Let the waltz begin!

The Viennese waltz and its path through history

Ringkaffee with guests sitting outside. 1915
(Photo: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Austria - Public Domain, via europeana.eu)

The Café Rebhuhn has stood in the Goldschmiedgasse of Vienna’s 1st district since the early 18th century. As early as 1698, Isaac de Luca, one of the first Viennese coffee house owners, plied his trade with the black beverage in this vaulted room. When the political climate became more and more heated towards the end of the Maria-Theresian era in the 1780s, the café became one of the famous “newspaper coffee houses” where the latest papers were displayed for reading — the only way for the middle classes to inform themselves about social developments at home and abroad.

The Rebhuhn was a meeting place for open-minded individuals; here, even civil servants talked bluntly about the developments in revolutionary France and the effects on the Austrian fatherland. Even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who — contrary to still-circulating clichés – did not, from his privileged position, just wander around unaware of what was going on around him, but was an enlightened man of his time who informed himself about events such as the French Revolution in coffee houses like this one. 

Mozart, too, informed himself about world-historical events in coffee houses.

This was not the only upheaval that affected Vienna; the centre of the Habsburg Empire had not been spared from world events. Although for more than four centuries the dynastic motto had been “Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube” (Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, marry), the Turks had nevertheless stood twice at the gates of the city – and left much behind when they left. Coffee was part of this. Although it is a myth that the Turkish army had to abandon hundreds of sacks of the precious beans when they fled in 1683, bringing the caffeinated hot drink to the metropolis on the Danube, it was nevertheless Arabs and Ottomans who brought coffee to Europe. And from the two Turkish sieges of Vienna (1529 and 1683), the music of the Janissaries was certainly taken up in Austria – with its deafening distinctive percussive sound first feared as ominous military music of the Ottomans, it then became fashionable as a musical symbol of the exotic charm of the Orient, and dramatised by Mozart in the Entführung aus dem Serail: an early example of multicultural world music, a cross-over fusion of styles and spheres.

Where else but in Vienna could this have succeeded so well? As the far eastern capital of a country that can just about be counted as Western Europe (at least according to the official classification of the UN), Vienna became a gathering place of nations: of Bohemians, Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Italians and many more. Although Prince Metternich never actually said that “The Balkans begin at the Rennweg”, referring to the location of his palace in Vienna, his witticism is no less true for that. Vienna was an alluring melting pot, not least for the arts. Mozart came from Salzburg, Beethoven from Bonn, Strauss later from Munich and Brahms even from Hamburg.

Art-loving monarchs also played their part. Empress Maria Theresa loved music as much as her son Joseph II, whose progressive attitude made the multinational Austrian Empire even more colourful. His edicts on tolerance made life easier for Jews and other people of other faiths. Even if Joseph’s reforms were too progressive for the times and soon tripped him up, a free thinker like the author Lorenzo da Ponte, who came from a Jewish family, was protected by a bishop and frequently persecuted for various impertinences and outrages, could only have risen to become a court theatre poet under such a monarch. (After Joseph’s early death, his brother Leopold, who succeeded him on the throne) soon expelled the Venetian poet from the court.

The “Viennese Waltz” made no distinction between high or low rank – a threatening circumstance for any authority.

Café Rebhuhn, meanwhile, was moving with the times. After the turmoil of revolution and the War of the First Coalition, including the political reorganisation brought about by the Congress of Vienna, its customers demanded new attractions. Music gained in importance: it was played for dancing, it accompanied the conversations – and certainly drowned out many an outspoken thought. In the 1820s, Joseph Lanner and his band had their headquarters in the establishment – now called the Rebhendlgasthaus – and Johann Strauss the Elder, before he went into business for himself, was a violist. Here was where Franz Schubert listened to the latest dance music with his friends, the Schubertians, and observed at close quarters how the cosy Ländler gradually transformed into the exciting partner dance that soon became known as the “Viennese Waltz”.

It had quite scandalous side effects: the dynamics of the turns were so ecstatic that they were difficult to control; it also made no distinction between high or low rank and standing – a threatening circumstance for any authority. In that respect, the dance was decades ahead of social developments: “The waltz became the epitome of revolution and the symbol of the bourgeois principle of 'égalité”. There was peace in that period before the 1848 revolution, but surveillance and spying were the order of the day. The Biedermeier period (1815-1848) was less innocent than painter Carl Spitzweg’s idyllic landscapes (which, on closer inspection, are ambiguous anyway) would have us believe. Johann Senn, a good friend of Schubert, was arrested and imprisoned for almost a year because of a careless remark in a tavern.

The church and other moral guardians also took offence at the waltz, as the ever faster whirling tempo demanded close physical contact from the dancing couples if they did not want to fall victim to centrifugal forces. Lanner was not to be intimidated, and formed interconnected “episodes” from the concatenation of several waltzes with an introduction and finale, gave them telling titles and underlaid them with a proper storyline. And after Strauss’ father had left Lanner’s band and a generation later his sons Johann, Josef and Eduard also performed with their own orchestras, the Viennese waltz continued to rise to the level of high art, with Johann Strauss’ masterpiece An der schönen blauen Donau (The Blue Danube) of 1867 probably being the best example.

At its premiere (at the “Faschings-Liedertafel” of the Vienna Men’s Singing Society), the waltz was briefly provided with a text that began with the words: “Wiener, seid froh! – Oho, wieso?” Yes, why actually? As the rest of the text, which verges on the nonsensical, explains – because of Carnival. The Blue Danube waltz began its triumphant progress in the purely orchestral version. It became the epitome of Viennese ballroom sophistication and won the respect of all “serious” composers – Brahms, for example, himself a gifted dance and waltz composer, noted down beside the opening bars of the Blue Danube the long since famous words, “Unfortunately not by me”.

The pinnacle of the Viennese waltz is Johann Strauss‘ masterpiece ”An der schönen blauen Donau“ (On the Beautiful Blue Danube)

Kirill Petrenko, chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker and conductor of this year's New Year's Eve concert, is also no stranger to the world of Viennese coffee houses. It is said that during his time as a student in Vienna, he would occasionally discuss what he had heard with knowledgeable companions after visiting concerts in such cafés and bars. His admiration for operetta and Viennese dance music is vouched for by his own work: his conducting debut at the Volksoper in Vienna was Oscar Straus’ A Waltz Dream, later – in Meiningen, Berlin and Munich – he conducted Die Fledermaus, Die lustige Witwe and Das Land des Lächelns and has always held Strauss waltzes in the highest regard.

Meanwhile, they had grown to become a topos for an entire Austrian, indeed European, era. However, on the heels of the financial crisis known as the “Panic of 1873” and the bankruptcy of entire social circles, with Die Fledermaus began the swan song of an ebullience, the disenchantment of the faith in growth of all stock market dilettantes. The waltz, too, changed, on the one hand sliding into the fantasy perfect world of popular entertainment (“Mein Liebeslied muss ein Walzer sein” from the operetta “Im weißen Rößl”), on the other hand mutating into a portent of the end of days: Jean Sibelius, who had studied in Vienna, wrote a morbid Valse triste, while Gustav Mahler only ever wove waltzes into his symphonies as distractions or even distortions.


Malte Krasting