I am an Austrian by birth. My parents both considered themselves products of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and grew up in the milieu of the Habsburg culture, the Kaiser and his palaces in Vienna, the Strauss waltzes, Austro-Hungarian aristocracy and military, the grand social life of the early 1900s, etc.
“Wiener Blut” sums it all up. It literally means the lifeblood of Vienna, but that is not its entire meaning. Wiener Blut started as an operetta with rather dark origins. Most of the music is the product of Johan Strauss Jr., the Waltz King, but Johan’s younger brother, Joseph, contributed substantially. Johan left the production to Adolf Müller, and Johan was only peripherally involved. The operetta premiered in 1899, with considerable production costs. Johan never saw the production because he died from pneumonia five months before, perhaps related to an influenza outbreak. The operetta was a financial disaster and bankrupted Adolf Müller, who shot himself at his desk, at the opera house. Five years later, it was produced again, but this time met with the resounding success, which continues its popularity to this day. The real intended meaning of “Wiener Blut” is the spirit of Vienna, or the soul of Vienna, rather than the red stuff in your veins.
My first encounter with Vienna was as a six-year-old. Austria was by now a tiny country, no longer an empire, and my family was looking to get out of the political and social disaster, the aftermath of World War II, to which we were now assigned through no fault of our own. My father had lost his job as the doctor of a small town in central Austria. All of our possessions that could be sold had been, and it was an issue from where the next meal would come. We had to go to Vienna to organize and file some documents in order to leave Austria and immigrate to what we thought would be a part of Africa, which was then called the “Gold Coast,” now Ghana. We were turned down to immigrate to the US because my father was under indictment by the Russian Communist government for being an “enemy of the people,” and his mother had been sent to Siberia in retribution, because her son had escaped the clutches of Stalin, but that is another story. The closest relative that could be caught was punished instead. This was 1949, and Joseph Stalin was still the friend of Harry S. Truman and an ally of the US. Vienna was in the Russian sector, risky for my father to enter, but there was no other choice.
A politically connected friend of our family offered to drive us to Vienna, besides he had an automobile. Arnold Schwarzenegger, when he was Governor of California, was taken to task for not telling the truth, saying that the Russians had tanks throughout Austria, as that supposedly was not historically accurate. But when our friend took a wrong turn on the ancient convoluted streets of Vienna in June 1949, suddenly, we were faced by two Russian tanks with their turret guns trained at our little VW “Bug.” You are not supposed to have memories that far back, but I will never forget that scary moment. We beat a hasty retreat. We had apparently made an inadvertent approach to a Russsian military garrison that was verboten to us. There were indeed Russian tanks in Austria, just like Arnold said! My father got the necessary documents, and we drove back to our home in Hinterstoder, Austria.
The little ski resort village that was our home throughout the war years had an assorted eclectic mix of inhabitants, the indigenous farmers, and innkeepers, along with people from Germany and Austria from larger cities that were being bombed by the Allies. These people could safely live out those dangerous times. It is there I met Wolfdieter. His father had been in the German army, and his mother was an accomplished opera singer, and I would add the maker of the best apple strudel I have ever had! He was two years older than I, and we became friends, playing, hiking, and generally doing what boys do. Seven decades later, we met up again, courtesy of the internet. I had written a book about my hometown, Hinterstoder, Tales from my Home Town, that Wolfdieter stumbled upon and obtained from Amazon Kindle since he now lives near that town. He pointed out a few minor inaccuracies in the book that will be corrected in the next edition with his help. Wolfdieter had his own adventures after the war. Through his mother’s musical background, he pursued a musical career and became quite successful. Among his many accomplishments, he was the conductor of the Vienna Boy’s Choir in the 1960s. We met again when he came to Los Angeles with the Choir to perform in the recently built Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center.
The Vienna Boys Choir has a fascinating history that highlights Vienna with the “Spirit and Soul” of Vienna. The Choir is one of the oldest choirs in the world. It received its original charter from Kaiser Maximilian I in 1498 and has become a musical ambassador of Austria. The Choir travels all over the world to give concerts with a mix of popular, classical, liturgical, folk, and seasonal music, especially Silent Night, composed in 1818, a stone’s throw over the Alps from Hinterstoder. The Choir has had input from the standard-bearers of music, including Joseph Hayden and his younger brother Michael, both of whom were members of the Choir as boys. Franz Schubert’s early songs were also composed when he was one of the Vienna Boys Choir members. Mozart and his supposed rival Salieri, as well as later the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, worked with the Choir. If they had a particularly successful performance, Bruckner would bring them a cake in his characteristically unsophisticated style. Many of today’s famous conductors: Claudio Abbado, Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel, Riccardo Muti, Sir George Solti, Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, and others have led and performed with the boys.
I am proud to call Wolfdieter Maurer a friend and now an editor of one of my books.