Wienerlieder are traditional Viennese folk songs, historically sung in taverns and inns. They are written and sung in the Viennese dialect and they frequently contain obscure references and hidden jokes that make them nearly incomprehensible to outsiders. Though examples of the genre date as early as the late seventeenth century, they did not reach their peak popularity until the mid-1800’s, when they became part of Viennese opera. Early Wienerlieder were often coded criticism and satire of powerful individuals. Despite being politically charged, the songs urged no agenda. Instead, they expressed a humorous, macabre cynicism, focusing on the grit and persistence of the subject rather than the cruelty or injustice they faced.
Though examples of the genre address diverse aspects of Viennese life, they focus primarily on a single stock character. The “Urwiener,” or archetypal Viennese, is an introverted, melancholic amature philosopher, and almost without exception, he is drunk. One of the first recorded Wienerlieder follows the story of Augustin, an alcoholic musician who passed out drunk and was presumed to have died of the plague. He wakes in a mass grave and all he can think to do is play his pipes. The character is fundamentally passive, seeking refuge from his problems in wine, song, and humor instead of working to fix them. This self-awareness is part of what makes the genre so accessible. Like the “Everyman” subjects, anyone who sings one of these songs is self-consciously lamenting their problems.
The Viennese dialect is difficult and confusing. It is not the only reason that Wienerlieder are so impenetrable, but it does not help. There is little information about the genre in English or Standard German, but there are a wealth of sources in the Viennese dialect. These are, however, utterly inaccessible. Google translate auto-detects these articles as Afrikaans, a Dutch-like language spoken in South Africa by descendants of the Boer settlers. Though it is the best match, it only decodes one word in five. Every Germanic language on Google translate was similarly ineffective. Even when the words could be translated, their meaning was often lost. Spittelberglied is an unremarkable district in the city. In order to catch the humor, one must know that it was once a red light district and is still a shorthand for anything risqué.
English translations were hard to find. Old songbooks speckle the deepest recesses of Google Books, but the best source by far was an old, poorly maintained website that specifically clarified that the translations were only for the translator’s benefit. Between each translation, the author laments that they cannot convey the true beauty of the song, often in bizarre and unsettling metaphors. Even their definition of Wienerlied is confusing. It directly translates to Viennese song, but at every turn, it resists that definition. The article for Weanaliad, the same word in dialect, is twice as long as the English version. It poses questions like is “Wien” “Wean” and is either Vienna. Schmäh, an essential ingredient in Wienerlied, is similarly undefinable. Theoretically, it is a dark, humorous brand of Viennese melancholy, central to the character of the city and the genre itself. Most Viennese sources defined it by what it was not rather than by what it was. The translator poetically compares translations of the word to decaying scabs, which offered more insight into the Viennese condition than any definition could have.
Despite their uniquely Viennese voice, Wienerlieder borrow heavily from other musical traditions. As in Alpine-Bavarian folk songs, there is often a low drone melody and a higher accompaniment. The instrumentation is also traditionally Bavarian, and though the Viennese dialect is distinct, the songs are still in German. Rhythmically, they tend to alternate time signatures between 3/4 and 2/4, a characteristic of Hungarian and Slavic folk music. The genre was a melting pot for different styles and cultures, but its humor was only comprehensible to those who knew the city well. This contradiction is also central to the identity of Vienna.
Classically, Austria was represented as a crossroads. Vienna was situated between the East and West. Frequently portrayed as a Western bastion against the Eastern other or an otherwise Western city poisoned by Eastern decadence, it could not escape comparison. When Austria was annexed by Germany, the domestic response was seen as confirmation that Austria really had been a cultural extension of Germany, but looking deeper, it revealed the persistent Austrian character. Like the Urwiener, the city of Vienna faced doom with self-aware complacency. After both World Wars, the Wienerlied declined in popularity. This was generally blamed on their growing popularity before WWI. Expanding their audience and accessibility meant losing much of their fundamental character. Their popularity had been closely tied to nationalist sentiment in Vienna. Without their cryptic references and inside jokes, they were just another example of the uniformity of globalization. As a result, by the twentieth century, most new Wienerlieder had been written to appeal to foreign consumers of Viennese opera. Following both wars, this was seen as distasteful and the genre was mourned as a casualty of the wars (Larkey).
Wienerlieder were reborn in the late 1980s when the Euro Pop movement began. With the rise of European unity came grassroot movements to affirm individual national identities. Particularly in Eastern Europe, these identities were closely tied to song. After the Baltic states won their independence through singing protests, Europeans began demanding music that was part of their cultural identity. Historically, the forces of nationalism and supranationalism had been opposed in Europe, but the homogeneity enforced by the Soviet Union made individual national pride an expression of European unity against the USSR. Austria’s distinguished musical history made it especially receptive to this trend. By the early nineties, Viennese culture was revived and the city was seeking to expand tourism. The two slogans it adopted were “Vienna is different” and “Vienna remains Vienna.” The first suggests the exclusive humor and and unique voice of the Wienerlied while the second suggests the quiet, smirking persistence of the Viennese.
During the Arab Spring, similar patterns of nationalism and supranationalism emerged in popular music. Pan-Arabism, pride in Arab identity rather than national identity, surged alongside nationalism. Divisions between ethnic groups had been exploited by Western-backed dictatorships for decades. Tyrants used the widespread fear of civil war to justify indefinite use of emergency powers. The nationalist unity of the ethnically diverse protesters undermined this premise. Meanwhile, Arab Spring countries drew inspiration and support from each other. Revolutionaries like Tawakkol Karman lead demonstrations in countries across the Arab World, encouraging Pan-Arab pride and unity. As in Europe in the late twentieth century, these forces were no longer seen as incompatible. Regional folk music surged in popularity while supranationalist sentiment thrived in the Arab World.
Today, this contradiction is as relevant as ever. Since the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, issues of national autonomy and immigration have been at the forefront of international conversation. Vienna’s unique character is a point of pride. Increasingly, voters respond to politicians who speak to them in dialect and address domestic issues before supranational ones. Unfortunately, these views also carry xenophobic implications about the treatment and acceptance of immigrants. The right-wing nationalist Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, won 49.7 percent of the vote in the last Austrian election. The growing popularity of the Freedom party shows that this nationalist, exclusive, eurosceptical sentiment is growing in Vienna.
From its birth, the city of Vienna has struggled with this contradiction, being both Eastern and Western while also being uniquely Viennese. Nowhere is this contradiction clearer than in the city’s traditional folk music. Wienerlied are a blend of European musical influences, but are only comprehensible to the city’s natives.
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Philip V. Bohlman is a Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago, and Honorarprofessor at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover, Germany. He is also an ethnomusicologist and pianist.
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Oxford University press is the world’s largest university press and the Musical Quarterly is a scholarly musical journal in the United States. This article was also written about the period in which it was published, so it is also a primary source.
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This article, published in Modern Austrian Literature, concerns the decline of the Wienerlied following World War 2. It is a journal that publishes peer-reviewed manuscripts with a minimum of two evaluations. Dr. Edward Larkey is Professor of German and Intercultural Communication and Affiliate Professor in both the Language, Literacy, and Culture Doctoral Program and the Media and Communications Studies Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
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Oxford University press is the world’s largest university press. Though the author is a travel writer, he specializes in Austria and Vienna, and also wrote the Blue Guides to Vienna and Austria.
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