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Having a Ball in Vienna

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Jill Knight Weinberger teaches at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn

Although not exactly students of the music of Johann Strauss Jr., my husband, G.J., and I thoroughly enjoy it--a good thing, since on our yearly travels to Austria and Germany we seem unable to avoid it. I cannot recall a trip to German-speaking Europe in the past 15 years that did not include a concert sparkling with, say, the “Champagne” song from “Die Fledermaus,” or rollicking with a rendition of the “Tritsch-Tratsch” polka. Others may dismiss “the Waltz King” as “the Schmaltz King,” but we gladly attend any performance of “The Gypsy Baron” or “A Night in Venice”--two of our favorite Strauss operettas--whether staged in village community centers or grand city opera houses.

It is in Vienna, of course, that the waltzes, polkas, marches and operettas of this native son are most frequently performed and most seriously considered, by musicians and citizens alike.

But not, so it seems, by American college students. This past June, G.J. and I, English professors, accompanied 10 of our students on their first visit to Vienna. While Lipizzaner horses, Klimt paintings, Mozart, pastry and the bars of the so-called Bermuda Triangle district were on their agendas (although not necessarily in that order), Strauss was not.

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We were not surprised. But what a wealth of opportunities they passed up. Vienna is celebrating Strauss in a big way this year to mark the centenary of his death. Visitors can choose from among Strauss-themed concerts, tea dances, Danube boat rides and films. One can even attend a ball reminiscent of the Strauss era--and without having to pack a gown or a tuxedo. A ticket to the weekly Laundry Maid’s Ball includes the use of a costume--for women, a maid’s frock, with cap and apron; for men, a vest and neckerchief.

I was truly sorry (and G.J. was relieved) that we missed the ball. But in our free time, we sought out the monuments and special exhibits that celebrate Strauss and his career.

“Schani,” as he was nicknamed, was the first international pop star, a savvy musician and businessman whose carefully cultivated appeal crossed generational, cultural and class lines.

The durability of that appeal could be seen in the crowd of international tourists gathered in front of the fanciful Strauss monument in the Stadtpark (City Park). We watched visitors young and old, chatting in half a dozen languages, pose before the polished bronze figure of the composer with his violin, some of them swirling in waltz rhythms for their camcorders.

Stationed in a booth just steps away from the monument, a Bulgarian music student, who gave his name as Dimitar, sold concert tickets for the Johann Strauss Capelle (orchestra). His red and white costume was modeled on the formal court dress worn by Strauss and his musicians when they played the royal palace. Dimitar told us that he preferred jazz to waltzes, but said that he and his fellow students liked Strauss’ music more than they care to admit.

G.J. and I strolled the shady paths of the Stadtpark, stopping at the villa-like Kursalon, a restaurant and concert hall. On previous trips we have whiled away some pleasant spring and summer hours on the terrace, nibbling cake and listening to the Johann Strauss Capelle perform waltzes and operetta selections. On one visit we were captivated by two little girls dressed in white, their pink sashes fluttering about them as they swayed in three-quarter time. It was such a charming image that we have never forgotten it, although such moments are not rare among Strauss concertgoers.

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Out of the Stadtpark, G.J. and I followed the elegant boulevard called the Ringstrasse, detouring past the neo-Renaissance Musikverein, one of Vienna’s musical landmarks. Its Golden Hall is familiar to music lovers everywhere as the site of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s Day concert, which is broadcast around the world. By tradition, the concert closes with two Strauss pieces, the “Blue Danube Waltz” by Strauss Jr. and, as a rousing encore, the “Radetzky March” by his father, Johann Strauss Sr.

What some call the most famous piece of music ever written, the 1867 “Blue Danube Waltz,” was actually composed as a choral piece. Another bit of trivia connected to the waltz: Its premiere prompted a journalist to use the term “hit” (Schlager) for the first time to describe the popularity of a musical composition.

Nearby, on the Karlsplatz, the Historical Museum of the City of Vienna has mounted an exhibition named for another of Strauss’ myriad waltzes, “Thunder and Lightning.” Although the focus is on Johann Jr., the exhibits document how his career was influenced by and intertwined with those of his father and his two brothers, Josef and Eduard.

Artworks, photographs and contemporary news articles and advertisements set the Strauss “family firm” into the context of 19th century Vienna and its political and social turmoil. Johann Jr. and Sr. were skillful in exploiting topical issues by creating music with titles drawn from the day’s headlines, a marketing strategy that kept them in the public eye. Johann Jr.’s 1848 “Revolution March,” for example, reflected his sympathy for the short-lived but noisy outbreak of anti-monarchy sentiment.

Eventually the waltz king formed several orchestras to keep up with the demand for his services. The overbooked Johann would race from engagement to engagement, conduct one or two numbers, then turn the baton over to Josef or Eduard. Strauss Jr. also extended his musical empire far beyond Vienna. By going on tour, he spread his fame to the rest of Europe, Russia and America, where in 1872 he played to record crowds in Boston and New York.

On another afternoon, after a leisurely coffee hour with some of our students at the historical Cafi Central, G.J. and I stopped in at the Austrian Theater Museum in the heart of the Altstadt (old city). The museum occupies the baroque Lobkowitz palace, worth a look just for its marble staircase and frescoed ceilings. An exhibition there explores Strauss’ operettas, another musical arena in which the composer left his mark.

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Sometimes called “light opera,” operetta is nearly always comic in style and substance. Strauss wrote 15 such works, a handful of which are considered masterpieces of the “golden age” of the Viennese operetta.

One of the exhibit’s rooms is dedicated to “Die Fledermaus,” which premiered in 1874. An instant and enduring hit, the operetta’s signature line, “Happy is he who forgets what cannot be changed,” seemed to capture a typically Viennese spirit of the times--and perhaps still does. It’s performed at the State Opera House every New Year’s Eve.

Another day, some of our students wanted to ride the Riesenrad, the giant Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park, one of the venues where Strauss regularly took his music to the masses.

G.J. and I strolled the nearby Praterstrasse, part of an unremarkable but respectable middle-class neighborhood just outside the city center. Although the upwardly mobile Strauss lived in several villas in and around Vienna, the only one of his former residences that is open to the public is a modest apartment at 54 Praterstrasse. He lived there between 1863 and 1874 with his first wife, the opera singer Jetty Treffz, a colorful character whose business acumen helped shape Strauss’ career.

The Strauss rooms are not, as one might expect, a replica of the composer’s living quarters. Housed here is a library of recordings that visitors can sample through headphones, as well as a collection of sheet music, memorabilia, portraits and caricatures, some of which recall his personal trials, including a messy divorce from his second wife, Lily.

On the last afternoon of our Vienna visit, G.J. and I journeyed out to the Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof), a trip that requires a trolley ride to the southeast corner of the city. Among the “Graves of Honor,” a section reserved for the nation’s most notable citizens, we found Strauss’ final resting place. He and his third wife, Adele, are in excellent company. Buried nearby, in addition to his father and brothers, are other musical icons of Vienna, including Beethoven, Schubert, Suppe and Strauss’ dear friend Brahms. One can only imagine what a heavenly orchestra they form--but how they must argue over who gets to conduct.

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That evening, we concluded our visit in the style of Strauss’ Vienna. In the company of our students (who were well turned out for the occasion) we dined at the InterContinental Hotel’s Biedermeier-style Brasserie Restaurant. The striped wallpaper and gilt-framed paintings of city scenes evoked a 19th century drawing room. G.J. and I stuck to the Viennese classics of Tafelspitz (boiled beef) and Wienerschnitzel, while the young folks went for the more familiar salmon and steak.

We topped off the evening with a concert in the grand Festsaal of the Hofburg, the former Habsburg palace. The Wiener Hofburg Orchestra and a quartet of opera singers gave sparkling performances of Mozart and Strauss favorites, concluding, of course, with the “Blue Danube Waltz” and the “Radetzky March.”

Perhaps in spite of themselves, our students visibly responded to the lush romantic melodies, which brought tears to at least one young woman. (“It’s so beautiful,” she whispered to me.) Others swayed, caught up in the rhythms of last century’s pop music.

Afterward, they gave it the hip-hop generation rating: “Awesome.”

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GUIDEBOOK

Waltzing Into Austria’s Golden Age

Getting there: Flights from Los Angeles to Vienna on Delta, Swissair, Lufthansa, KLM and British Airways require a change of planes. Round-trip fares start at $1,103.

Where to stay: Rogner Dorint Hotel Biedermeier Wien, Landstrasser Hauptstrasse 28; period decor; doubles from about $195, including breakfast buffet. Telephone 011-43-1-716-710; e-maildorintusa@msn.com.

Hotel Zur Wiener Staatsoper, Krugerstrasse 11, is our favorite budget choice, with doubles starting at $108. Tel. 011-43-1-513-1274; fax 011-43-1-513- 1274-15.

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Inter-Continental Vienna, Johannesgasse 28, modern, facing the Stadtpark. Double rooms start from about $169. Tel. (800) 327-0200; e-mail vienna@interconti.com.

Celebrating Strauss: The Vienna Laundry Maids’ Ball, Hotel Wimberger, Neubaugurtel 34-36. Saturdays through Oct. 30, 8 p.m. Admission is about $37, including costume rental. Viennese buffet dinner available. Waltz and polka lessons offered on the premises at 6 p.m., about $11.50.

Wiener Hofburg Orchestra, Festsaal, Heldenplatz 1. Concerts at 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays through October. Admission about $34.

Johann Strauss Capelle, Wiener Kursalon, Johannesgasse 33. Musicians in historical costumes, dancers from the Volksoper Ballet. Through September, daily except Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m. Tickets start at $45.

Wiener Salonorchester der Volksoper, Aurum Concert Hall, Josefsplatz 1. Strauss program through September, daily except Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m. Tickets from about $30.

“Blue Danube” Walking Tour, Tuesdays and Fridays 2 p.m., starts at the Vienna Tourist Board Information Office, Kartnerstrasse 38. Tel. 011-43-1- 894-5363. Tickets about $10.

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History Museum of the City of Vienna, Karlsplatz 4; Strauss exhibit daily, closes Sept. 26.

Austrian Theatre Museum, Lobkowitzplatz 2; Strauss exhibit runs through Nov. 28 (closed Mondays).

The Strauss Memorial Rooms, Praterstrasse 54; open Tuesdays through Sundays.

For more information: Austrian National Tourist Office, tel. (212) 944-6880, fax (212) 730- 4568, Internet https://www.anto .com.

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