Cinderella and the Generals

The Ball der Offiziere at the Hofburg revived the Austrian K und K monarchy – at least for one magical and endless night

On The Town | Sarah Rabl | February 2011

Ah, to be a princess for a night! Just once, I wanted to be like Cinderella in the fairy tale, going to the grand ball, dancing until the early morning hours with her prince! When the pumpkin turns into a Vier-Spanner coach and four horses…

For me, ingloriously enough, ball‑night began with a thoroughly unpoetic U-Bahn ride in from my apartment in the 5th district, my gown, ill concealed and poorly protected only half hidden beneath my everyday overcoat, and after one change, dropping me off a few short blocks from my destination. Up the escalator, and I emerged out onto the Ringstrasse into a sparklingly clear evening.

I took a deep breath. The street lights shimmered, accenting the contours of the rococo facades and casting shadows along the branches over head. Turning down a side street, I passed the Minoritenkirche and turned left toward Michaelerplatz. I was going to the Officers’ Ball at the Hofburg! And with a toss of the head, I shook off the banality of the contemporary world and plunged into the revived K und K monarchy, even if it was just for one night.

Since 1926, the officers of the Austrian Bundesheer, the National Army, have hosted the Ball der Offiziere in the Wiener Hofburg. Originally called the Ball der Neustädter Militärakademiker, the Ball of the Military Academies of Wiener Neustadt, it was discontinued after the Anschluss in1938 when the Austrian army ceased to exist. After regaining sovereignty in 1955, the ball was reintroduced on a smaller scale, held in the Sofiensäle, that a century earlier had regularly hosted Johann Strauss father and son and where many of their most famous waltzes were first performed.

During the 1960s and 70s, its popularity grew, the ball found new partners and sponsors from the military and the corporate world. And in 1981, the ball moved back to its original venue, the Wiener Hofburg.

We were to meet at Café Griensteidl, just across from the Hofburg’s Michaeler Tor, St. Michael’s Gate. Glancing through the reflecting windows, the Kaffeehaus was teaming with ball goers – gentlemen resplendent in their black and white uniforms and brightly ribboned medals, ladies in beaded satin evening gowns, full-skirted and almost baroque in their grandeur, enjoying a glass or a bottle of campaign to go with a Sacherwürstel to tide them over until dinner, hours later.

I swept through the double doors and joined my own group of cavaliers at a table to the left. Cinderella had arrived! And she sipped on her stem glass of orange juice – Sekt orange without the Sekt, in hopes of staying clear eyed just a little longer -- watching her prince munch an omelet. It as the beginning of a fairy tale night.

My dark grey dress matched the red sofa chairs at the Café. Just before we left, the waitress in her black and white Kaffehaus uniform gave us a cheery send off: "... und schön das Tanzbein schwingen!" – the ball night equivalent of "break a leg."  That was certainly our intention!

In fact, we had managed to enhance our options and made some "arrangements."  We got picked up by our inside spy, our Mittelsmann, right in front of the Hofburg entrance on Heldenplatz. Instead of queuing for hours, we were smuggled into the presidential residence, waving our tickets, passing endless staircases and corridors, becoming completely disoriented among the numerous rooms opened for the evening’s festivities. Finally we reached our destination, a small loge, right next to a larger one where an orchestra was tuning up for the opening. From here we could – with utmost discretion – observe the elegant opening ceremony from above, as Johann Strauss or Carl Michael Zierer might have done a century ago.

Below us, along the length of the Hofburg’s grand ball room, bouquets of red-white-red flowers spilled over their fluted urns, while six enormous crystal chandeliers twinkled and glittered above the heads of the guests, suspended at dizzying heights from the frescoed ceiling. It was a cacophony of sounds, the orchestra’s tuning blurring with the swell of a thousand voices beneath our feet, all echoing from the gold paneled walls of the magnificent hall.

The first notes of the orchestra filled the room. At the far end from where we were perched, the opening "committee," who would perform the ceremonial quadrilles, unfolded four by four – young women in white, young men in the moss green of the military – into a majestic promenade down the center of the hall, and with their measured gate, the green-white-white-green formation smoothly lined up on both sides of the hall to form a guard of honor for the guests of honor, some of whom I recognized from Café Griensteidl.

I looked down at the young dancers, and realized my own hands were sweating. The music stops abruptly, then begins again, as the guests of honor enter. It could have been queens and kings floating down the hall on a red carpet waiving with regal understatement at their subjects. Looking out of place, and very out of step, almost scuffing their feet, were the guests from political and business Vienna, amongst whom the stony faced Defense Minister Norbert Darabos walking just two rows behind Chief of Staff General Edmund Entacher, who just the day before had been quoted in the press criticizing the Minister’s plan for an all-volunteer army. By the following Monday, just three days after the ball, Darabos would fire him for alleged insubordination. (see News Briefs, p.2)

The lights dimmed, the Austrian national anthem filled the hall with a swell of voices rising over the crowd. Patriotism is an elusive thing, and on this night caught not a few unsuspecting guests by surprise with unaccustomed feelings of national pride. Followed by the glorious "Freude schöner Götterfunken" from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the anthem of the European Union. Faces shone in full-throated song; then it was over, and the music faded once again.

Then followed the elegant quadrilles, the line dances descended from the minuet, with cousins in almost every European court or country tradition.  Then followed an impressive show by the Gardemusik, various ensembles of brass and strings, a cornucopia of the finest of the Austrian military music presented in impressively crisp marching formation. The hour ended with a rousing rendition of  the Radezky Marsch, setting all 3,500 attendees to clap along. The Staatsoper Ballett performs Wiener Bonbons, ("did he say "condoms?" quipped one of the musicians?).

Finally, the big moment for the 60 couples on the dance floor has come. To Zierer’s Fächerpolonaise, the opening committee prepare the ball room for the most important two words of the evening "Alles Walzer!" officially declaring the ball for opened.

I heaved a sigh of relief. After almost one and a half hours of speeches, music and dances, my throat felt dry and we set off to explore the endless halls, rooms, corridors and staircases of the Hofburg. In between getting lost, we discovered almost every dance floor there was – which we knew from the handy map of the palace handed out with out tickets. A Viennese Waltz, followed by a Slow Waltz, a Tango, a Cha Cha, a Boogie, and  my favorite, a Rumba…

We twisted and spun across one dance floor after another. In the end, we could no longer remember how many of the 10 orchestras and bands we had seen and the time had come for Cinderella to lose a slipper or two. Even a princess’ can get sore feet.

By now it was 3:45 am, and the ballroom was already half empty, the music slower; still few were thinking of leaving. And as the orchestra began the Donauwalzer that would end the night, couples linked arms and returned the floor, with perhaps a tear on the cheek and a little mist in the eye. A proud officer with a noble grey head and a tired, happy smile, bows to kiss the hand of his wife, eyes misting in the soft glow.  On another cheek, something caught the light, perhaps it was a bit of glitter, perhaps a tear.

The tunes fading, the lights dim one last time and a young trumpet player enters the central Loge above the orchestra, a spotlight on him, and plays the Zapfenstreich, a trumpet piece indicating the end of the ball night, guiding the audience out of the ball room. But with the fading of the last trumpet tunes, this emotional atmosphere too is gone, and before the lights come back on, the remaining guests storm the flower decoration like a bunch of wild animals, ripping off as many flowers as they can carry, in the madcap Blumensturz, that crowns an enchanted evening.

Embracing a huge bouquet of red and white flowers, Cinderella abandoned her painful shoes and pulled on some moon boots, and with her prince on her arm too leave of the imperial residence, and with memories of an unforgettable night, headed for the U-Bahn.

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