On the first anniversary of the storming of the Washington Capitol, many assessments have been made on the state of the republic of the United States.
The watchdogs of democracy have not been encouraged by the situation across the Atlantic either.
Once set up as models for the transformation of autocracy into free societies, Poland and Hungary now appear as rogue states within the European Union, sanctioned by Brussels for their attacks on independent judicial systems and against individual rights. .
The immigrant crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border continues into the dead of winter. On the western outskirts, Britain has Brexited the EU. Refugees drown in the English Channel, with France and Britain blaming each other for the tragedy.
In the heart of Europe, Austria has been rocked by political corruption scandals. Its young right-wing and anti-immigrant ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been dismissed twice. -The politician plans to waltz through the revolving door.
And then there is Covid. When the Austrian government imposed a new lockdown in November and announced the start of compulsory vaccinations in February, some 40,000 demonstrators marched to Vienna’s Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) in front of the former imperial palace, the Hofburg, with smoke bombs, horns, flags and placards calling for an end to “the fascist dictatorship”.
One doesn’t even get a quick glimpse of this busy backdrop while listening to the broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s annual New Years concert.
In 2021, the event was virtual, but this year the famous orchestra returned to its home in the classical temple of the Musikverein, its golden columns and caryatids festooned with flowers, for a live performance in front of a masked audience.
The government lifted the lockdown in December even as omicron gathered its forces.
The musicians and the conductor, the imperious Daniel Barenboim, were unmasked and even sang and whistled the nostalgic Night Reveler’s Waltz by Johann Michael Ziehrer, one of the most ingenious threats to the supremacy of the orchestra of the Strauss brothers.
The host of the show was Hugh Bonneville – Lord Grantham at Downtown Abbey. The pandemic confined his lordship to quarters – a very English living room equipped with a Christmas tree, a comfortable armchair, leather-bound volumes, crackling of fire in the hearth and fine engravings on the wall.
Dressed in a tailored blue wool suit, Bonneville was the epitome of wisdom, wit, and stability. This ersatz-aristo puts the class back in class.
The Musikverein is a stronghold of tradition even more robust than Downton Abbey.
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is predominantly made up of men (women were only admitted to the orchestra as “full” members in 1997, two years after Austria joined the ‘EU) and white.
Bonneville’s remarks between musical numbers were rich in some historical details, silent on others.
We have heard of the Strauss brothers’ orchestra on tour, but not of Johann Jnr’s early revolutionary sympathies, although his music later became not only a symbol, but a cultural bulwark of the Habsburg monarchy.
With a subtly raised eyebrow, Bonneville referred to music and dancing as “extramarital flirtation” sites.
The screenplay (by John Walker) explored the nuances of genre and class of the city’s famous masquerades.
With her own taste for flirtation, Bonneville described the underground adventures through the ballroom landscape of Empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Joseph I, who ruled from the revolutionary year of 1848 until her death in 1916 in middle of the First World War.
This mustached ruler did not live long enough to witness the self-inflicted demise of the Habsburg monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, considered by some to be a multicultural forerunner of the EU.
Bonneville failed to remind audiences, however, that the tradition of New Year’s concerts in Vienna began in 1939 as a fundraiser for the Nazi Party.
Barenboim turns 80 this year, and without the mutton chops he too is a longtime ruler of an international empire, with his kingdoms now reduced to his command of the Berlin State Opera.
At the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic on January 1 for the third time, Barenboim sometimes smiled, but his demeanor was hardly festive.
In the last of the three traditional recalls, the Mars Radetzky – this Habsburg monarchy theme song is now playing on a piano (and banjo) in a Montana living room on Netflix in the neo-western, Power of the Dog (with Benedict Cumberbatch) – audiences started clapping too soon.
The blatant maestro silenced them, holding them in check like a field marshal with saber raised, before giving the command and the ceremonial audience their pleasure in the chorus.
No one is better at playing the role of the stern general than Barenboim, a wicked and witty glint in his eyes as he thumbs his thumb at the great Viennese.
With the homebound viewer eager for a sightseeing excursion, the show took them to the nearby Spanish Riding School for a horse ballet of the Lipizzaner stallions prancing precisely to the tune of Josef Strauss Polka Nymphs; and in Schoennbrunn (the summer palace of the Habsburgs) for the Vienna State Ballet from the terrace to the floored 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, the exotic of Johann Strauss Persian Mars celebrated the opening of a second front east of Austria’s centuries-old adversary, the Ottoman Empire.
The serpentine melody of the air is an unusual 19th century exoticism and even cites the Persian national anthem of yesteryear.
The music is so light and beautiful that, at least for Viennese on New Year’s Day, it refuses to be carried away by geopolitical gravity: wars and border clashes; refugees; bans on the burqa; anti-inflammatory vaccines; The Austrian internal defense of the fortress Europe.
Inevitably, Strauss’s sentimental fare traces the movements of Viennese dancers. Like history, they go round in circles, repeating their steps and their trajectories.
No ensemble is more convincing than this philharmonic by adding this phantom fourth beat to the triple beat of their national waltz.
Barenboim knows that this move cannot really be carried out, but is in the symphonic blood of the players.
The Blue Danube may now be dammed, but on New Years at the Musikverein in Vienna, it sinks and evaporates like champagne.
David Yearsley is a longtime CounterPunch contributor where this article first appeared. Her latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be contacted at [email protected].