So, the chattering crowd files in,
The better part of society,
To fill their seats from ground to the Clouds,
Frock-coated nobles, medallioned soldiers,
Society ladies, dressed in their best,
The finest gowns from the whole of the Empire
That spreads from Salzburg to the Ottoman’s Black Sea.
In their boxes stand moustachioed Fürsten and counts,
Peering into the scrum below
For a glimpse of the mob, the court of Vienna,
That laughs and gossips and slanders its way
Towards the height of high society.
They titter, these boxed-in counts,
Secure in the knowledge that lesser nobles come and fall –
Of note for a moment; gone by the next ball –
While true nobles always are entitled to rank
Above the rabble of courtiers in the stalls,
Pressed agains impresarios and writers, the joy of Vienna,
But better onstage than one’s table they say.
Above the Fürsten‘s boxes more courtiers are ogling,
And some merchants and bankers of independent means,
Here for the status of the society scene.
Above in the Clouds, the misnomered ‘Paradise’,
Are crammed all the lackeys, intellectuals and actors,
Far from the noble crowd, frayed frock-coats hidden in the dim candlelight.
The threadbare curtain rises, the orchestra plays a chord –
Of course, no-one stands, or listens, or applauds.
There are cards to play, and walnuts to shell,
Gossip to hear, women to beguile
(And if one listens closely, women to sell).
The diva is approaching, wonderful of course,
All society agrees (though she looks like a horse
Complains Zinzendorf, who cranes forwards –
The new soprano’s arrived! Not much to hear, but look at that neck).
After the show and old Graf will escort her home,
For fine dinner and wine, and if she stays the night, so what?
It’s what all singers do. And the cards are still shuffled,
Singers wave at their friends,
Smoke and chatter fill the air, while music fights through.
And oh God, the stench of these unwashed Viennese,
But still, they laugh at the jokes, cheer the best tunes,
But all have died, now look –
The audience sits dead, silent, moon-faced,
‘It was good’ they mutter, applaud when allowed,
But sneer at a smile or a laugh, only fixed frowns
Are acceptable now, and though the music is still sublime,
Wouldn’t I love to here the laughter from Mozart’s time?
I wrote a dissertation on Mozart’s world a few months ago, and one of the things that struck me was the difference in theatre etiquette and practice – it made another long-gone world I wanted to describe. People really did hire card tables (two florins for a night), sing along to the tunes (some describe it as ‘howling’), ogle the singers and guests, and talk all the way through. Some of this still survives in other opera houses – La Scala is notorious for its audiences letting it be known if they dislike something, while Munich’s Staatsoper holds a special place in my heart for the audience at a production of Der Fledermaus.
Some historical notes – Fürsten are a senior rank of noble. I am unsure, but I believe that the name means ‘first’. A Graf is another type of noble, similar to a count. The Clouds, also called ‘Paradise’, was the highest level of the Burgtheater. The Burgtheater itself was the main theatre of Vienna, where a number of Mozart’s operas premiered. Notoriously, singers and actors found additional patronage in exchange for accompanying the nobility. Singers were indeed judged by their appearance – leading to one of my favourite comments on an opera “She [the soprano] had a lovely neck”. No comment on her singing, unsurprisingly. Zinzendorf was a finance minister from Mozart’s time. He is mostly remembered for keeping a detailed diary of his life, which gives an unrivalled insight into the nobility of the day, being unedited and recording fairly minor details. There is no other resource quite like it. This was before electric light, so the entire theatre remained lit – and singers were known to, mid-performance, wave and pull faces at their friends! And yes, the Viennese stank – bathing was rare, and hot water (and thus bathing) only became widespread around 1900.
I hope you enjoyed the poem.
The Hapless Neo-Romantic