Music: What Makes Austria Tick

Among its many important contributions, music has constituted an important element of Austria’s and, particularly, Vienna’s, cultural life. Vienna has been and continues to be an important center of musical innovation. It is impossible to think about and discuss Austria without giving serious consideration to its long and profound musical presence in the history of Western music.

Vienna’s position as a cultural center took hold in the early 1500s, with focus centered around instruments such as the lute. By the 18th and 19th centuries, composers were drawn to Vienna thanks in large measure to the patronage of the Habsburgs, and made Vienna the European capital of classical music. Vienna’s greatest musical “sons,” such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), and Johann Strauss II (1825 – 1899), became associated with the city. During the Baroque period, Slavic and Hungarian folk forms influenced Austrian music.

Classical Music

The 18th century, one of the highpoints of classical music, brought Vienna to the forefront of this genre. Three composers in particular created and developed powerful and innovative musical genres: Beethoven and his symphonies, concertantes, chamber music, piano sonatas, operas, and choral music; Mozart, also through similar forms, developed a balance between melody and form; and Franz Joseph Haydn, through the invention of the string quartet and sonata form.
By the latter part of the 18th century, the harpsichord, long the instrument of choice, was replaced by the pianoforte, or simply, the piano. String ensembles and vocal music also grew, while the burgeoning middle-class became more aware of and interested in music through the philosophies of the Enlightenment. In 1842, Otto Nicolai of the Imperial Opera House, announced the creation of what would become the Vienna Philharmonic.

During this period, a division between popular compositions for entertainment and “serious” art music began. At first, the division was less pronounced, with most composers, such as Franz Schubert, and Joseph Strauss, writing in both camps.

But it is with Strauss where a clear departure to popular music takes shape, making Strauss the most celebrated composer of the era, and indeed the first popular Austrian musician. His “Tales of the Vienna Woods” and “Vienna Waltzes” have become staples of the Western musical canon. By the mid- to late 19th century, other composers, such as Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, and Richard Wagner, hailing from either Vienna or closely associated with the city, continue to make Vienna the unrivaled center of Austria’s musical life. Later musical geniuses, particularly Arnold Schönberg, Richard Strauss, Anton von Webern, and Alban Berg, perpetuate Austria’s stronghold on classical music.

Folk music

The flip-side of Austria’s musical record is its long and strong folk music tradition. The ländler, as the name suggests, is the music of the countryside, the land, the peasantry. The ländler, a folk dance in ¾ time, was popular in Austria, as well as in south Germany and German Switzerland at the end of the 18th century. It is a couples’ dance, featured by strong hopping and stamping. At times, it was purely instrumental, and at others had a vocal part, which sometimes included yodeling. With the popularity of dancehalls in 19th century Europe, the ländler adopted a quicker pace and more elegance; men shed the hobnail boots original to the dance and donned more graceful footwear. It is believed that the dance evolved into the waltz.

Yodeling: Mountain music

Maybe it’s the Alps that have something to do with it. In fact it does: Yodeling is a type of throat singing that developed in the famed mountain range. In Austria, it was called juchizn, and featured the use of both non-lexical syllables and yells, which were used to communicate across the mountains. Yodels usually begin with a single voice melody, then joined by several more voices. The presence of an echo is vital for producing a correct sound.

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