The Musical Landscape in Austria by Rainer Elsner / mica

Historical Backdrop

Music and art have formed the Austrian identity from the earliest days: Music enjoyed immense importance even when the country was still a small duchy. The minstrel Neidhart von Reuental (1180-1240), for instance, was the first Austrian musician-poet to be buried in a grave of honour on the south side of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

The Habsburgs, too, were passionate about music. A number of emperors played instruments, and composed and conducted themselves. And a lot of money was spent on music: The Vienna Court Music Orchestra ( was founded in 1498 and has existed to this very day. The imperial court played a model role. The princes of Esterházy, for instance, financed their own court chapel, had an opera house built, and enabled Joseph Haydn to develop into one of Europe’s most innovative composers. A commemorative plaque in the lobby of the Vienna Musikverein impressively reminds us of the patronage extended by the imperial family.

The Classical period can be rightly called the first, genuinely Austrian musical current. It went hand in hand with social upheaval and transformation. The child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was able to turn his back to his birth town Salzburg, because he invented a new life concept: that of a freelance artist. A concept that was novel at a time in which the music ’market’ was largely shaped by patronage. Only very few concerts were generally accessible, and copyright was still in its rudimentary stages, publishing houses had just started to gain ground. Originating from Bonn, Ludwig van Beethoven, was also sponsored by four noble patrons with an annual emolument in Vienna.

With Beethoven, a novel attitude took root. His works are the message of a musically free composer who did not give in to censorship.

Franz Schubert stands for the Biedermeier period and a withdrawal to the private sphere, triggered also by state chancellor Metternich’s rigorous surveillance state who implemented a system of censorship and spying und suppressed the freedom of the press and opinion. With his unsettling lieder cycles, Schubert created something like early concept albums. A yearning for death, combined with an almost hurtful will of expression – are definitely the qualities that have always been characteristic of Austrian music, whether in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, the morbid “Dark grey songs“ of the singer and actor Ludwig Hirsch, or the sombre songs of Soap&Skin. With couplets in theatre plays that took their cue from daily events, censorship could sometimes be evaded – they often became immensely popular and can be seen as precursors of the dialect wave in the 1970s Austrian pop music.

During Schubert’s life time people started to systematically collect folk songs. Their formal idiosyncrasies survived over the centuries – in Upper Austria, for instance, the mostly mocking songs ("Gstanzln"), in the capital the wistful, death-longing ‘wienerlied’ This form of art saw its heyday in the late 19th century, cultivated by ensembles such as the Schrammel brothers quartet.

In recent times, these traditional genres have been revived by bands such as Attwenger and 5/8erl in Ehr'n and pepped up by punk and hip-hop elements.

In the 19th century, the bourgeoisie conquered music, music societies and academies of music came into being. Virtuosos und kings of waltz became the first international pop stars in the music industry: Members of the audience fainted, when the Burgenland-born composer Franz Liszt put in a performance, Johann Strauß travelled with his orchestra as far as Russia and the USA. Inspired by the aristocracy, people began to take joy of opulent celebrations - to this very day, the Vienna Opera ball society is considered the social highlight of the year in society circles and is broadcast live on TV.

The musical skills of the educated classes were remarkable, they sat down at the piano to play the piano scores of operas and symphonies, all skills which come handy to many musicians of the Austrian scene today.

At the turn of the 20th century, a group which drew a wedge between conservative and open-minded listeners formed in the culturally thriving Vienna: The Second Vienna School around Arnold Schönberg. Schönberg built the tune of "Oh, du lieber Augustin!", considered to be the first wienerlied, into his first atonal oeuvre. He was in search of a new system of musical composition and, in 1920, invented what was to become known as twelve-tone technique.

After World War I, the era of the Austro-Hungarian multi-ethnic state came to an end. In 1920, one and half years after the war had ended, the Salzburg Festival was founded – also with a focus on promoting a new Austrian identity with a strong return to tradition and hopes for a common Europe. Tourism considerations came into play as well with these “Olympic Games of the Arts" (Stefan Zweig).

Revue theatres and cabarets saw their heyday in the inter-war period (in 1923 there were 25 theatre houses and 18 varietés in Vienna). With increasing popularity, the operetta lost its initial socio-critical power – after all, it could be incorporated into the entertainment, distraction and propaganda machinery of the National Socialists. On the theatre bills, the often Jewish librettists were simply omitted.

After World War II, Austria had to re-define itself anew as a state. The intellectual vanguard had been exiled or murdered; at school, children were taught by teachers who perpetuated the educational principles of the Nazi era; exiles were not actively invited to return, while, after a phase of denazification, artists with a doubtful past took over leading positions.

Vienna was drab and grey, most pubs and restaurants closed early. Some groups of artists started to rebel against this post-war constriction. The revolutionary Vienna Group formed around the dialect writer HC Artmann. The Vienna Actionists radically turned the art scene upside down.

In classical music, the mood under a conservative surface was upbeat: Starting in 1953, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Concentus Musicus gave rise to a new fascination for Early Music and initiated a wave of historical performing practice. In 1958, the ensemble ‘die reihe’ was one of the first ensembles for contemporary music worldwide. The very latest sounds were brought to Vienna, first acknowledged by the audience at a concert with a concerted use of whistles. But soon there was a turnaround: festivals such as WienModern attracted an avant-garde-friendly audience. Today, a new generation of contemporary composers performs at house nights at Club Flex just as at the Konzerthaus music hall.

In what is called entertainment music, there was no revolution after the war. The major record companies did not promote own creations, but pop songs and tuned-down versions of rock'n'roll and beat music (such as in films by Peter Alexander). The Bambis and their international hit "Melancholie” were an exception. Current music reached the people through the jukeboxes of shady pubs in suburbia and a cabaret artist: Helmut Qualtinger sang about the "G'schupfte Ferdl", deriding the churlish manners of the lower social strata when dancing – a topos which had already been taken up by the medieval troubadours. In the first years of Beatlemania, pop music found its way into the Austrian mass media as a curiosity rather.

Under the influence of the writers of the Vienna Group, a wave of dialect pop emerged. The initial spark came from the Worried Men Skiffle Group who put a poem by the Vienna Group author Konrad Bayer into music, Marianne Mendt sang "Wia a Glock'n", lyrics by the cabaret artist Gerhard Bronner and music by jazz artist Hans Salomon (cofounder of Austrian All Starts together with Joe Zawinul). And finally, 19-year old Wolfgang Ambros took the charts with his morbid song of a corpse found in a Vienna council house – a satirical tally with the myth of the “Golden Viennese Heart”. The kick-off had been made, Austropop as it is called, boomed.

The language games of the Vienna Group also inspired Hansi Hölzl aka Falco – Austria’s only true pop star – to his multilingual chanting. "Rock me Amadeus" of 1985 was the only German song ever which made it to the top of the US-Billboard charts and the UK Top 40.

Austropop rose to a qualitative peak in the early 1980s, but then visibly waned. As a deliberate counterpoint, an alternative culture fed by punk and new wave developed. Some protagonists of the 1990s electronic scene had their musical roots in this New-Wave scene. Outside of Austria, there was little to gain with a rehash of Austropop, while Techno productions helped Austrian artists to international success. For a short period of time, Kruder & Dorfmeister made milder sounds a unique feature of the varied Vienna scene. From Vienna, the “downbeat” genre conquered the world with the EP “G-Stoned“ released in 1993 as icebreaker.

The genre was quickly commercialised on the café compilations of the world, the Techno scene became harder and harder, and laptop musicians gained a foothold in an experimental field. There was an audience also willing to follow into noise regions – Vienna, after all, has a certain tradition of difficult avant-garde music. The former guitar rock musician Christian Fennesz performed at international festivals in the category of Clicks & Cuts.

With the (basically heterogeneous) Vienna Sound, Austria for the first time became an exporter of pop music. The former label structures have been partly retained to this day, new ones have been added, from the Styrian cassette labels to internationally networked beat factories. All this seems to make the recent boom of fascinating music projects sustainable. For that, the conditions in Austria – aside the static major labels – seem to be as favourable as they have not been for a long time.

Author: Rainer Elsner