Ripened to Decay
Vienna: turn of the 20th Century
For me, this is the most fascinating period in history. It is referred to as the Fin de Siècle, which is a term used to describe the end of one cultural era and the beginning of another. Think of Vienna at this time as embodying the brash superficiality and frivolous extravagance of Wall Street in the late-80s/early-90s; the same kind beautifully portrayed in the film The Wolf of Wall Street. It is also like the fall of ancient Rome. As one writer put it, “prosperity ripened to decay.”
The world crawled painfully into the modern era. The dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had governed most of middle-Europe under the Habsburgs for centuries, was slowly collapsing, and with it, the accepted social order. The fabric that had sustained European society throughout the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical epochs – for a thousand years – was pulling apart at the seams. This left everyone, from the aristocracy to the emerging middle-class to the working poor, unanchored, disoriented, and without place in the new world.
It was at this time that the waltz rose to prominence, and the little dance became emblematic of its age. The soaring melodies of Johann Strauss, the extravagant gowns, the ostentatious balls, they all provided a backdrop to a thinly veiled and widespread debauchery. In the cocoon of their wealth, these revellers were happily – nay, gratefully – preoccupied with shallow artifice. In and of itself, this is not totally contemptible, but it came at the grave expense of broader society’s welfare. Prosperity ripened to decay.
The Viennese were obsessively nostalgic and romantic, seemingly bent on ignoring the march of progress. The mid-19th Century Industrial Revolution saw a new upper-middle class emerge that was neither working poor nor nobility. They had no roots, and the aristocracy rejected these new-moneyed individuals, despite their having the wealth to participate. The nouveau riches were disdained by the bluebloods while longing for their acceptance. Some tried to buy their way in by lavishly sponsoring the arts, while others bought titles for themselves. These new barons and counts of commerce floated between two worlds and belonged wholly to neither.
Further down the ladder a restless discontent also simmered. The feudal structures that had existed for centuries had disintegrated. For the lower class, the juxtaposition of the harsh injustice of their lives and the unrestrained luxury of the aristocracy created a breeding ground for vehement social ills like anti-Semitism.
All of this was most chillingly reflected in the immediate aftermath of Crown Prince Rudolph’s suicide. With support wavering in the Hungarian sectors of the empire, the Emperor Joseph had decided to temporarily relocate the entire court to Budapest. The nobility deserted the city. Disillusioned, wretchedly poor, and feeling abandoned, the under-classes of Vienna were swept up by a surge of Pan-German sentiment. Crown Prince Rudolph, the man who was to redeem the empire, had taken his own life in an act of despair, and Vienna was suddenly without a saviour (there is a parallel here between Rudolph’s death and JFK’s assassination.) And so support for Rudolph’s arch nemesis, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, began to spread. This was not disloyalty on behalf of the Viennese but desperation.
By this time, Nietzsche had already declared the death of God, and with it the need for imposed religious morality; hope for imminent social reform died with Rudolph; music and art were spiralling into strange and unfamiliar, often frightening spheres; and the unity of the empire was crumbling all around. ‘Doubts that cloud the faith of an era will excite its geniuses.’ In visual art it was Gustav Klimt and the Secessionists, in the new field of psychology it was Sigmund Freud, in politics it was Theodore Herzl, and in music it was Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg. These geniuses bore witness to the tectonic shift in the social topography and their reactions charted the course for a new era.
The ramifications of Vienna’s demise echoed loudly throughout the 20th Century. It is not unreasonable to say that the dissolution of this empire was a leading catalyst in two of the most devastating of all wars.
For us, as it pertains to this blog, we see that Vienna’s collapse gave birth to an incredible wealth of musical art that would forever change the face of everything that had come before and would follow. As society moved towards democracy, so music experienced a kind of democratization. With ‘atonality’ all notes became equal. Traditional hierarchy was eschewed. And so we begin to hear in music some of those disconcerting sounds – the sounds of a brave new world.