Known as the centre of what we call classical music, Austria’s capital, Vienna has been a city of dreams for many. Our tribute to this vibrant cradle of the arts brings to mind the famous annual New Year’s Concert presented by the Vienna Philharmonic, but with a decided opera focus!

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Series 4 – Vienna: City of Dreams

The repertoire on this concert ushers us into one of the most brilliant periods in the history of Vienna, when its distinctive forms of popular music became international phenomena that swept Europe and North America. This period began with the 1848 popular uprising that forced out the old ineffectual Emperor Ferdinand I and brought in his nephew, the Emperor Franz Joseph I, who would rule for the next sixty-seven years. These years continued to be plagued by problems – political unrest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and even the humiliation of defeat by Prussia in the Seven Week War of 1867. Despite such instability, Vienna flourished, attracting some of the century’s finest artists and thinkers. As one of the most elegant and prosperous capitals of Europe, it truly became a city of dreams.

Vienna’s remarkable expansion began in the late 1850s, when by Imperial decree the old walls of the city were torn down and a new wide and luxurious boulevard, the Ringstrasse, was built to encircle the Inner City. Immediately new impressive buildings sprang up on or near the boulevard, including the Hofopera constructed from 1861 to 1869, which now houses the Vienna State Opera. The Musikverein, a beautiful neoclassical building patterned after a Greek temple that is now the home of the Vienna Philharmonic, followed it in 1870. Its main venue – the Golden Hall, named after its glittering gilt interior – has been the setting for the iconic annual Vienna New Year’s Concert since 1939.

In music, the one family name that dominates these years is Strauss, a true musical dynasty founded by Johann Strauss Sr. His career’s success owed much to the new craze of the waltz. This quintessentially Viennese dance emerged from its shadowy folk roots in the early nineteenth century to become the most popular ballroom dance across Europe. At first Vienna’s passion for the dance was satisfied in small dance halls joined to suburban inns. Soon however, more elegant establishments sprang up, such as the Apollo Rooms, with their ponds, grottoes and artificial waterfalls, as well as an orchestra of sixty.

It was Johann Strauss Sr.’s engagement as conductor of the dance orchestra at the Sperl, a well-appointed establishment famous for its large beer-garden and dance hall that marked an important turning point in the waltz’s history. Here, so many visitors to Vienna, including Chopin and Wagner, were first entranced by Strauss’s music. Rather than a waltz, we will hear Strauss Sr.’s masterpiece, the Radetzky March, composed in 1848 in honour of Austrian Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, victor in the First War of Italian Independence (1848 – 1849), in which Austria reasserted its control over its Italian possessions. (These provinces, however, were lost a decade later in the Second Italian War of Independence.)

While it may be said that Johann Strauss Sr. raised the waltz from a local interest to a European obsession, the title of “The Waltz King” rightly belongs to Strauss’s son, Johann Strauss Jr. For four years he and his orchestra were his father’s chief rivals and, after the father’s death in 1849, the son became the unequalled master of Viennese dance music and remained so until his own death fifty years later. Under the younger Strauss the waltz reached a new level of refinement and expressiveness, as can be seen in his Wiener Blut (Viennese blood or spirit). This hauntingly beautiful waltz has been referred to as the “unofficial anthem” of Vienna. It was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic under the composer in 1873 – the first piece of his that they played. Its principal theme captures all of the elegance and poise of not just the Viennese waltz but also the city itself.

The only serious competition to the Viennese waltz in the nineteenth century came from the polka, which originated in Bohemia as a peasant round dance. It was first introduced into polite society in Prague in 1837 and made its way to Vienna in 1839, becoming a fad that swept the Imperial Capital, then spread throughout Europe. It too was further refined and polished in the hands of Johann Strauss Jr., as can be seen in his bright and lively Tritsch Tratsch Polka, written in 1858.

Johann Strauss Jr. also excelled in another Viennese specialty – the operetta. This light and tuneful genre of music originated in a unique synthesis of the French opéra bouffe of Jacques Offenbach and native Viennese farces. It first arose in Vienna in the 1860s and soon became the perfect expression of the wit and gaiety of the city as well as an effective vehicle for sly social commentary. Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus (The Bat), with its concealed identities and suspected infidelities surrounding the events at a ball, is one of the finest and most popular of Vienna’s operettas. It premiered in 1874 and has remained a staple of the repertoire ever since.

Another great master of the Viennese operetta was Franz Lehár. Lehár was born in Hungary in 1870. He studied at the Prague Conservatory, where he was encouraged in composition by Antonín Dvořák. The first part of his career was spent as a military band director. However in 1902 he became conductor of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, which also marked the beginning of his career as a composer of operettas.

His masterpiece is undoubtedly The Merry Widow, which was an overwhelming success at its premiere in 1905 and soon spread throughout Europe and North America. Ironically Lehár was the second choice as composer. What is more, the theatre management was unsure of the music’s effectiveness and asked the composer to withdraw the score before its premiere, which he luckily refused to do. This operetta stands as one of the great achievements in the genre, rivalled only by Lehár’s later masterpiece from 1929, Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles), effectively the swan song of the Viennese operetta.

Dr Brian Black