Danube Blues

On the one-year anniversary of the storming of the U.S. Capitol many were the dire assessments of the state of the American republic. Nor were watchdogs of democracy cheered by the situation across the Atlantic.  Once held up as models for the transformation from autocracy to free societies, Poland and Hungary appear now as rogue states within the European Union, sanctioned by Brussels for their attacks on independent judiciaries and on individual rights.

The immigrant crisis on the Polish-Belarus border continues through the dead of winter. On the western periphery, the United Kingdom has Brexited the Union. Refugees drown in the English Channel, with France and the U.K. blaming each other for the tragedy. On the eastern flank of the continent, Russian troops mass on the Ukrainian border.

In the heart of Europe, Austria has been rocked by political corruption scandals. Their young rightwing, anti-immigrant ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was twice turfed out of office, resigning most recently in October. He is now a global strategist for Peter Thiel, the promotion proof that personal connections (the German-American venture capitalist is a long-time acquaintance of Kurz’s) and graft allegations are winning items on the CV of any ex-politician planning to waltz through revolving door.

And then there’s COVID. When the Austrian government imposed a new lockdown in November and announced compulsory vaccinations to begin in February, some 40,00 protestors took to Vienna’s Heldenplatz (Heroes Square) in front of the former Imperial Palace, the Hofburg, with smoke bombs, klaxons, flags, and placards calling for an end “to the fascist dictatorship.”

One gets not even the quickest glimpse of this fraught backdrop when tuning into the PBS Great Performances broadcast of the annual New Year’s concert of the Vienna Philharmonic. In 2021 the event was virtual, but this year the famed orchestra returned to its home in the classical temple that is the Musikverein, its gilded columns and caryatids festooned with flowers, for a live performance before a masked audience. The government lifted the lockdown in December even as Omicron gathered force. The musicians and the conductor, the imperious Daniel Barenboim, were unmasked, and even sang and whistled for the nostalgic Night Reveler’s Waltz by Johann Michael Ziehrer, one of the most resourceful threats to the supremacy of the Strauss brothers’ orchestra.

Host for the show was Hugh Bonneville, known to PBS viewers as Lord Grantham in the Masterpiece series Downtown Abbey.  The pandemic confined his Lordship to quarters—a very English drawing room equipped accoutered with Christmas tree, comfy armchair, leather bound volumes, fire crackling in the hearth, and fine prints on the wall. Clad ina  bespoke blue woolen suit perfectly fitted to his tv persona, Bonneville was the embodiment of wisdom, wit and stability. This ersatz-aristo puts the class back into classy.

The Musikverein is an even more robust bastion of tradition than Downton Abbey. The Vienna Philharmonic is overwhelmingly male (women were not admitted to the orchestra as “full” members until 1997, two years after Austria joined the EU) and white.

Bonneville’s remarks between the musical numbers were rich in certain historical details, silent on others.  We learned of the touring Strauss brothers orchestra, but not of the early revolutionary sympathies of Johann Jr., even if his music later became not just a symbol, but a cultural bulwark of the Hapsburg monarchy.

With a subtly raised eyebrow, Bonneville conjured music and dance as sites of “extramarital flirtation.” The script (by John Walker) explored the gender and class nuances of the city’s famous masquerades. With his own flirty relish, Bonneville described the clandestine adventures across the ballscape of the Empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Joseph I, who reigned from the revolutionary year of 1848 until his death in 1916 in the midst of World War I. That whiskered ruler did not quite live long enough to witness the self-inflicted demise of the Hapsburg monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian empire, lionized by some as a multicultural precursor to the EU.

Bonneville did not remind his audience, however, that New Year’s concert tradition in Vienna began in 1939 as a fundraiser for the Nazi Party.

Barenboim turns 80 this year, and minus the mutton chops, he too is a long-reigning ruler of an international empire, his realms now reduced to his command of the Berliner State Opera.  Leading the Vienna Philharmonic on January 1stfor the thid time, Barenboim occasionally cracked a smile, but his demeanor was hardly festive. In the last of the three traditional encores, the Radetzky March—that theme song of the Hapsburg Monarchy is now playing on a piano (and banjo) in a Montana parlor on Netflix in the neo-Western, Power of the Dog—the audience began to clap too early. The glaring maestro shushed them, holding them in check like a Field Marshal with sabre raised, before giving the command and the formally attired audience its pleasure at the refrain. No one is better at playing the part of the stern general than Barenboim, a wicked and witty glint in his eye as he gave the Viennese grandees the thumbs up.

The homebound viewership eager for tourist excursion, the broadcast took them to the nearby Spanish Riding School for a horse ballet of the Lipizzaner Stallions prancing precisely to the tune of Josef Strauss’s Nymphs Polka; and to Schönnbrunn (the Hapsburg’s summer palace) for the Vienna State Ballet sashaying from terrace to parqueted ballroom. The human choreography assumed various gender configurations that might have offended Kurz and his political allies, opposed as they are— along with their Polish and Hungarian counterparts—to same-sex marriage. In the midst of these peregrinations Johann Strauss’s exotic Persian March celebrated the opening up of a second front to the east of Austrian’s centuries-long adversary, the Ottoman Empire. The tune’s serpentine melody is off-the-nineteenth-century-shelf Exoticism, and even quotes the Persian national anthem of yore.

So light and lovely is the music that, at least for the Viennese on New Year’s Day and the admiring PBS Anglophones who invented modern democracy, it refuses to be pulled under by geopolitical gravity: wars and border clashes; refugees; burqa bans; incendiary anti-vaxxers; Austria’s internal defense of fortress Europe.

Inevitably the Strauss’s sentimental fare traces the movements of Viennese dancers. Like history they move in circles, repeating their steps and trajectories.

No ensemble is more convincing than this Philharmonic when adding that phantom fourth beat into the triple time of their national waltz.  Barenboim knows that this gesture cannot really be conducted, but is in the symphonic blood of the players. The Blue Danube may now be dammed, but on that New Year’s Day in Vienna’s Musikverein it flows and evanesces like champagne.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com