At the Kaffeesieder Ball

A whirl through nine hours of coffee, Sekt and sandwiches, waltzes and quadrilles, and a 4:30 Fiacre ride to breakfast

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | March 2010

The buttons of my long velvet evening coat still reached the button holes, I was pleased to note – although just barely. Surely a point of pride surely after the three decades of pleasure it had afforded!  Folding a silk scarf under the lapels, gaiety shimmered in the air.  The second elbow-length ivory satin glove was just over the elbow when my cell phone rang.  Caller ID: Jim, this evening’s Rosenkavlier. One glove hastily peeled off again. "Cuff links? Yes, I’ve got them. Bis gleich…" and headed for the door.

It was just past 20:00 as my velvet coat and I un-folded from the taxi and tip-toed through the light dusting of snow to the Festsaal entrance of the Hofburg on Heldenplatz. Vehicles streamed in, a long arc of taxis crawling around the crescent drive to drop their guests at the door. Tickets were torn and coats were checked;  press badges complete with maps and schedules, were collected just inside on the right – beautifully organized, served and guided by battalions of liveried staff.

There were over 6,000 tickets sold that night according to the organizers, and incorporating not just the usual Ball rooms and salons, but also the Maria Theresien Apartments and the Dressage Hall of the Spanish Riding School.

Whatever else the Kaffeesiederball has to offer it should be coffee – the famed Ball of Vienna’s Coffee Brewers.  And sure enough, just inside the main entrance hall, its creamy marble façades polished to a high shine and the grand staircase sweeping up ahead, a stylish little Meinl Café had been set up for the evening in the Gartensaal, just off to the right.  A long serving bar with an array of brass samovars glistening in the mirror behind.

As is usual in Vienna one could sit or stand, the ebony and chrome standing tables along the sides around arrangements of couches in slate blue leather with low black tables, the elaborate menu was a challenge.  Final choice: Caffe di Olle, a Grosse Schwarzer with a shot of Amaretto, bit of sugar, shavings of orange peel and cinnamon. Sweet but not too – lovely! – and delivering the needed spike of caffeine to arm for a long night.  I checked my phone: still no sign of my Rosenkavalier.

I unfolded the program. It was pages long, detailing the offerings of the evening: a Café de Mexico with a Mariachi band in the Forum and Viennese Kaffeehaus with Schrammelmusik in the Schatzkammersaal, presumably surrounded by the Habsburg crown jewels, plus jazz and swing in the Rote Bar on your way to the Redoutensaal, one of the four ballrooms on duty that evening in a seemingly endless meander of Hofburg suites and salons. By the end of the evening, we counted 15 different musical ensembles in all – orchestras, bands and combos of all sorts, spread through out the vast spaces that took up most of the central section of the palace from the Michaelertor to Heldenplatz, the Burggarten to the Schweizerhof.

It would be dancing till dawn – well, almost. The ball program would whirl its way through nine hours of coffee, Sekt and sandwiches, of waltzes and quadrilles, twists and two-steps until its scheduled ending at 4:30 am, closing with a gratis Fiacre ride to the Café Landtmann where breakfast would be served.

The waiter glanced at the clock above the bar and looked over. Oh! It was time! I downed the last sip, collected my things and headed for the grand staircase, remembering just in time to lift my skirts before I fell on my face!

Upstairs was a mob scene, all sequins, satin and silken wraps, back tie, white tie, brass buttons and chests full of medals, thronging outside the enormous door. Along the silk cordoned path I spot an old acquaintance, whose face lights up with pleasure. She has been unable to locate any of the people they planned to meet up with, she confides. Can’t she call? "Left my Handy in my coat at the Garderobe. No reception, anyway." I smile. It’s a joy to find a friendly face!

"You look wonderful," I tell her, which she does. In fact the costumery alone was worth the effort of the evening: every conceivable color and cut of gown, every glorious coif; men suddenly marvelous in tux, tails and regalia. One couldn’t help being impressed at how well people understood what suited them. The Viennese know how to dress, I thought transformed with a drape of cloth and a sweep of hair.

They also, as we would observe later, know how to dance.

Passing sideways between the gabardine shoulders, I slip though the crowd and on into the Festsaal, disappearing into a thicket of photographers, just as the giant doors open and the guests of honor file in, Kommerzial Rat and the Mexican ambassador with their wives who sweep in, exotic birds of paradise, nameless, yet glorious to behold. Some moments later, the debutantes follow with their escorts, file row on row, ceremoniously, into the room.

The rituals of a Viennese ball are splendid to behold, formal line dances of circle and serenade, deep bows and curtseys to the floor, dissolving at the end into the poised, yet somehow slightly wanton elegance of the left/hand waltz. It’s different from a ordinary waltz, requiring that both partners lean back, revolving on the edge of abandonment, at any moment, one feels, at risk of losing control. Wonderful to watch, more wonderful to do.

Then it was finished, and with the last speeches still droning, I slipped out and downstairs, to where my escort was waiting, glass in hand, at the Officers Bar, outside the Zeremoniensaal. A toast and a few tales of events so far. Where next? It was well after 10:00. We checked the program and headed off to the Rittersaal, to hear jazz singer Carole Alston with pianist Erwin Schmidt and friends, stopping in a side salon on the way to hear a few tunes by Karel Minarik play a few standards on the Bösendorfer.

Sometime after midnight, after climbing several kilometers up over the Reitsaal, and back down, we found our way into the majestic hall of the Spanish Riding School. A wooden floor had been laid over the turf covered with a red carpet – a first apparently – turning the famed dressage hall of the Spanish Riding School into yet another vast ballroom. Tables covered the floor with a long bar and buffet on one side, and a capacious dance floor in front of the stage, where Tini Kainrath & Das Bernd Fröhlich Orchester had been playing without a break since about 10:00.

It was a great scene, table after table of energy and color. While it was, as always, a mixed-age crowd, this room seemed particularly popular with the young, faces and bodies still growing into their adult forms, yet in spite of wisps of gawkiness, already with taste worthy of the graceful people they would surely one day become. Whatever the era, there is something to be said for dancing school. These young people – and there were armies of them – were completely at ease. They may have been dressed to the nines, but there was nothing stuffy about the time they were having. They were happy, high even, but not sloppy. All in all, effervescent.

"Max is a Balltier," my friend Antionette had confided some time back about her student son. "There’s no other way to describe it." This is a concept known only in Vienna: a young man whose preferred way to spend his free time is donning a "Smoking" or even white tie and tails and heading off with a lady friend, or more likely a group of friends, to any of the several dozen balls that brighten the long nights of the Viennese winter. A good student, Max spent every free evening with his friends, dancing and celebrating their way into the wee hours at one ball after the other, ending with breakfast at an obliging coffee house at in the morning.

We looked for Max that evening, as well as a number of others, three groups of friends in all we knew were there, all to no avail. It was impossible; in the vast rabbit warren of ballrooms, halls and salons that covered perhaps a third of the entire Hofburg, there was no chance.

Dancing till dawn – well, almost. By 3:30 we were flagging, and decided that discretion was the better part of valor and headed for the coat check. When we emerged outside, it was perhaps a little warmer than before. The ground was glistening, but still too cold to walk home without hat or boots. We headed to the line of cabs… when we remembered the Fiacres.

There they were, a little hard to make out in the dark, with a single beam lamp on – or was it suspended above? – the horse’s head. We climbed aboard with another couple, and legs wrapped in blankets, headed off for the Landtmann where breakfast was waiting, the perfect end to an extraordinary night.

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    the vienna review March 2010