November 18, 2012

Fledermaus 4: It's the world premiere; where IS everybody?

Crowd gathers for the Boston Festival to see
Johann Strauss Jr.'s rock concert - uh, festival.
In a previous post, I compared Johann Strauss Jr. to Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, an apt comparison in terms of world celebrity, influence, wealth, and firing the imaginations of dance-happy young people. When the Waltz King came to Boston in 1872 to conduct one of history's first documented Monster Concerts (he led an orchestra of some 1000 musicians), it could have been called the "Viennese Invasion" just as the Stones and Beatles led the British Invasion nearly a century later.

So: having attained such stratospheric heights, you'd think that the opening night of Die Fledermaus, now regarded as the best of all Viennese operettas, would have been a gala occasion, right? The hall packed to the gills; lines around the block for the ticket window, and thunderous ovations rocking Alt Wien down to its schlagobers?

Guess again. Die Fledermaus, though soon to hit the big time outside of Vienna, played a few desultory performances to half-empty houses in the composer's own native city.

Howcomizzat, exactly?

I've written before about the sequence of adversities experienced by the Viennese throughout the long and difficult nineteenth centure: the Napoleonic wars; the oppressive police state engineered by Metternich lasting some thirty-two years; an epidemic of cholera in 1832; the revolutions of 1847-1848; and the Austrian-Prussian war of 1866. But worse was to come.

Think about contemporary world problems for a minute. (A bummer, I know, but I promise we'll be back to the Waltz King momentarily.) Aren't we all freaking out about the economic collapse of Greece? Aren't we concerned that all of Europe is a financial house of cards and that the failure of the Euro might yet be a reality? And, if so, aren't we haunted by the possibility of that failure hopping across the Atlantic and threatening our American Way Of Life?

We are, we are! I am, any way - I and all the talking heads on cable news. The thing is,'s already happened; in spades. "Ah, the Great Depression of 1929" you're saying, clearly pleased with how well you remembered your U.S. history from high school.

Sorry, I'm thinking about an earlier, more Strauss-centric calamity: the so-called "Long Depression" of the 1860's and '70's.
A panicky mob storms the 4th National Bank
in New York, 1873. Where's George Baily
when you need him?
This gets tedious, so I'll skip over a rapid summary. The you-know-what hit the fan on May 8, 1873 when the stock market in Vienna crashed like a Delft vase hitting a cement floor, creating the "Panic of 1873". Prior to this time, there had been a world-wide economic expansion, with post-Civil War Reconstruction in America and French reparations following the end of the Franco-Prussian War.

This first danger signal was followed by a crisis in New York involving a failed investment of $100,000,00 in the expansion of the Northern Pacific Railway. The banking house of Jay Cooke and Company failed, the New York stock market crashed like a Delft ....  uh, see above... and in addition, the bottom dropped out of the American silver market. OY! Now we had a global string of dominoes teetering and falling in quick succession, headed by a second panic in Vienna.

So consider yourself back in Alt Wien in 1874, with everyone still reeling from the after-shocks. Fortunes lost, banks closed, undoubtedly the typical rash of suicides which accompany these debacles. Would you be in the mood to go see a silly comedy about a man in a bat suit playing a practical joke on his friend>

Maybe so, probably not.

More importantly, would you be able to afford the price of a ticket?

Doubtful. Only the super-rich came to lend an ear to Adele, Eisenstein and their merry friends for just this reason.

The gritty reality of life in Old Vienna is thus revealed to be something of a fraud, once you add the Long Depression to the list of ills and woes cited above. Yes, their beer is tasty; yes, their desserts are luscious; yes, their waltzes are irresistible. But in their daily lives, the good Herren und Damen of Vienna pretty much took a licking - and barely kept ticking.

A glance through Strauss Jr.'s catalogue of waltz titles shows that he gamely attempted to lift the spirits of his fellow Viennese in these dark times. How else to explain waltzes with titles like Heut ist huet ("Today is today"), Grillenbanner ("Banishers of Gloom") or Frohsinns-spenden ("Gifts of Cheerfulness")?

As for the Waltz King himself, he had amassed such a staggering fortune with his tours of Europe, Russia and especially America that he was left unscathed by the flaming disasters surrounding him. He went on with his life, writing nineteenth-century rock-and-roll; raking in big bucks and living the high life. And of course, his story of The Bat, temporarily grounded in his hometown, went on to become the world-wide cash cow it's been ever since in short order.

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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