As I am inclined to do from time to time, I would like to salute public broadcasting for one of the very special ways it brings seasonal joy and cultural benefits to all of us. Specifically, I am thinking of the annual broadcasts of the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna, Austria. Every Jan. 1, at 11 a.m. in the Eastern time zone, National Public Radio airs the concert live. Then, that same evening, the Public Broadcasting System transmits the same concert, delayed via videotape, on televisions across America.
Thirty-four years ago, I made a journey to Vienna, as part of a memorable wedding trip during the first two weeks of a new decade, the 1980s. The reasons we chose Austria were complex; I wanted to go to England and my fiancée wanted to go to Greece. We compromised and chose Austria. (Her dad had just done a lot of business in Germany and recommended it.) Our travel agent assured us that it was the best bargain in Europe. Wrong; but more about that later.
My wife, Meme, and I actually arrived in the imperial city on New Year’s Eve, which is the Austrian equivalent of Derby Day. One of her cousins—who had married an Austrian—urged us to try to get tickets to the New Year’s Day concert. Young and naïve as we were, we expected that to be no problem. But on our first day in Vienna, I went to the concierge at the hotel and asked if we could buy two tickets for the concert the next day. He was polite but firm: The concert was sold out long in advance. But, not to worry, we could listen to it on the radio. (I am sure that is what tens of thousands of Viennese do, just like most of us in Louisville watch the Derby on TV.)
And so we did. The music was glorious—mostly Strauss (Johann the elder and the younger)—conducted by Lorin Mazel. The concert was recorded and the lineup is an impressive one. This waltz, to me, brings Vienna—in all its charm and majesty—alive for me.
While this concert is a venerable event, it is not as old as many might expect. The very first of these occurred on New Year’s Eve 1939, only months after the Nazis had annexed Austria in the Anschluss. (Many of us know about that event through the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music.”) In many ways, the New Year’s concert was akin to the Salzburg Festival in the musical, a symbol of Austrian pride, undiminished by Fascist occupation. Before the next concert would be performed, Europe went to war, but cultured Austrians continued the concert tradition through the war. In 1940, the concert was moved from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1.
PBS began broadcasting the concert 30 years ago, in 1984, with Walter Cronkite as the on-air host. In more recent years, the hostess has appropriately been “The Sound of Music” star Dame Julie Andrews. Every concert since 1979 has been recorded—originally on LPs, then on CDs. Some are now on iTunes.
On New Year’s Day, we followed the advice of another of my wife’s cousins, who had been married in Austria, to dine at the Drei Husaren, or Three Hussars, certainly one of the most elegant restaurants in Europe, located near the magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It was there that we got a real taste of how delicious Viennese cooking could be. An Austrian custom is to decorate the table with tiny pigs, symbols of plenty for the New Year. For years those tiny pigs decorated the spice rack in our kitchen.
We also learned how expensive the Austrian schilling was compared to the American dollar. This was at the time of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the American hostage crisis in Iran and the dollar had taken a tumble. I remember going back to our hotel, taking the bills out of my wallet and throwing them up in the air. In Austria, it seemed like Monopoly money!
At least in 1980, people in Vienna still celebrated in the grand style—perhaps they may still—dressing for dinner and enjoying their Strauss and Mozart in great numbers. (Later on that trip, we attended a candle-lit Mozart concert in Salzburg in the Residenz Palace, where the great composer himself once performed.) On the streets of Vienna, throughout the days of Epiphany, the shops and hotels are beautifully lighted and decorated. On Epiphany (or Twelfth Night, as we call it in the English-speaking world), sturdy Austrians dress as the three wise men and wander the streets, recalling the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ Child.
Over the following two weeks, we absorbed as much as we could about Austria—first a week in Vienna, then a second week in Salzburg—but when I look back now, many, many years later, the things I remember best are the music, the people, the beauty of it all. And the museums.
When I went to Austria in 1980, the people were particularly riveting. I remember one afternoon when Meme and I went to tea—coffee actually in Vienna, although it was at teatime—at the Imperial Hotel. This was on a weekday afternoon. We’d been sightseeing all day and were glad to relax a bit and absorb the surroundings.
The Imperial, on the Ringstrasse, opened in 1873, and survived many wars, as well as occupation for a time by the Soviet army after World War II. But by 1980, it had become a gathering place for what seemed to be the most elegant, sophisticated and understated Viennese. Clearly these were survivors; those in their 60s and 70s had been young people during the pre-war years and survived the Nazi era. I particularly remember some of the women, elegantly dressed, smoking cigarettes and drinking their coffee.
One must remember that in 1980, World War II was still a living memory. The German defeat had occurred just 35 years earlier. Now it has been nearly 70 years, a long time. But then the memories were fresh.
We Americans have all sorts of ways to greet a new year. Some like to throw big parties to say goodbye to the old and hello to the new. Others prefer a quiet, reflective day. In any case, for many of us the holiday is improved every year by the inclusion of this beautiful concert into our holiday rituals, and 2014 has been no exception.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.
He’ll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. during Here & Now.
Read his past WFPL commentaries here.