November 4, 2012

Fledermaus 2: Dirty dancing with Elvis in Old Vienna

For us twenty-first century souls, in love with our own up-to-dateness, it's difficult to understand the craze for the waltz that siezed Vienna in the nineteenth century. It's also difficult to appreciate what the waltz represented.

Let's do some word-association: I say "waltz", and you say - what? Let me guess: "quaint"; "graceful"; "old-fashioned"; "something my grandmother would enjoy"; "refined", and so on. Pretty close to the mark?

Ah, but here is where we encounter our old friend the Theory of Relativity. It's all about context, dear readers. Let me regale you with some nineteenth-century descriptions of this "refined, quaint" old dance.
  • "But when (a male dancer) put his arm around her, pressed her to his breast, cavorted with her in the shameless, indecent whirling-dance of the Germans and engaged in a familiarity that broke all the bounds of good breeding - then my silent misery turned into burning rage." (from Sophie von La Roche's novel Geschichte des Frauleins von Sternheim)
  • " orchestra from which emanate those seductive siren tones, the waltzes, which, like a tarantulas' sting, incite the young bloods to riot. ...In Bacchanalian abandon the pairs waltz; joyful frenzy is on the loose; no god checks it. The couples hurl themselves into the maelstrom of gaiety." (a description of an evening's dancing at Vienna's Sperl dance hall)
  • "A young maiden, lightly clad, throws herself into the arms of the young man. He presses her to his breast with such vehemence that they soon feel the beating of their hearts and their heads and feet begin to spin; that is what is known as the waltz." (Description by Madame Genlis, a nineteenth-century writer on etiquette)
You have to understand: the waltz was replacing the old 3/4 dance of the aristocracy, the minuet. The minuet, which fell out of favor after the French Revolution, might be called "the dance of the 1 percent" to use modern political jargon. It was sedate, restrained, and formal, with the partners barely touching if at all. The waltz, in comparison, was R-rated! The tempo increased, producing a more athletic dance. The partners were close together - the man's hand just inches above the woman's hindquarters, OMG! The woman's face would flush rosy-red with exertion; her hot breath steaming onto the man's neck, beads of persperation dotting her face. HOLY COW!!  (If you are under 18 years of age you should probably stop reading this.)

See? Context is everything. This was the original "dirty dancing". Every generation since has cut loose with its own version of a scandalous dance resembling public making-out. Consider this description of the 21st-century phenomenon known as freak dancing: "A teenage boy dances behind his winter-formal date, hands on her hips, thrusting his pelvis against her while she hitches up her satiny gown and bends at the waist. Another couple dance facing each other, their bodies enmeshed and their hips gyrating in a frenzy.  (Los Angeles Times, 2006)

Everything old is new again.

Last week we explored the societal changes in Vienna producing the culture that made a mania for waltzing possible: the decline of abstract concert music in the Biedermeier period; the repression of human rights and civil liberties under Metternich's regime; the cholera epidemic of 1832; and so on. The fact is, we in the United States went through a similar experience not so long ago.

Just as the Viennese Biedermeier culture was in reaction to the traumas of the Napoleonic Wars and the machinations of Metternich, Americans were suffering a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder of our own following the Great Depression of the 1930's and the horrors of World War II. How did we respond to our adversity? Look at our TV sit-coms of the 1950's and early '60's: Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, Andy Griffith, I Love Lucy, and so on.  The world depicted in these shows expresses the same escapism, the same "cozy domesticity and denial" of the early 19th-century Viennese. Perfect little homes and wifes and husbands, with the worst problem being Junior skipping school. What about dancing? Did a guy named Chubby Checker come along and create a national craze among young people with his "scandalous" hip-gyrating dance called The Twist?

Why, yes he did.  And it became the same phenomenon as Vienna's obsession with the waltz. Everything old is... you get the idea.

So: here's a fun way to observe how history loves to repeat itself. Let's meet the "rock stars" of 19th-century Vienna; that succession of waltz composers who fed the public's insatiable appetite for "oom-pah-pah", and find their 20th-century counterparts.

Josef Lanner: C'mon, baybee, let's do the waltz!
VIENNA'S CHUBBY CHECKER: that would be one Josef Lanner, the "Father of the Viennese Waltz". Born in 1801 to a non-musical family, Lanner taught himself the violin and began playing in tavern dance bands as a teen-ager. Striking out on his own at age sixteen, he quickly established himself as the leading, most popular dance composer in town. It is Lanner who was responsible for quickening the tempo of the dance, rendering it more... you know... "sexy", and by 1825 had become so popular that he had two full orchestras playing his compositions nightly. His Schönbrunner Walzer is a fair example. This man was beloved by an entire city of hedonist pleasure-seekers. At the height of his fame he worked an impossible schedule, composing and rehearsing by day, and conducting concerts all over Vienna by night, often three or four events in a single evening. He was very Biedermeier in that he disliked touring and preferred to stay in Vienna, amassing a great fortune -- and, oh yes, working himself into an early grave. Dead at 42.  His best friend (in the early days), roommate and assistant conductor was:

Johann Strauss, Sr.: He weren't nothin but a hound-dog
VIENNA'S ELVIS PRESLEY: namely, Johann Strauss Sr. This is not the Fledermaus composer, of course, we'll meet him in a second. This is the patriarch of a fiddling, conducting and composing dynasty. All three of his sons were, at one time or another, waltz-producers. Strauss, who was at first so close to Lanner that they lived together and shared their meager wardrobes with one another, became conductor of one of Lanner's expansion dance orchestras. Chafing at his underpaid, lowly position, Strauss inevitably struck out on his own. And why is he the Elvis of the waltz? Because he internationalized the dance. Not the homebody Lanner was, Strauss was happiest on the road. Truth be told, he was something of a megalomaniac, and became fixated with spreading his fame across the European continent and into the British Isles. His beleaguered orchestra was forced into tours lasting as long as a year, playing large cities and inappropriately small towns, but the result was that all of Europe was spinning and rotating to waltz after waltz. Pandering to his foreign admirers, Strauss was not above incorporating patriotic tunes of his host nations into new dances; thus we get works like the Queen Victoria Waltz. Strauss Sr.'s achievement was to codify the mature form of the orchestral waltz: Introduction, followed by a chain of five contrasting waltz tunes, suggesting the movements of a symphony without adopting any symphonic substance. As wealthy as Lanner had become, Strauss totally eclipsed him. Even Richard Wagner - WAGNER!! - was not immune to the intoxicating melodies of Strauss's waltzes, writing that "The waltz is a stronger narcotic than alcohol. His listeners are aflame with the Strauss ecstacy at the first stroke of his bow. Vienna's hot summer air is impregnated with Struass. Incidentally, he was a jerk: he abandoned his family, was an absent, disinterested father, and all too ready to succumb to the charms of the girls who were his "groupies". He died of scarlet fever he caught from his illegitimate daughter at age 45. One of the children from his abandoned marriage turned out to be none other than:

Johann Strauss, Jr.: waltzes go global
VIENNA'S PAUL MCCARTNEY AND MICK JAGGER all in one: now we meet our operetta composer, Johann Strauss, Jr. I'm associating him with McCartney and Jagger since, just as the latter two began the so-called British Invasion of rock music to America, helping to globalize rock's popularity, so Strauss, Jr. "invaded" America in 1872, thus establishing the waltz throughout the "civilized world". (No he didn't make it to Brazil, South Africa or China. But still...) This is how he earned the rank of "The Waltz King", managing to out-do both Lanner and his father in fame, wealth, prestige and also artistry. I would have to say that Strauss Jr. may be the finest pure melodist who ever lived. His melodic invention rarely sounds cursory or predictable; there is true inspiration and subtlety of orchestration in the variety of waltz tunes he crafted in such favorites as Tales From the Vienna Woods not to mention the Emperor Waltz, Roses From the South, the Blue Danube, and so many others. These pieces, though modest in scope, do offer a zest and elegance that soar with life-affirming energy and sophisticated harmonic language.

And it's those qualities which inhabit every bar of Die Fledermaus.

Next week: why did this most popular of waltz kings find his great waltzing operetta playing to half-empty houses when it opened in 1874? Be prepared for a faceful of irony and paradox.

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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