secret police, a cholera epidemic and revolution? Not so much.

Yet all three played a big role in explaining an under-discussed phenomenon that I think is key to truly appreciating and understanding the story of The Bat. Here's a question for you: what the heck happened to serious musical compostition in Vienna in the middle of the nineteenth century?

You must understand that to musicians like your Humble Blogger, Vienna is the most important city in the world; the home of the highest achievements we have in abstract concert music. When I think of Vienna, it's not schlagobers that come to mind; it's a series of masters and geniuses.  But there's an odd gap to be observed. Consider:

Beidermeier period furnishings
VIENNESE CLASSICAL PERIOD (ca. 1750 - ca. 1820-ish) Haydn! Mozart! Beethoven! And let's throw in Schubert, though he's more early Romantic. String quartets! Piano sonatas! Symphonies out the wazoo! Oratorios! Concertos! Meaty stuff, the perfect fusion of form, style and expression. (Blog digression: yes, Beethoven was from Bonn, Germany, not Vienna. But we're counting him, because it was his adopted home and he was part of that school.)

POST-ROMANTICISM (ca. 1880's on) Bruckner! Mahler! Pfitzner! Richard Strauss! Wolf! Big giant symphonies! Lieder! Tone poems! "The Scream"! (you know, that weird scary painting by Munch.) Doesn't get more serious than THAT, my friends.

SECOND VIENNESE SCHOOL (1903 - World War II) German Expressionism! Schoenberg! Berg! Webern! Atonality! Serialism!

Now go back and look at the dates, helpfully put in bold font for your convenience. Notice anything missing? Like about 50 years?

Here are the leading Viennese composers active in the city from, let's say, 1830-ish to 1880-ish:
  • Josef Lanner ("Who??")
  • Franz von SuppĂ©
  • Johann Strauss I (not our guy - his dad)
  • Josef Strauss (our guy's sibling)
  • Eduard Strauss (another sibling)
  • Johann Strauss, Jr. (the Fledermaus composer)
And what did they compose?

Waltzes, galops, and polkas.  Polkas and waltzes. Waltzes and polkas. The occasional frivolous operetta, with musical scores consisting of ... waltzes and polkas.  Musical schlagobers.

WHAT HAPPENED? No symphonies, concertos, chamber music or sonatas. A half-century of music 90% of which is now consigned to "drive time" on classical radio stations, the musical equivalent of fuzzy slippers and a glass of chablis. (This, incidentally, is a question that never arose in any music history or musicology class I ever took, and I took a lot of 'em through three degrees.  Grey-bearded professors ignore this period of Vienna's musical legacy because - well, because they didn't get tenure by lecturing about the Tritsch-tratsch Polka, for Pete's sake.)

The answer is fascinating, and requires us to re-visit some European history from our school days.  Like the Congress of Vienna, for starters.

The Napoleonic Wars left Western Europe in a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Life in Vienna during all the chaos was like living in London during the Blitzkrieg. The Congress of Vienna was a huge summit conference with the goal of re-establishing stability. Among the big headlines coming out of it by its messy conclusion in June 1815, was the creation of the modern nation of Austria we know today, with a newly-crowned emperor, Franz I. Franz's chancellor, Klaus von Metternich, was a big mover-shaker at the Congress, and for the next few decades he was to play a huge role in the daily lives of Viennese citizens.

Metternich saw a choice of two paths in Austria's future: the adoption of a constitutional monarchy ensuring human rights and civil liberties using the American and French revolutions as models; or doubling down on the emperor's authority with an iron-clad absolute monarchy. With Franz's blessings, he chose the latter.

Thus began a period of life under a police state in Vienna: secret police spying on individuals; censorship of the press; little news of the outside world filtering in to the Viennese. It was illegal for public gatherings of more than three or four people (that's how rebellion begins, you know...). The main activities citizens could indulge in to stay clear of Metternich's spies were drinking coffee in the coffee-houses and...

...dancing. Metternich's theory: a man dancing with a beautiful woman probably doesn't have armed rebellion on his mind. Thus begins an era of "Let 'em dance", which admittedly doesn't roll off the tongue like "Let them eat cake".

This period lasted until the next round of political revolutions in 1847, when Metternich fled for the hills and Austria woke up from a long narcotized nap of cozy denial. The years from 1815-1847 are called the Biedermeier Period, a time of uninterrupted domesticity. People just wanted to feel stable and domestic. Personal ambition and lofty achievements went into hibernation. Study architecture? Nah - let's waltz. Discover the cure for dread diseases? Nah - let's waltz. This aesthetic extended to all the arts, including painting, home furnishings - every aspect of culture. Picture an entire, exhausted nation tucking its national tail between its national legs and retreating into a state of blissful introversion.

The Sperl: one of Vienna's dance palaces. Look at 'em go!
Beethoven's music went into decline - too political, with his Eroica and Wellington's Victory. Schubert, though now we remember him for his concert music, "went Biedermeier" with album after album of Waltzes, Eccosaises and Laendlers for piano, most of them sixteen bars in length.

If dancing is what people are allowed to do, then dancing becomes a big deal. A go-getter businessman and entrepreneur named Wolfssohn, already wealthy from manufacturing surgical instruments, saw money to be made in the construction of luxury dance halls with the finest food and decor in all of Austria. His dancing palace, the Apollo, drew four thousand Viennese on its opening night. It was quite a place; buzzing with glamorous ambience. Live plants such as rose bushes and trees adorned the interior all year long; a man-made mountain in one room dispensed bubbling water which flowed along man-made streams teeming with live fish. Flowers, statuary, paintings everywhere. Total hedonism!

Soon, Vienna was awash in an obsessive mania - a craze, if you will - for that new-fangled dance, the walzer. This civic insanity was only intensified when an epidemic of cholera struck in 1832. Already under the spell of Biedermeier cultural inertia, now the populace was infected with a fatalistic view of life. "Hey, we're all going to die anyway - let's dance the night away!"

Next week: let's see how the growth of waltz music resulted in Die Fledermaus and how Vienna's Biedermeier phenomenon foreshadowed a similar period in America following World War II. The Strauss family as Elvis and the Beatles? That's right! I'll make the case - it's pretty interesting!

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.

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