Coffee and Comfort in the Legendary Setting for Raimund, Nestroy, Strauss
On a sunny afternoon, I entered the Café Dommayer which I had passed by on many occasions, but never set foot in.
The café was nearly full. This is a popular place, classic décor, owned and operated by Oberlaa, one of the most successful confectioners in Vienna. People were settled in, reading the newspaper, drinking coffee, or chatting away on cozy red couches, leaning their arms on the marble tables. Bright light diffused from crystal chandeliers suspended from the ceiling in long brass hangers.
At one table, people began to laugh with excitement, as one told a funny joke. A very lively atmosphere, with waitress’ bustling along, taking orders, bringing large silver trays that contained cakes, coffees, and other delicious delicacies; and a large company of people laughing, making it an effort to hear your own words.
Posters cover the walls, with dates of past and upcoming musical and reading events.
There is a grand piano at one end, in a small performance space for the frequent theater pieces and concerts, as well as readings from traditional and contemporary Austrian writers. The next reading was a famous work from Biedermeier playwright Ferdinand Raimund, called Bauer als Millionar.
Raimund along with Johannes Nestroy were the two famous comic playwrights of the Biedermeier time. They were characterized as the Shakespeares of Austria, whose plays were both witty and wise, with a parade of memorable characters that have become part of Austrian literary lore. The upcoming reading, Bauer als Millionar, is about a little poor girl who falls in love with the director of the play, who is rich and soon marries her. Their different mannerisms contradict each other with comic hilarity, to the delight of audiences, and yet, through all this conflict, they still find in their hearts to love each other.
These plays were the favorites of lawyers, doctors, civil servants, teachers, professors, merchants, and artisans that made up the Biedermeier community, who loved to watch the brilliance that these men had created. Art kept their mind off the political life they often felt trapped by, as they lived within a kind of artistic bubble, with songs, music, plays, keeping their attention from the reality outside.
This Biedermeier period from 1815 till 1848 was one of contrasts in Austria - when the middle class of Austria was completely separated from political affairs. The Emperor Franz I and his minister Prince Metternich had imposed autocratic rule, and therefore the public retreated into the artistic and domestic pursuits that were trademarks of the age, with paintings of daily life, music, plays, and furniture, that today are known as Bieder - originating from the German adjective bieder: plain, a little naive, honest and the very common German surname, Meier.
This period of artistic and domestic pursuits, however did not last, as a Revolution broke out in March of 1848 and lasted till July of 1849. The many different nationalities of the Hapsburg Empire that included Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Italians, and Croats as well as Austrians and Germans – all sought autonomy, or even hegemony over other nationalities. Prince Metternich was forced out of office, while Franz I abdicated in favor if his grandson Franz Joseph, who ruled with a much lighter hand, ushering in an era of tolerance that lifted the restraints on public life and led to a blossoming of journalism, theater and the visual arts. But it also meant that people began to spend much less time at home, and the thirty-three year Biedermeier era with its culture of domesticity came to an end.
But theater is only part of the heritage of Cafe Dommayer. I noticed a poster hanging on the wall, dated October 15, 1844 announcing the debut concert of a young musician Johann Strauss II at this very coffee house
Strauss was a musical genius who, following in his father footsteps, brought the waltz to its highest form, Johann Strauss senior, called the Waltzkönig, was the originator of what is known today as the Viennese Waltz. When his son started to compose music, the father was infuriated, fearing the boy would eventually challenge his throne as the Waltz King. He refused his son’s wish to become a musician and went even as far as breaking his violin. When this did not deter the boy, the well connected father banned his son from every major concert hall in Vienna.
So it was that Johann Strauss II found the Cafe Dommayer, a noble Kaffeehaus that lay on the outskirts of Vienna, whose owners were willing to allow him to play for the first time in public just before his 23rd birthday.
From that night onwards, till his death in 1899, Johann Strauss II flourished, surpassing his father and earning the title the elder Strauss had tried so hard to protect.
My mind filled with this fascinating tale, I looked around for a place to sit in the crowded café. I had practically given up when a man gestured to me to join him. As it was the only free seat in the place, I could hardly say no. Günter turned out to be a very friendly Austrian, and as I ordered a coffee and cake, he launched into an enthusiastic appreciation of Strauss, who seemed as alive to him as a century ago. This was the only coffee house he went to, Günter claimed; nowhere else was the spirit of Strauss so vivid and real.
"Johann Strauss was one of the greatest musicians of the time! Why do I go to this coffee house?" Günter responded in disbelief. "Having a great historic past, it is of greater significance than other coffee houses!" Calming down, he took a sip from his coffee. "But, that is not the only reason I come here," he confessed. "Though it may be busy at times, like today, I find the atmosphere absolutely marvelous; I can sit here for hours and just enjoy the pleasures of the day."
That is the beauty of the Viennese coffee house. And as is tradition, the waiter brought me a glass of water with a spoon on top, which symbolizes that you can stay as long as you want.
13., Aufhofstrasse 2
Tel. +431 877 54 65-0
Open Hours: 7:00-22:00