Waltz me Amadeus: The capital of music, before Manchester or Seattle came

Text: Žikica Milošević

Yes, the prominent trademark of Austria was always its inclination towards music. But, not so much recently. Recently we had Falco or Opus in the 1980s. Enough for pop-charts. But in the 18th and 19th century. London was a distant outpost, New York was a freshly liberated colony, and Manchester was a giant textile factory. Seattle? No way. Everything was coming from Vienna. Both Mozart and Strauss. Any an endless list of others.


Yes, this Alpine musical, extremely popular in the English-speaking world, originates from Austria. Let me remind you of a plot: „Set in Austria on the eve of the Anschluss in 1938, the musical tells the story of Maria, who takes a job as governess to a large family while she decides whether to become a nun…” Et cetera. In 1965 the film based on the story won five Academy Awards and now we all know about “Edelweiss”. But before that, Austria was a musical superstar country. We easily tend to think that in the old times people were so sophisticated but it is not true. Operas were, just like other theatrical pieces, places where people gathered to hear the brand new hits. And Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, another prominent Austrian, was a genuine hit-maker. And after him, the Strauss family, the Waltz Kings, were the rulers of the dance floors. Don’t forget that Franz Liszt, although Hungarian, got his glory all around Austrian Empire. And if Johann Strauss Senior, his son and Joseph Strauss were the dictators of fashionable tunes at the time, Liszt was a first concert superstar, since he possessed a refined style and good looks. Things haven’t changed that much in the last few centuries, right? Living is such a vast empire centred towards the South and the East influenced Austrian music so much, with local motifs. Germany and Italy were also music superpowers at the time, but during the Baroque period, Slavic and Hungarian folk forms influenced Austrian music. Vienna’s status began its rise as a cultural centre in the early 16th century, and was focused around instruments including the lute. Later, as the whole culture was strongly influenced by Hungarian, Bohemian, Italian and German cultures, the unique identity somewhere in between all these identities emerged, making Austria flourishing, and multicultural, yet German-speaking. And many Slovenian motifs and Hungarian motifs entered classical music via Haydn, and one Croatian national song from Burgenland (Gradišće) even became a national anther of Austrian Empire, and since 1922 the anthem of Germany. The original Croatian song was “V rano jutro se ja vstanem”, which Haydn changed. To make the fuss even greater, Slovenian composer Davorin Jenko used the same Austrian Croat song to make a variation to compose the Serbian national anthem “Bože pravde”. So, if you did not know or haven’t notices, Serbian and German anthems are the essentially the same song, all based on the Austrian Croat song. Nice, isn’t it?


The great innovations come from great empires. Seldom from a small country. And no wonder why Austria gave the world so much when it was on the peak of its glory. Austria gave us one of the most divine artistic styles in the history of art, Secession. Of course, there are different Secession subgroups in the world, maybe for us the Hungarian one should be the most familiar and hence important. But the Viennese Sezession was quite stunning. To remind us all, it was an art movement formed in 1897 by a group of Austrian artists who had resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists, housed in the Vienna Künstlerhaus. This movement included painters, sculptors, and architects including Gustav Klimt. It however did not press the members of the movement to adopt one specific style. “To every age its art. To every art its freedom.” was the motto. Jugendstil was magnificent, with its animal and floral motifs, with free use of every ornament known to man. And it is stunning even now – the last great European style, they say. Art deco was international, not only European. and it is not just art – it is psychology with Freud and Adler, it is the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, and Austrian film artists. In the silent movie era, since it was still a great superpower, Austria was one of the leading producers of movies. Hedy Lamar was a stunning beauty, the first to act naked on film. Billy Wilder established Hollywood and Fritz Lang was the father of science fiction. So, Austria was modern before it was fashionable around the globe.


Some theoreticians say that German-speaking countries gave most in the field of music, psychology and philosophy, the English-speaking world gave us much literature and film, and the Italians and Romance people gave us visual arts, the Slavs giving us all with soul. Austria, as a place somehow in the middle, gave us a bit of everything.

Johann Strauss Monument in Stadt Park. Vienna, Austria.


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