Vienna’s New Year’s Concert: Using Johann Strauss As A PR-Tool For Tourism

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
1 January, 2016

How could we get through January 1st without the obligatory New Year’s Concert from Vienna? The 2016 edition was conducted by Mariss Jansons, for the third time after 2006 and 2012. What exactly qualifies Jansons to repeatedly try his hand at light dance music from the Strauss dynasty is anyone’s guess. It’s certainly not the repertoire he has based his career on, and it’s not a repertoire he has any special talent for, as was evident in his interpretation of the Eine Nacht in Venedig overture. The famous “Gondellied” in there was so drawn out and languid, that Jansons redefined the word “easy listening” (and “lullaby”). But maybe that’s the attraction of this Neujahrskonzert ritual: it numbs the brain and soothes the ear after a loud and busy party night the night before?

“Mozart” in Salzburg, in a PR film during the interval of the Neujahrskonzert from Vienna. (ZDF/Screenshot)

During the interval, the ORF presented a film on “200 Years Salzburg.” Seeing this in the context of the world’s most successful classical music event was a bit like being on a promotional tour: you sign up to see/hear Strauss music, yet along the way you’re taken all over the place to “discover” other goodies, too. It’s like the “Kaffeefahrten” my grandmother went on: she was promised some famous cultural highlight, but basically spent the entire afternoon in a café hearing about pots and knives and blankets (or microwaves) she might want to buy. She always came back with boxes full of stuff from these trips, and could never remember what cultural highlight she originally intended to see. Watching the Vienna New Year’s Concert is a bit like this. Suddenly, you’re seeing “Mozart” in a historical costume, wandering through Salzburg, advertising the touristic glories of the Salzkammergut.

In between that, you get various members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra playing chamber music from their various new CD releases. For example the three Ottensamers – Ernst, Daniel, and Andreas – playing highlights from their latest CD “The Clarionotts” as prime-time promotion for their Deutsche Grammophon disc.

I wonder if they had to pay the ORF for this, or if this was a deal among “friends and family”? (After all, the Neujahrskonzert from Vienna is big money and big business. Nothing happens there coincidentally.)

The three Ottensamers, playing tracks from their new CD during the interval of the Vienna New Year’s Concert. (ZDF/Screenshot)

Musically speaking, the only interesting novelty of this year’s concert was the inclusion of the Robert Stolz “UNO Marsch” from 1962. For some reason, Stolz music has been absent from the Vienna New Year’s proceedings so far, even though Stolz can fit their “switch your brains off and enjoy the lush music” concept perfectly. Maybe there will be more Stolz in the years to come? What a pity Einzi Stolz did not live to witness this moment of belated triumph.

Showing the natural beauty of Austria during the New Year’s Concert from Vienna. (ZDF/Screenshot)

Using music and a specific composer for touristic propaganda is perfectly legitimate, of course. Sadly, the consequence of this re-positioning of Johann Strauss and his music – including his operetta music – is that it blinds you to everything that is actually novel and historically interesting about this oeuvre. Many people refuse to acknowledge that there is more to Strauss and Viennese operettas than a never-ending row of roses and orchids, as seen in the concert hall of Vienna’s Musikvereins-Saal on January 1st. With ballet dancers in historical costumes swirling around elegantly in historical settings, champagne glas in hand. Yes, that’s one way of “doing” operetta and Strauss music.

But that’s like saying Mozart’s music is nothing more than a resounding “Mozart Kugel” advertisement: wrapped in golden paper, over-sweet, with no differentiation between pieces and no acknowledgement of the importance of the composer.

Making sure that Muslims feel included too: a scene from the PR film shown during the New Year’s Concert from Vienna. (ZDF/Screenshot)

Johann Strauss II as a composer, man, historic personality is much more multi-layered than what was shown on ORF, and much more modern than the New Year’s Concerts from Vienna want to make you believe. Erasing these gilded images from memory when you actually want to produce (and enjoy) Eine Nacht in Venedig, Fledermaus, or Indigo und die 40 Räuber is a tough task. And though the Vienna Philharmonic are the patrons of the new critical edition of these scores, they are not exactly helping promote a “critical view” of this music with their sell-out to the tourism industry. Using the spot in the annual lime light to promote lies such as the legend of the “75th Anniversary of the New Year’s Concert” is downright scandalous, because it erases all traces of the infamous Nazi past of the orchestra and this concert’s origins, because they too don’t fit the flowery and over-harmless PR image Austria wants to promote with Strauss Jr.?

I wonder if there will ever (again) be a New Year’s Concert from Vienna with a conductor and soloists who actually care about this type of music and invest time and energy in studying it, closely? Maybe one day we’ll have René Jacobs or someone like him redefine the Strauss sound we are force-fed with, just to demonstrate there is another way of looking at Austria – just like the rest of Austria doesn’t always look like the promotional film shown during today’s concert wants to make you believe. Rediscovering the “dirty” and “rough” side of Johann Strauss and Viennese operetta music would be a worthy task. But perhaps that’s something better left to Berlin, German language operetta’s “poor but sex” twin-city? (Where the local Philharmonic’s Silversterkonzert is not an all-round convincing event either.)

Redefining “Goldene Wiener Operette” with the annual New Year’s Concert from Vienna: the golden great hall of the Musikvereinssaal. (ZDF/Screenshot)

The CD version of this concert will be out shortly.

There are 3 comments

  1. Dario

    I completely agree! Everything is becoming consumeristic. How many times do we need to hear Emperor Waltz? Boring!

  2. Michael Haas

    Well. . . .spare us from ‘authentic’ operetta, if you mean doing to light music what the early music movement did to Haydn, Mozart, Brahms and even Sibelius. Music is timeless, whereas social and political satire is not. Operetta was primarily a vehicle for the latter using the resources of the former. The best operettas have music that still resonates today, while offering a picture of a social and political milieu that is no longer recognisable. Authenticity thus needs re-defining when it comes to light music. How do you do it? Is Max Raabe with his imitation Curt Bois the way to go, or Ute Lemper with her Broadway take on Mahagonny songs? Where do we find the crooning singers who can act with their voices and make the musical and linguistic jokes both current and funny? Serious music decided that ‘authenticity’ entailed skimming off ‘the fat’ from 19th century traditions, with no clear idea of how much ‘fat’ Bach and Mozart actually appreciated. Light music and operetta is more like journalism: it’s bound by location and era. The only way to make it truly ‘authentic’ is to up-date it so that the risqué of Parisian/Viennese 19th century Offenbach and Strauss is still risqué today in Berlin or Tucson. Korngold and Reinhardt tried it with some success and proved that this might be the way to make these works succeed – and they did so with the blessing of Adele Strauss. What operetta therefore needs is an ‘authenticity of spirit’ rather than an ‘authenticity of performance’. Unlike the first performers of Bach and Mozart, we KNOW what Richard Tauber, or Fritzi Massary sounded like, so trying to sound like Tauber or Massary only results in someone sounding like someone imitating Tauber and Massary. It’s the equivalent of a tableau vivant and doesn’t help the cause of Paul Abraham or Oscar Strauss – let along Leo Fall one bit.
    Regarding the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert: I missed it and in any event, pay it little heed. Once Austria lost its port, its agriculture and its industry – in other words, once it lost its Empire, Kitsch was the only commodity it could still sell to the outside world. It’s not as if Austrians aren’t totally unaware of their lack of existential options: just read Thomas Bernhard or even Robert Musil, not to mention writers like Anton Kuh or Karl Kraus. But your real gripe – I suspect – is that Strauss is too easily co-opted into the kitischification of Austrian self-representation. But then again, so are Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms (the last two not even Austrian – but no matter. . . ) Not to mention the ghastly von Trapps who were probably more Austro-fascist than anti-Hitler before Rogers and Hammerstein turned them into a more powerful resistance movement than the Scholl siblings. Nazis and Kitsch are two unavoidable heffalump traps that most non-Austrian observers – both critical and non-critical – fall into. Look deeper! Hitler gave Germany the Autobahn and he gave Austria the New Year’s Concert. Germany fetishizes its Autobahnen virtually free of speed limits and environmental responsibilities, while Austria does the same with its musical past. The tragedy is that there is much to Austria’s musical past that is Kitsch-resistant and remains unfamiliar as a result. Zum Beispiel: I would love to hear Franz Schreker’s Festwalzer one day in the New Year’s Day Concert with its kick-in-the-teeth take on the Kaiserhymne written for Franz Joseph’s 1908 jubilee celebrations. But I suspect Germany will impose speed limits on its motorways first. . . .

  3. Kevin Clarke

    Dear Michael, I could not agree more with you about the ‘authenticity of spirit,’ mostly absent from modern day operetta performances. But the idea that the way to save the genre is giving it the opera treatment, i.e. sing the music with classically trained opera voices and not worry about anything (!) else, kills any ‘authenticity of performance.’ Operetta was always about individuality. Max Raabe and Ute Lemper are highly individual singers, who bring their own version of a historic style to the music they sing. They – or anyone else – do not have to copy Tauber and Massary, but they obviously learned from historic predecessors. And adapted their role models for their own needs. There are countless ways that can be done, for Viennese music as well as for Offenbach or Parisian opéra bouffe. Casting Felicity Lott as Helena (or any other modern-day opera singer in any other Offenbach role, from Vert-Vert to Fantasio etc.) and neglecting the grotesque and over-the-top original aura of these shows makes them incredibly boring, in my view. Because I believe the stories told in these shows can still resonate with us today. Offenbach was not the only genius working in operetta, many of his librettists were genial too. Their mad-cap stories deserve more appreciation, and they need to be acted out accordingly, which is not just about singing the score as accurately as possible. (For me, that’s one of the big problems with the various Opera Rara discs.) Independent of which stylistic approach one prefers, Korngold’s or anyone elses, there is room for many options. Yet, looking at most new operetta releases and performances, there are very few options on offer there, rather an endless repeat of the same out of date classic approach. In a way, this applies to the Strauss music of the New Year’s Concert too. Johann Strauss was so much more radical and interesting than Korngold and Jansons would make you believe. (And Adele had her very good reasons to sign up to the Korngold operetta concept from 1923 onwards. Widows are not the supreme judges of how to play theirs dead husband’s music, as Einzi, Vera & Cosima have proven.)