Inside the Royal Traditions of a Monarchy without an Monarch
Vienna is a city that is very much shaped by its history – in particular its former imperial majesty. Every building, in every street, in every district is built with beauty in mind. For a city of just over a million people, Vienna continues to look like the capital of an Empire, and this has a profound impact on the citizens who dwell there.
Although Austria shed any pretence of being a monarchy in the aftermath of the First World War, the way of life is still very much shaped by the heritage of the Habsburg’s. Shops continue to boast their Royal Appointments – as though the Emperor himself still shops there – and the Royal palaces are still crawling with busy people – although today with civil servants working away in the OSCE and the Bundesregierung.
Austria has the constant feel of a monarchy but without a Monarch. Amongst society figures the Republic doesn’t seem to be taken altogether too seriously. Ancient traditions carry on as though nothing has changed. Even the respect given to those with titles is from another era – despite the fact that titles are technically illegal under the post war settlement.
The proudest of the Austrian traditions that continue to this day are the famous Viennese balls. The balls themselves offer a glimpse into a bygone age of Austrian history. From the grand formal ceremonies at the beginning – to the way that Austrians universally embrace the Waltz.
Austria has the constant feel of a monarchy but without a Monarch. Amongst society figures the Republic doesn’t seem to be taken altogether too seriously. Ancient traditions carry on as though nothing has changed.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend two balls in the Imperial Hofburg Palace last February. Both reflected two different corners of society with their own traditions and subcultures. The first I attended was the so called ‘Juristinball’ organised by the Austrian law society. The second was the much older and more conservative Rudolfina Redoubt – organised by the historic fraternities of Vienna’s universities. Attending these two different prestigious events has given me a chance to explore what it is that makes these Balls so popular and iconic.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the basic formula for a successful ball. Doors open at around seven in the evening with guests arriving around eight o’clock. In some cases it’s possible for attendees to book a table for food – either in the coveted main ball room or in one of the other former state rooms that makes up the Imperial palace. Those privileged enough to have a seat at a table – often sponsored by companies or other organisations – enjoy a meal of schnitzel, wurst and potatoes (a hearty Austrian meal).
Those who choose to skip dinner – the majority of guests – are able to walk around the hallways of the Hofburg following in the footsteps of the great Habsburg emperors. Each room naturally adorned with giant chandeliers, gilded ceilings and wall sized mirrors. It may be cliché to describe it as a fairy tale palace - but then it’s obvious where the inspiration for those folk stories came from.
Of course, the dress code helps maintain this imperial façade. Before attending a ball strictly enforced rules are sent out. For men – full morning dress, military uniform or black-tie tuxedo are accepted. For women it’s full ball gowns only. Naturally no lederhosen or dirndl – we’ll leave those for the mountain folk.
At around nine the main ceremony commences – people flock to try and find a space in the main ballroom with its painted ceilings and ducal coats of arms to try and watch the preceding unfold. What happens next is a procession of the great and the good of Viennese society. A trumpet blast follows the announcement of each group of guests by the master of ceremonies – in both balls I went to this role was taken by a bubbly TV show host who from what I can tell is the Austrian version of Graham Norton in so far as she also hosts Eurovision.
A fanfare is played by a full orchestra as the dignitaries enter – the guest list becoming more prestigious as the introductions go on. In the case of the Jusristinball the academics of Vienna’s law schools came last – marching out to ‘Ode to Joy’. At the Rudolfina the guest of honour was none other than Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz himself – flanked by the bishop of Vienna and the dean of the university. At the Operenball – held funnily enough in the Opera House – the President of Austria is still heralded with trumpets and takes his seat in the imperial box before the ball may begin.
It’s also at this point that the evenings debutantes are presented. Marching out in perfect unison in their finest white dresses, opera gloved fingers interlocked with their dancing partners in full white tie. Balls originally became a part of Viennese society for the purpose of presenting debutantes to eligible bachelors under the watchful eyes of the Imperial family.
After a rendition of the Austrian national anthem – sung with full patriotic gusto – and a round of the EU’s Ode to Joy – the ball begins. Traditionally it begins with a classical waltz, usually something by one of the Strauss’s. However, tastes have somewhat changed – at the Juristinball this year they opted for 1920’s swing jazz as the second waltz. And at the Rudolfina – the theme being a ‘United Europe’ – the first waltz was followed by a choreographed dance that included traditional classical music from across the continent, culminating in the Offenbach’s Can Can and fanciful display in which the flags of all European countries were pulled out and paraded (rest assured that the UK was still there along with Switzerland and Norway).
After the opening ceremony is concluded ball goers rush in one of two directions – to the dance floor to join the waltz – or to the bar to build up the courage to do so later in the evening. The onus is usually on the gentleman to ask for the pleasure of joining in the festivities – however the Rudolfina has a long standing tradition that as a masked ball it is for the lady to invite the man to dance until midnight – at which point masks come off. To avoid awkwardness a service is provided on the edge of the ballroom in which Vienna’s dance schools provided suitable young men to stand ready to be invited to dance – the so-called taxi dancers (or eintansen in German).
Aside from the main ballroom, the Hofburg is set up to allow patrons to move from room to room, with different music playing in each. Every musical taste is catered for – from jazz to swing to tango to a full-on modern disco with local DJ on the ground floor (out of the way so as not to break the illusion of Imperial grandeur in the state rooms).
At midnight – after everyone is suitably liquored up and feeling merry – the aristocracy let their hair down and indulge in perhaps one of the strangest traditions I have ever seen. Several lines of people facing each other form – two pairs facing each other. As the room fills the orchestra strikes up with a medley of Strauss music to rile up participants and then – silence as the Master of Ceremonies takes the stage once again and announces to much excitement the commencement of the Quadrille.
The Quadrille is a folk dance that spread across the ballrooms of Europe sometime around the end of the 1700’s and seems to have found a permanent home in Austrian galas. I describe as one of the strangest spectacles I have ever seen because despite how inebriated everyone may be and how complicated the instructions are (more on that later) everyone seems to know what they’re doing and make it work.
The instructions for dancing the Quadrille are easy – step forward and bow and step back, step right and bow and step back, present your dance partner and bow and step back, swap sides with the other couple, swap partners with the other couple, swap sides again, spin each other around, and then stamp. Thus, concludes part one of five with the music - ‘The Quadrille’ from Fledermaus - becoming faster and faster each round.
The fact that balls continue to play such an important part in upper middle-class society in Austria says a lot about the character of the country. Austrians recognise that they once had a proud history – but a complicated one at that.
Part two is simple – start by stamping your feet and then step forward and bow and step back, step right and bow and step back, present your dance partner and bow and step back, swap sides with the other couple, swap partners with the other couple, pass between each other shouting something incomprehensible in German and swap sides again, spin each other around, and then stamp. Bolder members of the congregation might grab their partner and gallop up the middle of the two rows howling out like a Hussar.
This is repeated several more times until no one really knows what’s going on and the whole mass breaks down into a ‘Galop’ – in which partners charge around the ball room as though they’re riding a horse until the musical key changes and they have to go round the other way. This bizarre dance is repeated at least three more times throughout the night – at 2AM, 4AM and 6AM. And yes, these balls do often end the following morning – although most sensible folk tend to leave after the first Quadrille.
The fact that balls continue to play such an important part in upper middle-class society in Austria says a lot about the character of the country. Austrians recognise that they once had a proud history – but a complicated one at that. Although there is no wide support for a restoration of the Habsburg Monarchy outside of fringe groups, it is clear that Austrians are keen to hold on to their traditions and are willing to identify with a romanticised past. Certainly were the Monarchy still in place – most of those who attended these balls would never have a chance of attending – and so in a way the revival of the Republic at the end of the war did a lot to democratise what has become a key part of Viennese identity.