THE VIENNESE‘ENTHUSIASM FOR CLASSICAL MUSIC: THE VIENNA OPERA’S STANDING ROOM AUDIENCE IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE 20th CENTURY

My grandmother Lola – second from the left – with her sisters Käthe – left – and Agi with little Mitzi on the right

My grandmother Flora Kainz, née Sobotka, who everybody called “Lola” grew up with her three sisters, Käthe, Agi and Mitzi, in Kaiser Ebersorf near Vienna in a bourgeois family. Her father, Ignaz Sobotka, was the manager of the brewery in Kaiser Ebersdorf (see article on beer brewing in Vienna). She was born in 1902 and received the standard education of a middle class girl of the time. In the course of the musical education that all girls of her class underwent at that time, it was discovered that she had some talent for the piano. Lola showed an intense interest for the opera and regularly went to see performances at the Vienna Opera in the standing room area, which was extremely popular among the young in those days. Lola was a very charming happy-go-lucky girl who loved all kinds of entertainment and went out a lot, much to the regret of her father. She even had her cut, which was a sacrilege for a young bourgeois woman in the early 1920s. When she came home after her visit to the hair dresser she hid her hair under a funny hat and with jokes made her father laugh out loud and finally went unpunished. None of her sisters would have dared to challenge their father’s rules in the way she did. She liked dressing up, going to parties and going out with groups of young men and women for sports and entertainment – and the opera’s standing room. She adored tenors such as Leo Slezak, Joseph Schmidt and Richard Tauber and waited for the adored singers after the performance in front of the stage door or watched their films in the cinema.

She was admitted to the Vienna Musical Academy in the piano class of Professor Manhart. Later on in her life she was still very proud of that achievement, but admitted that she had not been serious enough. She was not the hardworking studious type as she loved entertainment too much. She used the smallness of her hands and the narrow span between her fingers as an excuse and quitted the class to start work as a shop girl in a sweet shop, where she got to know her later husband, Anton Kainz, my grandfather. After Ignaz Sobotka had lost his job as the manager of the brewery in Kaiser Ebersdorf, the family moved to a small flat in Vienna, Mariahilferstrasse. Ignaz worked as a menial labourer for the construction company “Teerag-Asdag” and the family was no longer well-off. But Lola’s enthusiasm for classical music, especially the opera, never ceased and the standing tickets in the opera were very cheap. Yet despite her skills as a pianist she was always reluctant to play the piano at home. Her husband, Toni, was an amateur who loved the piano, but he always had to urge Lola and coax her into playing with him four-handed piano pieces. Nevertheless, the classical opera remained with her all her life and when I was a child we always had to listen to the one-hour radio programme after lunch the “Opera Concert”, when she told me about the greatest opera singers and her favourite arias. My parents, her daughter Herta and her husband Werner, carried on that tradition. During my whole childhood and youth we listened to records of classical music in the evening – there was no television set bought – and went to operas, classical concerts and operettas. At the reopening of the Vienna Opera house on the “Ring” in 1955, which was destroyed at the end of World War II, my parents acquired a subscription for the Vienna Opera, which they kept until just a few years before they died in 2016. My mother being a dressmaker and my father an electrician, they could only afford the cheapest category, which was the last row before the gallery standing room, but they loved it and were very proud of their subscription that dated back to the reopening of the opera. They knew the opera lovers sitting next to them and enjoyed the atmosphere of the standing room audience behind them without having to endure hours standing up while listening to Wagner, Verdi and Richard Strauss. They also saved up for tickets to see one of the first “New Year’s Concerts” in the now world-famous “Musikverein” after the war.

The Vienna State Opera was a court theatre at the time of the Habsburg Monarchy, financed by the state, just as the “Burgtheater”. After the end of the monarchy, the Austrian Republic took over the financing of the state operas and theatres. In 1870 the old court opera house, the “Kärntnertortheater” was demolished and a new building was erected at the Ringstrasse – today’s “Staatsoper”. The architects van der Nüll and Sicardsburg designed a building in the romantic- historical style. The new opera house was opened in 1869 with Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro”. After an Allied bombing attack the opera was destroyed on 12 March 1945. Only the main walls, the great staircase and the Emperor’s tearoom survived. Soon after the end of the Second World War the reconstruction of the legendary monument to Vienna’s love for classical music started. The opening ceremony took place on 5 November 1955, when Karl Böhm directed Beethoven’s “Fidelio”.

The Vienna State Opera on the Ring

THE VIENNA TRAMWAY AND ITS WORKERS – A POCKET OF RESISTANCE 1889-1945

The Viennese public transport system is one of Europe’s most efficient and affordable public transport systems. It all started with the first horse-drawn tramway in 1865 that connected the former gate in the city wall “Schottentor” with the suburb of “Hernals” which was famous for its many entertainment venues where famous musicians, like the family Strauss, Josef Lanner, the “Schrammeln” and many others performed. So this tramway was built to offer the Viennese a quick and more comfortable possibility to get to their leisure activities. The fast developing network of tramways – first horse-drawn, then steam-powered, too, and finally electric – employed an increasing number of tramway workers who were an ever-present appearance in the Viennese city scape at the end of the 19th and the 20th century. Their protest against the excessive exploitation by the private tramway owners in 1889 resulted in the first wide-spread strike in Vienna and gave a boost to the newly founded socialist movement of Victor Adler. The workers of the tramways also later remained a pocket of resistance, most of all in the Austro-Fascist era 1934-1938 and then during the time of Nazi occupation 1938-1945. A monument in Vienna lists the names of 42 Fascist and Nazi victims of the Vienna transport system workers 1934-1945 (3rd district of Vienna, Kappgasse1). The tramway workers who were active Socialist party members were either dismissed in 1934 when the Austro-Fascist regime of Engelbert Dollfuß put an end to the democratic system of the 1st Austrian Republic or after March 1938 when Hitler made Austria a part of the “Third Reich”. Then all workers of the Viennese tramways who were Jews or had Jewish ancestors were not only sacked but had to flee the country, such as my great-uncle Karl Elzholz, who managed a last-minute escape to Bolivia with his wife, my great-aunt, Marianne (Mitzi), the sister of my grandmother. Those who were unable to find refuge abroad were sent to Nazi concentration camps where many of them were murdered.

Karl with Mitzi on the way to Bolivia 6 February 1939
On the back Mitzi wrote to her parents in Vienna: “We are well, getting fat meanwhile, Colombo Atlantic Ocean 06/02/1939”
The document that Karl Elzholz sent to his father-in-law in Vienna, Ignaz Sobotka, from his exile in Bolivia, authorised him to claim his redundancy package from the communal “Viennese Tramways”, which my great-grandfather, Ignaz Sobotka, never received because he was deported to the concentration camp “Theresienstadt” and which was not paid out anyway.
Sucre, Bolivia November 1946: Mitzi and her new husband Bill Stern in front and Käthe, the eldest sister of my grandmother, who had married Karl in a long-distance wedding and joined him in Bolivia, and Karl in the back.

THE END OF THE MULTICULTURAL STATE

Synagogue, Krakov

During the 1920s and 1930s Austrian intellectual life was still dominated by men who had grown up under the empire. Many of them deemed the Habsburg Empire a lost paradise, whose lustre brightened as time passed. In 1938 the last vestiges of cosmopolitanism perished from Vienna and much of the Danube basin as Jews were decimated, saddling their successors with a corrosive guilt. After 1938 for a long time no other forum for debate has emerged to replace what Hitler had destroyed. The demise of intellectual Vienna is a major reason why post-1945 Central and Eastern Europe has produced so few innovative thinkers.

 

With the Treaty of Paris of 1919, i.e. the treaties of Versailles, St. Germain, Trianon and Sèvres, the disintegration process of the whole Danube region, which during the Habsburg Empire had constituted a homogenous economic free-trade area with a well-working division of production and provision of services, was speeded up in a disastrous way. After the break-down of so many regimes, the collapse of the Russian, German, Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, the map of Central and Eastern Europe was redrawn along nationalistic lines. The main aim was the creation of ethnic-linguistic nation states according to the belief of the US President Wilson that nations had the “right to self-determination”, a belief that was easily held by those far from the ethnic and linguistic realities of the regions which were to be divided into neat nation states. The whole attempt was a disaster and triggered the national conflicts that have torn the continent apart in the 20th century. The Balkans wars of the 1990s and the Ukrainian conflict can be seen as the latest “legacies of Versailles”. …

VIENNA: MUNICIPAL REFORMS IN THE LAST DECADES OF THE EMPIRE

In 1849 governmental autonomy was granted to all municipalities in the Habsburg Empire. Although thereafter Vienna enjoyed self-government, repeatedly the emperor intervened in its affairs. From 1850 onward, Vienna underwent rapid growth, expanding in 1890 to incorporate suburbs across the Danube and along the Vienna Woods. A municipal constitution of 1850 established a city council to be elected by tax-paying citizens divided into three classes. In 1885 the minimum taxation for suffrage was lowered to 5 gulden, excluding the poor until universal suffrage came in 1907. After 1890 the unwieldy city council of 138 members was directed by 25 of its members, the Stadtrat, who together with the mayor ran the city. As mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910 Karl Lueger (1844-1910) so dominated public life that next to Franz Josef he was the city’s best known citizen. Although Lueger had entered the city council as a Liberal in 1875, over the next decade he broke with liberalism and denounced international capitalism as a ”Jewish monopoly”. After being briefly an ally of Schönerer, he became a friend of Vogelsang whose doctrines he incorporated into the Christian Social Party, founded in 1893.…

THE GREAT DEPRESSION 1929 vs. THE FINANCIAL CRISIS 2008

Österreichische Postsparkasse, architect Otto Wagner, finished 1906

 

In both cases the crisis originated in the USA. But for the Great Depression starting in 1929 in the US, there would probably have been no rise of Hitler, no Roosevelt and the Soviet System would not have been regarded as a serious economic rival and alternative to capitalism. The US which had so far been a safe haven in a world of break downs and revolutions was the epicentre of the largest global economic earthquake until then.

 

Operations of a capitalist economy are never smooth, fluctuations are an integral part of it. A trade cycle of boom and slump was already characteristic of the 19th century capitalist economies. In the 1920s the Russian economist Kondratiev, who later became a victim of Stalin, discerned a pattern of economic development since the end of the 18th century through a series of “long waves” of 50-60 years. He concluded that the wave of world economy was due for its downturn. The last severe downturn had been in the 1870s. Minor trade cycles had been accepted by economists, but the world economy was expected to go on growing and advancing except for sudden short-lived slumps. Only the socialists (Marx) believed that cycles could put the capitalist system at risk. The history of the world economy since the Industrial Revolution had been characterised by accelerating technological progress, continuous economic growth and increasing “globalisation”, namely an elaborate worldwide division of labour. Even between 1929 and 1933 world economic growth did not cease completely, but slowed down. Yet the globalisation of the economy stopped advancing in the inter-war years.…