The Musical Landscape in Austria by Rainer Elsner / mica


From earliest times, music and art have formed the Austrian identity. Music was held in high esteem 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 an honorary grave on the outer south wall of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

The Habsburgs, too, were passionate about music. A number of emperors themselves played instruments, composed and conducted. And a great deal of money was spent on music. The Vienna Court Music Orchestra ( was founded in 1498 and  exists to this very day. The imperial court played a model role. The princes of Esterházy financed their own court ensemble, built an opera house 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 justifiably called the first, genuinely Austrian music trend. It accompanied great social upheaval and transformation. The child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was able to turn his back on his hometown Salzburg, as he personified the new life concept of the freelance artist. A novel concept at a time in which the music ’market’ was largely shaped by patronage. Only very few concerts were publicly accessible and copyright was still in its rudimentary stages. Publishing houses had just begun to gain ground. Originally from Bonn, Ludwig van Beethoven, was also sponsored by four noble patrons with an annual salary in Vienna.

With Beethoven, a new attitude took center stage. His works are the message of a free composer who did not kneel to musical censorship.

Franz Schubert is representative of the Biedermeier period and a withdrawal to the private sphere, triggered in part, by state chancellor Metternich’s rigorous surveillance state which implemented a system of spying, censorship and suppression of freedom of the press and public opinion. Schubert created with his unsettling Lieder cycles something approaching an early concept album. A yearning for death, combined with an almost painful expressive will – are definitely qualities which have always characterized Austrian music, whether symphonies of Gustav Mahler, singer-actor Ludwig Hirsch's morbid "Dark Gray Songs", or the sombre songs of Soap & Skin. In theatre productions of the day, couplets that commented on daily events, could sometimes  evade censorship and often became immensely popular. They could be seen as precursors of the dialect wave in 1970s Austrian pop music.

During Schubert’s lifetime people began to systematically collect folk songs. Their structural characteristics survived over the centuries – in Upper Austria, for instance, the mostly mocking songs ("Gstanzln"), in the capital Vienna, the lachrymose, yearning for death ‘Wienerlied’ which reached its apex in the late 19th century, cultivated by ensembles such as the Schrammel brothers quartet.

More recently, these traditional genres have been revived by bands such as Kollegium Kalksburg, Die StrotternAttwenger and 5/8erl in Ehr'n and refreshed with punk, rock and hip-hop elements.

In the 19th century, the bourgeoisie made music their own. Music societies and academies of music were established. Virtuosos und waltz kings became the first international pop stars in the music industry: Members of the audience fainted, when the Burgenland born composer and pianist Franz Liszt performed, Johann Strauß travelled with his orchestra as far as Russia and the USA. Inspired by the aristocracy, people began to enjoy opulent celebrations. To this very day, the Vienna Opera ball is considered the social highlight of the year in society circles and is broadcast live on TV.

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

At the turn of the 20th century, a group which drove a wedge between conservative and open-minded listeners formed in culturally thriving Vienna, the Second Vienna School surrounding Arnold Schönberg. Schönberg encorporated the tune of "Oh, du lieber Augustin!", considered to be the first Wienerlied, into his first atonal piece. He was in search of a new system of musical composition and in 1920, invented what was to become known as the 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 war's end, the Salzburg Festival was founded – also with a focus on promoting a new Austrian identity, strongly reflecting tradition and with hopes for a united Europe. Tourism considerations came into play as well with these “Olympic Games of the Arts" (Stefan Zweig).

Revue theatres and cabarets reached a high in popularity in the inter-war period. (in 1923 there were 25 theatres and 18 varietés in Vienna) With its increasing popularity, the operetta lost its earlier socially critical bite– it was easily incorporated into the entertainment, distraction and propaganda machinery of the National Socialists. On theatre bills, the names of, 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 murdered or exiled, in schools, children were taught by teachers who perpetuated Nazi era educational principles, exiles were not actively invited to return, and after a short 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 a conservative surface was underlayed by an upbeat optimism. Starting in 1953, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Concentus Musicus gave rise to a new fascination for Early Music and set loose a wave of historical performance 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 and first "acknowledged" by audiences with a barrage of whistle blowing. There was soon a turn-around. 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 they do at the Konzerthaus.

There was no revolution after the war in what is referred to as entertainment music. The major record companies did not promote original works, but pop songs and watered-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 popular 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 rather more as a curiosity.

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 set a poem by the Vienna Group author Konrad Bayer to 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). Finally, 19-year old Wolfgang Ambros took the charts with his morbid song about a corpse found in a Viennese public housing building – a satirical reckoning with the myth of the “Golden Viennese Heart”. The take-off had been launched, Austropop boomed.

The language games of the Vienna Group also inspired Hansi Hölzl aka Falco – Austria’s only true international pop star – to his multilingual chanting. "Rock Me Amadeus", 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 from the immoveable major labels – seem to be as favourable as they have not been for some time.

Author: Rainer Elsner