Somewhere in a public restroom, Austrian culture shoots itself in the musical foot.
Karlsplatz station is a bustling public transportation hub in the heart of Vienna, with any of its long tunnels leading to one of the city’s grand landmarks. Right beneath the Staatsoper, the marble floor and pillars create a uniquely Viennese frivolity: I stop and listen for a moment, and there it is: Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. A quick scan reveals its source: An entrance, marked as the “Opern WC,” meaning “Opera Restroom.” Just below that are the words, “MIT MUSIK!” – “WITH MUSIC.” Cranked out at such high volume, I wonder if the whole station is meant to be “MIT MUSIK!” Perhaps it’s meant to enrich your bathroom experience not by adding a danceable tune while you wait your turn, but by drowning out any awkward auditory aspect of the act in a pervasive crescendo of violins.
I am astonished. It’s an awkward extension of the Vienna experience as advertised to tourists, a bastardization of the opera’s image, manifested as a public restroom at a metro station. Geared to the hordes of tourists that flood this area in the summer, the waltz king must be rolling in his grave. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there it is, your daily dose of Wiener Kitsch, courtesy of a public bathroom. This epitome of Austrian tourism demonstrates the enduring popularity of the Blue Danube Waltz. Since its first performance in 1867, the popular dance has been a national treasure of Austria, and regrettably, the main theme for its travel industry.
Austrian actor Christoph Waltz said in an interview, “The difference between Austria and Germany is like the difference between a battleship and a waltz.” He chose the distinct dance music to represent Austrian identity, and it is a very particular piece that comes to mind when he does. Most westerners today know the Blue Danube Waltz simply as the song that plays in the weightless space scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But to Austrians, it is practically a second national anthem, and you can always assume it’s being played somewhere in central Vienna’s streets.
We’re all familiar with the pervasiveness of Christmas music during the two months leading up to the holiday; So if you are unaware of the plight of the Viennese, imagine being a store manager in an American mall in November. Now take the wide variety of holiday jingles on rotation and replace every last one with the Blue Danube Waltz. Now make that the entire year, and you have the experience of walking through the first district. You can hear its siren call anywhere you might find the odd tourist: in restaurants, souvenir shops and hotel lobbies. The tune even follows you when you leave. On every Austrian Airlines flight, it plays during boarding and exit, and sometimes during the flight itself. The complex mix of emotions at play while shifting down the aisle to an ambling concert orchestra on an early morning flight is difficult to describe directly, but it seems reasonable that killing someone under such circumstances would only get you a charge of manslaughter.
An Unofficial National Anthem
Looking back, the ubiquity of Blue Danube Waltz is logical, however irritating. From the composer, to its audience, to the spirit it embodies, everything about it is quintessentially Austrian. The popularity of Johann Strauss II’s most famous work began as soon as it was first performed on February 15, 1867 by the Vienna Men’s Singing Association at the Dianabad, a swimming pool converted to a ballroom in the second district. It was instantly lauded as a musical embodiment of Austria’s culture and natural beauty. Listen to the piece – in earnest and when you aren’t being forced to – and you’ll hear it: the pristine Alpine peaks, green pastures waving in the wind, clear, cold mountain streams; and of course, the mighty Danube running through all of it. It was Strauss’ magnum opus, its popularity conflagrated through Europe and beyond: In five years, he would be playing a series of concerts in the United States, culminating in a performance at Boston’s World Peace Jubilee with 1,000 musicians and 20,000 singers to a crowd of over 100,000. The piece continued popping up throughout Austria’s history: When Austria was liberated in 1945, it was Blue Danube Waltz that the parliament began to sing; the Austrian national team also used it for their first postwar football games. ORF’s English-language station that broadcasted till 2000 before partially merging with FM4? Blue Danube Radio. Today, the tune retains an intense popularity from which apparently no place is safe – be it a restaurant, a red-eyed flight, or a public restroom.
There is no doubt that Blue Danube Waltz is uniquely Austrian, evoking high mountains and clear waters, as well as a certain sentimentality endemic to this central European nation. One cannot help but wonder how an elderly Viennese person feels walking through Karlsplatz and hearing that song, a source of pride played in a public facility. Perhaps horror; or a strange, brief moment of nostalgia. Personally, I’m not sure it’s such a great theme song for a trip to the urinal.
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