New Year Sounds and Lights

In the period between Xmas and New Year the vibe in the local supermarket has changed even more rapidly than in recent years. The decs were all down – not even waiting until 12th night – and relentlessly upbeat music was playing. Even “Things can only get better” with no apparent sense of irony. Nevertheless, it works. Even as I am critiquing it in my head, I find myself bopping along to “Happy” with my shopping trolley. I look around and the only other person in the shop still wearing a mask is doing the same.

Watching the New Year Concert by the Vienna Phil, probably the whitest orchestra in the world, which is self consciously put on every New Year’s Day as reassurance that in a world of change, nothing changes. Three parts a static version of Last Night of the Proms to 2 parts Jules Holland’s Hootenanny. Even if the pieces shift round a bit from year to year, its all the same sort of music, and even though they actually finally let some girls from the Vienna Girls Choir sing with the boys this year – there were only a reassuring few, because you’ve got to take such wild experiments slowly and steadily so as not to scare the (Lipizzaner) horses. And the Blue Danube and the Radetsky March will always be played as encores, and in that order, with the emphatic last two beats of the Radetsky march ending on an emphatic “so there!” Thus, it was, and ever shall be. But not so of course. At the time they were written, those two beats were meant to affirm that, rise as the Italians might, Austria would stay in charge in Northern Italy – and the Habsburgs in the Hofburg – forever; and it didn’t turn out like that.

Its happy, frothy, beautiful music, sometimes accompanied by film of happy, frothy, beautiful – and impossibly clean – people doing swooping dances in classical surroundings dressed in impeccable clothes, or simulating a picnic with food that is visually delicious (this isn’t just food, this is Vienna Philharmonic food) but oddly fossilised, lacking in touch, smell, giving off a sense that the lush red strawberries were 3D printed, not grown in dirt, and with no sound other than the music – an impersonation of feeling in a replica heritage of a culture that died when the Empire did.

As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out, no one wrote Waltzes or Polkas in Vienna after the First World War. All the same, since 2014 at the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I have not been able to listen to the opening drum tattoo of the Radetsky March, calling all Kaisertreu men to arms with a jaunty innocence that it might all be over by Xmas, without welling up.

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