For many in Britain, Vienna is less familiar both in reality and in perception than Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, even Prague. It occupies a position perhaps like a distant aunt that one knows is there but rarely visits. There is something vaguely mysterious about her-there are stories of a bohemian, even decadent, past but it can be difficult to pin down current interests. Mozart, the Boys Choir, cakes, coffee?
Pop music, too, has not taken Vienna as an inspiration in the way it has with many other capitals. Both Billy Joel and Ultravox had songs called Vienna, though the lyrics aren’t that obviously about the place. In the Ultravox song, much of the imagery came from the video that accompanied it and that drew heavily on the style, lighting and distorted camera angles of The Third Man film (though much of it was actually shot in Covent Garden). Otherwise, there were a couple of tracks by Falco- and the Third Man theme that has sporadically emerged with releases as diverse as the Band, the Shadows and Herb Alpert.
There is also the dream-like Take this Waltz by Leonard Cohen, from his 1988 album ‘I’m Your Man’, a song of love and loss with the backdrop of a Vienna seen through several prisms. The lyrics are a translation and adaptation of a poem called Little Viennese Waltz by the Spanish poet Federico Lorca, shot by Fascist militia in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Cohen did his own translation and has said he took 150 hours over it, which given the reputed two years or more spent on Hallelujah seems pretty modest. In doing so, it has become very much his own song with a different view of Vienna. Lorca’s poem was written in 1930 when he was briefly at Columbia University. Increasingly disillusioned by what he saw as the alienation and spiritual corruption of New York life he saw Vienna, where he had never been, as a symbol of the European civilisation he yearned for.
60 years later, Cohen’s take presents a Vienna that now has the magical but crumbling splendour of Venice, with echoes of the grand balls and palaces of the past but decaying and fading with time. From the first line , ‘Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women’, the images of concert halls, the lobby with 900 windows and Hungarian lanterns and the lilting folk-like melody, written in waltz time with mournful violin, mandolin, accordion and the ‘ay ay ay ay’ refrain, transport the listener to Central Europe, to the Vienna of opera, storybook palaces, cobbled streets and chandelier-lit coffee houses. They are a reminder not just of the origins of the waltz in Vienna but of the importance of Vienna as the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the crossroads of Europe until a time that is still just in reach of a few people’s memory. Cohen’s rather gravelly delivery, with hints of Jacques Brel and Brecht, strengthen this singularly European feeling.
As with any Leonard Cohen song, there is much beneath the surface. One commentator has described the section towards the end where Jennifer Warnes comes in on the ‘this waltz, this waltz’, chorus - almost as a ghostly echo of a memory - as ‘sounding something out of a bad Disney movie’: If so, the words are there as a deliberate contrast to the chintz. There are whole websites devoted to the deconstruction of these particular lyrics and their meaning: what each piece of imagery signifies or whether the ending stanza of ‘You’ll carry me down on your dancing to the pools that you lift on your wrist’ signifies a suicide. What comes through most of all is the sense of nostalgia and sadness, the yearning for a reconciliation that is now impossible and the opportunity for ‘an attic where children are playing’ now gone, the imagery of the lost relationship counter-posed to the fading grandeur of Vienna. ‘The desolate ending: ‘Take this waltz, it’s yours now, its all that there is.’
There is always more than one view of a city, however, and Vienna is more than waltzes, The Third Man and ladies in fur coats eating sachertorte in a smoke-stained coffee house off the Philharmonikerstrasse . It was once known as Red Vienna and has a long history of radical politics. I was reminded of this musically through an unusual route, not by a song about Vienna but by a group from Vienna: Schmetterlinge. In a history of the Eurovision Song Contest, Schmetterlinge might warrant a footnote, for as the Austrian entry in 1977 they came second from last with a song called Boom Boom Boomerang. The title sounds like it is in the tradition of oompah, rubbish Eurovision songs-Boom-Bang a Bang or Ding-Dong . It was meant to. In a little coup worthy of the early Viennese surrealists, Schmetterlinge entered with a song with a nonsense Eurovision chorus, a dance routine that has to be seen to be appreciated and lyrics in German that not only sent up the whole contest but saw pop music as part of consumer capitalism
If you then look a little deeper, you find that Schmetterlinge had the year before at the Vienna Festival staged a piece of musical theatre called The Proletenpassion, a musical history of radical politics of the last 500 years, taking in the French Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1870, the Russian Revolution, Spanish Civil War, World War 2 and the 1970’s. It’s difficult to imagine Bucks Fizz pulling that off. Beatrix Neundlinger, the woman singer in Schmetterlinge, was awarded Vienna’s Golden Merit in 2008, for work in culture and music. Different sides of the city continue.
Old Vienna is obvious to the visitor, in the Baroque splendour of the Schonbrunn Palace and in the street hawkers in costume selling tickets for the Opera House and it is easy to have a chocolate-box image of another time, another place. Leonard Cohen’s swirling , slightly sinister, waltz unsettles this but it leaves imagery more haunting and evocative. 'I’ll dance with you in Vienna’: maybe the Austrian Tourist Board should take note.
Link to song