There’s been a New Year’s Day tradition in my family ever since I was a little girl. We’d gather around the TV on January 1 to watch the Vienna Philharmonic give the Neujahrskonzert, the New Year Concert, a joyous thing full of Strauss and waltzes and polkas and interpretative dances by the Vienna Ballet company, in costumes which were each more beautiful than the last, on site at various glorious relics of Imperial Vienna – parquet floors, frescoed ceilings, marble staircases, manicured gardens, statues, fountains, walls hung with tapestries and stiff portraits of long-gone Empresses staring soulfully at the painter while they were immortalised. We’d have somebody who acted as master (or mistress) of ceremonies, who would talkyou through the currentl locales, give you some history, give you a context for the piece of music being played (it was Julie Andrews, for a time, and then Hugh Bonneville took over more recently…)
This was my world and I belonged in it. When I was very young I used to “choreograph” my own dances around our tiny living room with the Strauss waltzes ringing out from off an old vinyl record on the turntable (I still remember exactly what that record sleeve looked like – a battered square of cardboard, pink, with curlicued writing, “Strauss great waltzes”. I KNOW these waltzes. I know each dip and curl of the music and I can tell you what you’re listening to – the Emperor Waltz, Tales of the Vienna Woods, Wiener Blut, Voices of Spring, all of them – especially, of course, the queen of them all, my own, my beloved, the Blue Danube waltz which means so much to me because of my connection to the river itself, the one whose first trembling note always leaves me tearful and shaking because it opens the floodgates of love and memory. That one was always one of the two “encores” which were expected at these New Year’s concerts – there were traditionally three, with the first being the orchetra director’s choice, the second the Blue Danube (Austria’s unofficial anthem, that one…) and the third the Radetzky March, with the audience joining in with the clapping parts (it’s SCORED for a clapping audience…)
The New Year Concert is so ingrained in my existence that it did not even occur to me to wonder if it would happen this year – this year, after the year that was, after the deaths and the illnesses and the quarantines and the swathe it cut through the arts – I mean, there haven’t been any live concerts for months, and yet, and yet, somehow, it never occurred to me that THIS one might be affected , that it might not happen. When I saw it on the TV schedule I simply nodded – I expected it there. Of course it would be there. I didn’t even think about it.
Until I sat down to watch it.
And I saw the great golden hall of the Muziekverrein where it takes place, filled with its usual sea of beautiful flowers.
No audience. Not a soul. Nobody. No body.
Just ghosts. Just Audiences of New Years’ Past.
And that orchestra, sitting there like it always does on that stage, close together with no masks (how would one go about playing a flute or an oboe or a trombone iwht a mask on? and if they can’t wear them, what possible purpose would it serve to have the violinists and teh celloists and the drummers and teh harpist and the conductor wear one?) – it suddenly felt like I was watching the band playing on the Titanic as it was going down.
The sense of entitlement, it was strong in me – I simply never considered the possibility that the concert might not happen. Neither, it seems, did they – the orchestra gathered together, in rank upon sacrificial rank, and teased joyful polkas and swelling waltzes from woodwind and string and brass. The music played. To no audience at all. The Radetzky March played to no clapping ranks of people wearing their gladdest rags, their pearls and their diamonds, their gowns and their tuxes. Everyone was home… except the orchestra. Playing their hearts out. Playing for an absent audience. On faith.
This is how a civilisation dies, isn’t it? I was more than aware of everything that 2020 did – but somehow I danced with that year without ever really looking it directly in the eye. THis concert, it was the last deathgrip of 2020 – I felt its cold skeletal hands curl around me as it took me for a waltz and it MADE me look up, and it MADE me meet its empty-socketed gaze so full of rage and malevolence. It was a moment in which my soul quailed and the 2020 shrieked, I WON!
I always cry when they play the Blue Danube waltz. I cried this time, too – but longer, harder, with hotter tears, in memory, in memoriam.
Thank you for the music, Vienna Philharmonic. I hope the price is not going to be too high for you.
I took this for granted. I did. It was simply going to happen, because it had always happened, because it was part of my existence, part of my world. But nothing is promised. Nothing is given. My privilege showed, for a moment, and then it got savagely thrown at my feet and I am standing here amongst its shards, shivering with something very like terror.
I can take nothing for granted again. Ever. That empty hall, that lonely concert, that’s seared into my soul now. I can never unsee that, never forget it. That is now going to be part of the memories clinging to my beloved waltz, and it’s never going to disentangle itself again.
Oh, and something I did not know. The premiere of the Radetzky March was in an epidemic year, in its turn, apaprently. And the composer failed to turn up at the premiere. Strauss died of Scarlet Fever four days after the Radetzky March saw the light of day.
The bony fingers of Plague, in whatever guise, just reached out and touched us across the centuries.
Thank you for the music.
But in a breathless instant all my memories of it were changed.
This – THIS – is the moment I will now remember.The proud orchestra, giving its best. The empty hall. The ABSENCE.
I suddenly feel… somehow… OLD.