Dancing waltzes—“a small gate to a great castle”—some reflections on the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna

“Musikverein Goldener Saal” by Clemens PFEIFFER, A-1190 Wien
Introduction: Johann Strauss Jr. dedicated his Op. 443 waltz Seid umschlungen, Millionen!  (Be Embraced, You Millions!—a title borrowed from Schiller’s Ode to Joy) to his friend Johannes Brahms. It seems that on one occasion Strauss’s wife Adele approached Brahms with a request that he autograph her fan. It was usual at the time for the composer to inscribe a few measures of his best-known music, and then sign his name. Brahms, however, inscribed a few measures from the “Blue Danube” and wrote beneath it, “Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms.”

Seid umschlungen, Millionen! — New Year's Day Concert 2014

Ode to Joy by Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805)

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.

Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was der Mode Schwert geteilt;*
Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder,*
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Brüder—überm Sternenzelt
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.

Joy, thou beauteous godly lighting,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire drunken we are ent’ring
Heavenly, thy holy home!

Thy enchantments bind together,
What did custom’s sword divide,*
Beggars are a prince’s brother,*
Where thy gentle wings abide.

Be embrac’d, ye millions yonder!
Take this kiss throughout the world!
Brothers—o’er the stars unfurl’d
Must reside a loving father.


There is a famous rhetorical question attributed to the great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, namely “Why should the Devil have all the good music?” He probably didn’t say say this but it is, of course, a good question nonetheless and, having finished writing this address, I can see that in a way it lay in the background of my New Year reflections.

Although I’m a great lover of a great deal of contemporary music, I have never lost my simple delight in what is often called light-music, a style of composition that the English light-music composer Ernest Tomlinson (1934-2015) once self-deprecatingly summed up as playing the tune, and then playing it again. In European terms perhaps the most famous and highly sophisticated composers of so-called light-music were the various members of the Strauss family whose work has been particularly promoted via the New Year’s Day Concert broadcast across Europe (and latterly the world) from the Goldener Saal in Vienna’s Musikverein every year since shortly after the Second World War. I’ve enjoyed this music since I was a child in the 1970s when my grandparents came back from a holiday in Austria not only with some LPs of music by the Strausses, but also of people playing and composing in the closely related (but more folksy) styles of Schrammellmusik and Stubenmusik.

Philharmonia Schrammeln: Wiener-Spezialitäten-Marsch

Anyway, the Strausses’ warm, tuneful, light and delightful music, together with a glass or two of sparkling wine or champagne has since then so often made the first day of January a good one of me, no matter how bad the previous year had been, and no matter how difficult the coming year would, or would not, eventually play out.

But, in so many ways, this event can be seen as an expression of a bourgeois fantasy world and, in a hard and dark world still filled with so much poverty and violence, it can seem to be an horrendous, even obscenely fantastical event. Add to this a fact pointed to in a recent essay for the Spectator by the critic Norman Lebrecht and any shine the event might once have had for you may be completely rubbed off:

“The tradition [of the concert] . . . is decidedly pernicious. [It] came into being as a gift to Nazi criminals, a cover for genocide. The Vienna Philharmonic was quick to sack Jewish and leftist musicians when Hitler came to town. More than a dozen were sent to concentration camps; seven of them perished. The orchestra unanimously endorsed the Anschluss with Germany, exhorted by the conductor Karl Böhm to declare ‘a 100 per cent “yes”’, and proved a willing executioner of cultural cleansing, removing Mahler and other giants from its walls and histories.”

In addition we might add to this our knowledge of the continued failure of the Orchestra properly to open its ranks to more women (this year there only 5 women players in the orchestra) and so you can see why there have been times when, along with Lebrecht, many people have been tempted to rail against the event (and the orchestra) in thought, word and deed and even to call for it to be excised from our culture. Indeed, Norman Lebrecht’s Spectator article concludes:

“So long as appearance defeats substance — so long as the world oohs and ahhs at the musical sweetmeats and ignores the dirt in the kitchen, New Year’s Day from Vienna will remain a family favourite, a testament to our human ability to look the other way.”

And yet, and yet . . .

To help me build the case for my “and yet” I want to introduce three helpful “tools”, tools that, I might add, can be used by you on things other than the New Year’s Concert, especially on certain things pertaining to religion.

As most of you know by now I’m convinced that we best move on, and healthily overcome, the darknesses and difficulties of our past not by a process of überwindung — by merely banning, or destroying the bad former cultural stuff and replacing it with some new, strong, shiny and supposedly “good” or “pure” stuff — but by engaging in  a long, and admittedly often difficult and challenging, process of verwindung; a process of gently weakening, twisting and reinterpreting that same cultural stuff so it comes out in a different, better and healthier place. So, the process of verwindung is the first “tool” and it seems to me quite legitimate to try to twist, weaken and reinterpret the New Year’s Concert from Vienna so it becomes something different to what was and, perhaps, to some extent still is.

I note in passing, but importantly, that my thoughts on verwinding here strongly relate to the recent, and to my mind, faulty reasons being given by some students at Oxford University who are calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). As Mary Beard wisely said about this:

“The battle isn’t won by taking the statue away and pretending those people didn’t exist. It’s won by empowering those students to look up at Rhodes and friends with a cheery and self confident sense of unbatterability.”

I think Beard is absolutely right and I can say that whilst listening to Strauss on New Year’s Day with a glass of champagne to hand and dancing a waltz with Susanna around the kitchen, I experienced a “cheery and self confident sense of unbatterability.” I was in the frame of mind to reaffirm that I was never, ever, going to let any racist and fascist ideologies, from no matter where they originate, ruin such good and happy tunes and the possibility of having a damned good party across the world to boot — at the moment that’s a party of about 50 million people in 73 countries. Let’s not forget that Johann Strauss Jr. entitled one of his waltzes, “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” (“Be Embraced, You Millions!”) after a line from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in which he enthusiastically celebrated the enduring hope for the unity of all humankind many have had, and many of us still have.

The second “tool” I take from the highly unorthodox (and, therefore,  to my mind extremely interesting) German Marxist, Ernst Bloch (1885-1977). Bloch thought that within every enduring cultural artefact or practice there existed both reactionary and utopian latencies and tendencies. As he said, in these cultural artefacts (like the New Year’s Day concert) there seems to be “something that surpasses the particular epoch in a utopian way” (Ernst Bloch, Geoghagen, Taylor and Francis, 2002, p. 48).  Bloch described this process as the production of “cultural surplus”. In other words, although “cultural products always reflect the ideology of their time . . . great culture has something else, something which is more than, and cannot be reduced to, mere ideology” (Geoghagen. pp. 48-49). Bloch strongly believed that in certain cultural productions of the past there was something he called “Vor-Schein” — perhaps “pre-appearance” will, here, best serve as a rough translation. That it is to say, he thought it was possible to experience in the present “a kind of fore glow of future possibilities”. Again, as Bloch noted, “The utopian flower grows where it can” (Geoghagen, p. 58). The New Year’s Day concert’s now global reach, joining all kinds of different people in a single happy dance opportunity, seems to me an example of how it’s utopian flower may now be more properly and healthily blossoming.

So one job we have — if, that is, we are people committed to a life of verwindung — is to find ways to use Bloch's tool to help “develop further the living spirit of all that is most vital in the cultural production of the past” (Geoghagen, p. 50). In relation to the New Year’s Concert, I want to say this: although it is clearly shaped and still sustained by reactionary elements, as a straightforward, accessible, utopian and joyful activity it has a living spirit that would, it seems to me, be dreadful to lose, especially in a world that is clearly so desperately in need of simple pleasures, like good tunes to which we may dance together across Europe and around the world. We need more such pleasures, not less!

My third “tool” is Epicurean in origin. It is one connected directly with the need for humanity to live a pleasurable life, one rooted in a sense of, ataraxia, imperturbability (somewhat related to Mary Beard's "unbatterability" mentioned earlier). To help achieve this end Epicurus (341-270 BCE), and his later, Roman, disciple Lucretius (c. 99- c. 55 BCE), promoted a philosophy of ethical hedonism. In short this is the idea “that all people have the right to do everything in their power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them, assuming that their actions do not infringe on the equal rights of others” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonism).

It seems to me that on New Year’s Day dancing waltzes around the world’s kitchens with a loved one — or in a ball-room or dance-hall — with glass of sparkling wine to hand is, potentially anyway, a ethically hedonistic thing to do.

Now, most of you will, perhaps easily, be able to see that dancing waltzes is hedonistic, but how on earth, you might ask, can it be considered ethical? Well, to have the best kind of dance — in the Austrian and European tradition anyway — there must be in constant play a certain politeness. Here is how Michel Onfray writes about this in his remarkable and immensely challenging book, “A Hedonist Manifesto" (Columbia University Press, 2015) which seeks to offer us a post-modern and post-Christian Epicurean and Enlightenment hedonism:

“Politeness offers a way to realise morality. It is the small gate to a great castle: it leads directly to others. Why politeness? It tells the other that one has seen them. Thus, it tells them that they *are*. Holding [open] a door, practising formulaic rituals, carrying on the logic of good manners, knowing how to say thank you and you’re welcome, giving, being cheerful in lacklustre company: that is how to *do* ethics, *create* morality, *embody* values. This is knowing how to live, knowing how to be.
     Civility, sensitivity, kindness courtesy, urbanity, tact, thoughtfulness, reserve, commitment, generosity, benefaction, effort, and attention: all of these are part of hedonic morality” (Onfray, p. 52).

It seems to me very hard to dance to and/or enjoy Strauss waltzes if you are unable simultaneously be open to the possibility of such a hedonistic ethics and this is for me just one more reason to keep the tradition going; as long as, of course, no one is hurt by it and that we keep it going by a process of verwindung so as to gently free it from its dark past and allow the beautiful utopian flower it contains to bloom ever more strongly.

So along with Strauss and Schiller I say to all of you, my brothers and sisters around the world, our common home, “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” — “Be Embraced, You Millions!” and I wish you all a pleasurable, ethically hedonistic and polite New Year!

The Blue Danube Waltz at the New Year's Day Concert 2010


Brendan said…
Thanks Andrew. Insightful as ever and the music "enjoyed" with heightened awareness- enjoyed nevertheless.