Vienna’s Ol’ Time Songfest

Wienerlied festival: a celebration of wine, death and the love of the past

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | September 2009

Vienna is proud of its obsessions – or are they love affairs? – with music, with nostagia, and most of all, with death. As cabaretist Georg Kreisler sang, "Death must surely be a Viennese, as surely as love is a femme fatale."

Thus the annual celebration of Viennese song, the Wienerlied Festival now in its 10th season, goes by the name of "Wean hean" -- in dialect "listening to Vienna."

In fact, there are few cities, great or small, where music and song are as much a part of daily life as they are in Vienna. Perhaps it was the convergence of cultures of the old empire – where song may have helped bridge the barriers of language and culture – that nurtured the Wienerlied. Or maybe it was simply the chronically overcast sky.

"The every day reality of the present (or of any present!) is gray enough, that you need something to help you escape from it from time to time," wrote the famed chronicler of Wienerlieder Stasi Lohr. In Vienna, this escape is most often into the past, where experience can be transformed into memory. "Even suffering, when reflected upon, can be transformed into a bit of happiness," Lohr wrote. "That is where the truly Viennese art comes in."

On a recent summer evening, when a day of rain had made it too cool to sit outside, we found a cozy corner table in the Stadtheuriger Gigerl. We settled in under a pleasingly dingy oil painting – a convivial Heuriger scene of carousing by the Austrian inter-war genre painter Hans Larwin – and ordered our first half-liter of Schank Wein from the barrel.

The mood is often lively at Gigerl, and on this night, fortune was on our side. As we refilled our wine mugs, a mellow older gentleman in a wrinkled white shirt and brown Westcott, his wispy grey hair rebelling against propriety, wandered in, leaned against the doorframe and began to sing.

This was Ingomar Kmentt, a retired journalist turned Heurigen musician with a voice far better than we deserved, who sings cabaret songs and Wienerlieder for tips, to the strumming of a guitar.

He began with "Erst wann’s aus, wird sein," (Only when it’s all over, will it happen, i.e. death) and the beloved Wiener Fiakerlied (Anyone one can be a coachman, but you can only drive in Vienna!) that had a few humming along.

Then, with the gentlest of encouragement, he lured two opera-singer guests into the mood, and together they treated us to a stirring rendition of "Wien, Wien, nur Du allein," Other conversation quieted as diners, heads tilting together, turned to listen. Then in a soaring line of sound, the song flowed on into, "Dein ist mein ganzen Herz." At the table just behind, two couples looked on entranced, catching each other’s eye, tightened brows lifted in a sweet query of recognition.

Many devotees of Wienerlieder – the Viennese songs of the Heuriger, the cabaret and the street – claim that with all the city’s charms, things are not what they once were. Well, maybe. But in Vienna they probably never were to begin with.

"When a song goes: ‘It will never be as beautiful again as it once was,’ it also means, as beautiful as it could have been – because it never actually was," wrote Lohr. "But," he adds, "what difference does that make?"

This transfiguration of reality in retrospect is the essence of the Wienerlied.

In an attempt to unravel the mystery of the Wienerlied, we set off one evening to Cabaret L.E.O, (short for the Letztes erfreuliches Operntheater – the last truly pleasing opera house), to be instructed by singer/pianist Antonia Lersch’s Wienerlied Seminar.  Here with a suitable veneer of academic rigor – flip charts of thought pyramids and cluster diagrams, circles and arrows swooping in all directions – a feast of song was mixed with a thoroughly disarming and hilarious excursion into the Viennese soul.

"This is a moment of a great reawakening for the Wienerlied," Lersch said at the intermission. "So many old pieces are being unearthed again."

In and outside the Festival, groups lie the Wern Herrn (Viennese Gentlemen) and the Rosenstoltz are combining old songs with new Viennese music, that hails back to this tradition. Much of this new Viennese Music has absorbed the vocabulary of jazz and blues into the older idiom and brings to it a critical perspective that sparkles with life.

But it is the darker side of the Wienerlied tradition that often gets overlooked amidst the wit and nostalgia.

"What many don’t realize is that the ironic treatment of a shabby working class life, the comic sentimentalizing of the anxieties of gentile poverty, masked ugly realities that were very real," Lersch said. "Tragedies in the lives of ordinary people permeate songs like die Spittleberg Huren, (the Whores of Spittleberg). Here you have the nobility sitting there listing who could have infected the prostitutes with their sexually transmitted diseases.

These are the washerwomen who would be working so hard day in day out, who sold themselves to make enough to live on. There are songs about orphan boys and street urchins who couldn’t earn a crust of bread. At that time, this was meant very seriously, as was the message from the church, that in another life things would be much better." Lersch said.

It was also the era of Metternich censorship, when the ironic tone of the Wienerlieder made it possible to talk about things that would otherwise be punishable. And perhaps equally important, the repression made these guilty pleasures all the more appealing, and raised the tongue in cheek narrative voice to a high art.

"Without the censorship, the Wienerlieder would not have been possible," Lersch said. "The phenomenon can’t be understood without the historical context; the two are really inseparable."

The stage lights dimmed as Lersch returned to the piano, settled on the stool and pulled the cap down a little tighter over her brow. Then the footsteps began, as if form some place far off, heavy shoes echoing on the wood of the stage, steady, relentless... left, right, left, right,... march, march, march...

And then the voice began, half singing, half chanting:


Ere the day awakes, to the sun’s warm air

And we all file off toward the day’s dull care

March onward in gray covered morning,


She is singing in a lower register than before, the weight of the notes throbbing with the marching feet. There is a rustle of recognition in the audience: People know this song. And as the setting sharpens into focus, a deep hush descends.


Oh the forest black and the sky so red

And in our packs is a crust of bread,

In our hearts, our hearts the ache of warning

O! Buchenwald, I never will forget you

For you are now my Fate.

And only those who ever get to leave you

Can know the gift of Freedom’s gate.


O! Buchenwald, it’s not that we’re complaining

[with all that you are ‘giving’]

For whatever Fortune may bring

We will still shout out that life’s worth living,

And one day again let Freedom ring!


My throat tightens involuntarily. Somewhere behind me someone is crying quietly into a handkerchief. While Lersch’s voice may have lost some of its power with age, this may in its own way be a strength: It is through the cracks in the veneer of control that the deepest humanity leaks through.

It is in her vulnerability that our hearts are broken.


The Wienerlied Festival takes place from Sept 22 to Oct. 22, 2009 at seven stages around Vienna.


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