From Feast to Fast

Fasching in Vienna – Everyone a Queen (or King) of the Night During Ball Season

Waltzing at a Fasching ball, your decolletée gown swaying gracefully below the ankles, you lean back in the arms of your partner in a white (or black) tie, guiding you through movements perfectly in time to the lilting strains of the string orchestra playing The Beautiful Blue Danube. The room is glittering with chandeliers and concentration, reminiscent of an earlier century, when the nobility would have celebrated their last indulgences of the winter season in palaces kept all for themselves.

How much closer can one get to Vienna’s soul?

Vienna originally celebrated Fasching (or Carnival) from the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month until Ash Wednesday.  Faschings Dienstag (Shrove Tuesday) was the last gasp before the arrival of forty days of Lent, when Christian religion puts its leaden finger on indulgence, demanding abstinence from something over-desired such as chocolate, alcohol or spending, until Easter.

In more recent times,  opening of the ball season has shifted later, beginning on New Year’s Eve and ending on February 6th.  Over 150 balls are officially scheduled and at least 300 in all will take place this year, organized by the city, professional associations, churches, business organizations, committees, schools and clubs, all open to the public, where up to 4,000 people may be accommodated at a single event.

The timing is propitious, as spirits easily descend into lower notes of energy, even depression, after the holiday/Christmas season in this land-locked town with what can be endlessly gray, moody, cold, mid-winter days.  The muses of dance and music keep the Viennese filled with good humor, a bit of glamour, and plenty of wild partying until the candle burns out.

Vienna and Munich appear to have given Carnival its regional name of Fasching, possibly a derivative of Fastnacht, Fasting Night, the time before Lent, or possibly Fastentrunk, the drink that in old days was consumed in abundance before the beginning of the fast.  No one really knows.

Vienna’s Carnival spirit has evolved in a different way to, for example, the week of masked balls in Venice or Mardi Gras in Brazil, and various theories describe how the Viennese Balls came about.

According to one version, it was the ‘enlightened despotism’ of Emperor Joseph II, who reigned from 1765-1790 and who encouraged celebrations at all levels of society. Carrying on the traditions of his mother, the Empress Maria Theresia (1717-1780), he supported the emancipation of the peasants, carrying through his mother’s innovations of public education, secularization of church and religious orders and the right of private business to earn wealth independently, making possible the emergence of a new middle class. While not unique to Austria, the style of the transition here was inclusive rather than competitive, and in Austria festivities of ordinary people started to become part of the fabric of everyday life, not just for the elite.

Begun as street celebrations, Fasching celebrations meant everyone was costumed and masked.  A count could be disguised as a tailor, a street cleaner could be a lord, but public behavior often became so raucous that such revelry was driven inside. Then masks no longer bore the same importance and were replaced with the masquerade of temporary opulence, today a common ball phenomenon.  Anyone can be king or queen for a night.

So, ballrooms were built all over Vienna, often separate from palaces or the town houses of the aristocracy. The most decadent was probably the Apollo Saal on what is now Zieglergasse in the 7th District, which was completed in 1808, with five enormous ballrooms, forty-four drawing rooms, three huge conservatories and thirteen kitchens, entirely embellished with chandeliers, flowers everywhere, grottos and even a lake with real swans. In 1814-15, attendees at the Congress of Vienna gathered there, and it was said that such Viennese luxury was comparable to ancient Rome.

Emperor Franz Joseph I (1848-1916) was to continue his great–uncle’s endeavors as a modernizing reformer.  Whether in a town hall or concert hall, whether rich man, poor man, master baker or chimney sweep, lawyer, pharmacist or florist, all walks of life celebrated Fasching with their own balls, equalizing the envy that might have become malice or poisonous snobbery between classes.  Today, parts of the protocol still remain, and titled families of wealth or gentility are bowed and curtsied to, respecting traditions dating back deep into the times of the Habsburg Empire – as a gentleman brushes his lips across a glove, murmuring “küss die Hand”.

So, back to the Blue Danube Waltz.  Though music had always been present in many forms throughout the years of the Habsburg Court at all its formal festivities, in the course of the 19th century the Strauss family of composers, in particular Johann Strauss Jr.  (1825-1899), revolutionized the dance in ¾ time, elevating it from a simple peasant polka to entertainment of hypnotic elegance worthy of the Habsburgs.

The Blue Danube Waltz, op. 314, written in 1867 was once a choral waltz with simple words from a local poet, which became, under Johann’s transformation, the chic-est of ball dance melodies alongside his polkas, marches etc, and the enchanting operetta, Die Fledermaus. This prolific, internationally renowned composer became known as the “Waltz King” and was appointed Court Ball Music Director, almost a Royal! The Blue Danube’s enduring appeal was clear to the other great musicians of Strauss’s day, and none other than Johannes Brahms remarked that the only thing he didn’t like about the Blue Danube Waltz was that he hadn’t written it. At the heart of all Viennese balls, it remains the city’s signature dance.

Central to the success of all this pomp and glory is the Tanzschule Elmayer, the most famous dancing school in Vienna, now in its fifth generation. No one attending a ball wants to come unprepared, and whether youthful or an oldie, many can be found doing a refresher course.  However fuddy-duddy this may appear, the steps are required knowledge; otherwise, better not to venture onto the dance floor. In addition to the waltz and foxtrot remember that tango, quickstep, and polka are among the traditional favorites.  Cha cha, rumba, and twist may follow.

Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer presides today as Master of Dance and choreographer of over fifty major balls each season.  He oversees the debutante’s dance, which opens many of the most glamorous balls with the presentation of young ladies in white evening gowns officially being introduced to society, a tradition dating back to the Monarchy. Then he directs the dos and don’ts of the famous three hundred-year-old quadrille at midnight which mixes young and old in formal line dances similar to English country dances or the Virginia Reel in America.

Then there is the Gallop, a mad-cap romp around the hall, evening clothes be damned, where at the call for a direction change, the hilarity turns to panic and a few lucky dancers always end up in a heap on the floor. At a Viennese Ball, no one stays pompous for long.

So, many festivities ranging from the grand to the humble await the would-be ballgoer – a pilgrimage into living history.

To see Vienna at its most historic, the Kaiserball (Emperor’s Ball) starts the season on New Year’s Eve at the Hofburg, the former Imperial Palace, one of the oldest and grandest buildings in Vienna, offering an opportunity to be twirled under baroque trompe l’oeil paintings in rooms not often open to the public.  The neo-gothic, 19th century Rathaus (City Hall) is the backdrop for, among many others, the Blumenball (Florist’s Ball), which is great fun, glorious to look at and a symphony of intoxicating smells.

Both the Philharmonic Ball at the Musikverein and the Opera Ball at the “new” Opera House, completed in 1869 and restored in the first years after World War II, are worth the adventure.  Don’t overlook the Techniker Circle, also held at the famous Musikverein, where business people come from all over the world to be seen, rub shoulders and meet.

To see Vienna at its most colorful, the best is to go to the Rudolfina Redoute at the Hofburg, one of the few masked balls where ladies choose gentlemen to dance with until midnight.  Other masked balls are called “gschnas”, a dialect word for a Fasching party which is quite informal.

Vienna at its most conservative is the Jägerball (Hunter’s Ball), which requires you tp wear full Tracht (Austrian national dress).

Vienna can be found at its most liberal at the Rainbow Ball, first held in 1998, now at the Parkhotel Schönbrunn, where lesbians, gays and transsexuals bring the fantastical to life with amazing costumes and fringe-style playfulness. However, boundary crossings are nothing new in Vienna, as any reader of Arthur Schnitzler or Sigmund Freud knows very well. Vienna’s support for AIDS research is the Life Ball, an over-the-top fashion extravanganza held in May at City Hall, which, although only three years old, already has worldwide prominence, where live performances, international stars and amazing decorations entertain at least 40,000 people.

AND then there is the Vienna Refugee Ball and the Homeless People’s Ball and, and, and….

A good eight hours of wandering and socializing through endless rooms in the larger venues should get the participant to 5 a.m., at which time many cafés open especially early are offering  Gulasch  or Käsekrainer (grilled sausage crisped with cheese) to help the tired dancers meet the morning sky.  Saturnalia may be almost over, but bed may not be an option for many working professionals. The celebrated Faschingskrapfen (a kind of doughnut) may help, a secret pleasure since the 1600’s when, allegedly, Frau Krapf first stuffed jam inside fried yeast cakes and sold them on the street.

Balls have regained popularity with young people of late, perhaps because of the addition of discos, or as a result of an increased appreciation of historical times or simply a renewed desire for style.  No one should try to understand Vienna without attending a ball or two. Attire is important, listed in the program, and with respect for the glory of the past, no jeans, please.

For the true flavor and fun, go with a group.  Be careful about the pennies (champagne tips the edge).   You can rent a ball gown or tux.  Tickets can cost from twenty euros up into the hundreds, and the costs soar, especially if your daughter will make her virginal debut.  Tickets need to be arranged well in advance.

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