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Vienna’s Golden Age of Operetta

September 10, 2012

Waltzing through Fin de Siécle Vienna: The French term fin de siécle means not just the end of the century, but the ending of one cultural era, and the beginning of another.  In western culture at this time, boredom, pessimism, cynicism, and decadence were prominent in social thought and behavior.  Viennese culture stood out as a perfect example.

Vienna: a quick splash of history

Vienna, at the end of the nineteenth century, or fìn de siècle, was the ideal environment for the creation of a new musical genre- the Viennese operetta.  This period was incredible! Art, music, architecture, philosophy, literature– it’s impossible to find a facet of human life that was not undergoing a remarkable period of growth and accomplishment.  Many books have been devoted to the fìn de siècle, and although there are many influences that contributed to this era, it is safe to say that the influx of people coming to the city of Vienna- people of many different cultures- contributed to this cultural flowering.

Industrialization came late to Austria, as a result of the conservatism of the Biedermeier period (1815-48) and neo-absolutism after the 1848 revolutions.  By the 1860s, the social, political, and technological advances were arriving in Vienna.  [i]People flooded into the capital Vienna from all corners of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in search of new non-agrarian employment.  In a matter of fifty years, the population exploded from less than half a million people to a major capital of almost 2 million residents.  The modernization of Vienna led to an increase in the purchasing power of the middle class who now required increased service amenities as well as household staffs.   And the immigrants, arriving from the Habsburg provinces to fill positions like these, created a more ethnically diverse population.

What did this mean for music?

This increased diversity in population meant a shift in musical and theatrical tastes.  Although immigrant citizens were poor and therefore largely unable to afford theatrical entertainment, these people had an effect on the cultural climate of the city.  The dialect comedies that were being performed in Vienna were now open to influences from all over the Empire and beyond.  The new genre that was developing, Viennese operetta, would bring together the elements of Jacques Offenbach’s enormously successful operettas (which had been touring outside of France for years), the Viennese waltz (you’ve likely heard this somewhere before), and the local tradition of satirical comedy in which musical numbers such as overtures and songs were well-established ingredients.

By the mid-1850s Offenbach had developed quite a following in Vienna, thanks to Johann Nestroy, the director of the Carltheater.  Unable to afford to pay Offenbach to come, Nestroy had presented pirated versions to the public.  Later, the actor Karl Treumann took over the theater and invited Offenbach to come and conduct his pieces.  Into the 1870s, the Frenchman regularly visited Vienna.  Composers such as Franz von Suppé and Carl Millöcker were already contributing incidental music and overtures to dramatic works.  Inspired by Offenbach, these composers, looking for way to create their own mark in the music world, went on to become leading Viennese operetta composers.  They took their inspiration from their French counterparts and dressed the genre to suit the Viennese.  Instead of the French can-can, they wrote waltzes and polkas.  Viennese operetta was also more sentimental and romantic than French operetta.  There was also a greater appreciation for physical comedy, as well as parody, whether it was written in by the librettist or composer, or added in the interpretation by the actors.

This monument of Johann Strauss II, the Waltz King, stands in Vienna’s Stadtpark. It is one of the most photographed sites in Vienna.

Prior to Offenbach, an operetta was a one-act comic opera.  In Vienna, this was developing into a much larger scale work.  Any operettas from the late 1860s, such as Suppé’s Das Pensionat (1860), Flotte Bursche (1863), and Die schöne Galathee (1865) still borrowed heavily from Offenbach’s tradition.  In 1871, it was Johann Strauss’s Indigo und die vierzig Räuber that emerged as the first full-length Viennese operetta.  This operetta is set in an exotic utopia, and other operettas of the early 1870s follow suit.  By the late 1870s, Viennese operettas were urban and focused on Vienna.  This trend began with the enormous success of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus in 1874.

The public desired an imitation of opera that was easily accessible, and also a form of release from the social and financial pressures of a society undergoing industrialization.  Although there were many more people and ideas coming to the city, there were also many poor people who were desperate for work inhabiting the city of Vienna.  The more unsettled the climate became, the more the theatre-going public sought refuge in an operatic fantasy.  This certainly sounds familiar- consider the glamour days of old Hollywood, as moviegoers first sought relief from the crushing poverty of the Great Depression in the 30s, to the uplifting movies of the war years.  Clearly, American culture doesn’t have a monopoly on escapism.


[i] Crittenden, Camille.  Johann Strauss and Vienna: Operetta and the Politics of Popular Culture.  Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Schorske, Carl E.  Fin de Siécle Vienna: Politics and Culture.  New York: Knopf, 1980.

Traubner, Richard.  Operetta: A Theatrical History.  London, New York:  Routledge, 2003.

Yates, W.E.  Theatre in Vienna.  Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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