In an exchange of letters, the composer Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (or in some cases Gerty, his wife) expressed their views on the First World War in a form which was sometimes ironic and sarcastic, sometimes patriotic. However, for Strauss what was most important was not so much commenting on contemporary events as the effect these had on his own personal state of mind.
Soldiers’ songs have as their content soldierly life and experiences and are – in contrast to the officially prescribed battle songs – utterances which are sung ‘voluntarily and out of habit’. In them soldiers express ‘what moves them and they otherwise cannot and do not want to say themselves’, as the folklorist John Meier put it in 1916. Solders’ songs have a variety of content, which ranges from patriotic appeals and calls to battle to laments and protests. During the First World War large collections of them were compiled out of not only patriotic but also folkloristic interest.
In the nineteenth century music was normally considered to be unpolitical. In the twentieth century and especially in the First World War it became increasingly political. In doing so it became functional, was in many cases forced into a pseudo-nationalist context, and was meant to contribute to moral mobilization.
Despite the demand for a return to serious art not even the First World War could really reduce the popular appeal of ‘light music’. Both at home as well as at the front pieces of music which by nature were meant for entertainment enjoyed great popularity. This genre too adopted patriotic content and thus followed the contemporary trend.
On the occasion of the birthday of Emperor Franz Joseph in August 1914 the Deutsches Volkstheater, one of the few theatres in Vienna that did not shut on the outbreak of war, invited patrons to attend a special performance whose profits would be handed over to the Red Cross. The programme was in all respects that of a patriotic event in time of war, with Franz Grillparzer’s version of the Austrian national anthem being followed by scenes from Friedrich Schiller’s dramas Wilhelm Tell and Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp). The musical part reached its first climax with the performance of the song Die Wacht am Rhein (The Watch on the Rhine):
The audience rose from their seats. There were loud cheers, and they were kept up while the ‘Radetzky March’ and the ‘Song of Prince Eugene’ were played; the audience then joined in the singing of the Austrian and Prussian national anthems, and finally there were more loud cheers to greet the song ‘O du mein Österreich’ (O Thou My Austria)!
The First World War led to a campaign by conservative art and culture critics against the ‘modern’. In page after page of treatises music critics and musicologists concerned themselves with the ‘analysis’ of the music being produced at the time and with performance practice; and they prescribed what the function and development of music in wartime should look like.
For it was ever so, when on the dial of fate
The hand to history’s great hour pointed,
That this people of dancers and of fiddlers stood
Like God’s angels before paradise.
(Anton Wildgans, ‘A Prayer for Austria’s People and Warriors’, August 1914)
In the summer of 1914 there was a temporary cessation of performances at the Burgtheater and the Court Opera in Vienna, in the latter case on the basis of the argument that music should be silent while there was the noise of weapons. Hans Gregor, the director of the Court Opera, tried to intervene against the closure of his theatre, expressing the opinion that it was precisely in such difficult times that the people needed some form of diversion. The two theatres opened again in mid-October 1914, the Court Opera with a performance of Lohengrin, traditionally the first performance of the season.
When the Republic was proclaimed the imperial house of Habsburg and all family members had all their privileges withdrawn, members of the bureaucracy and the military were released from their oath of loyalty to the emperor, and the imperial ministries were wound up. However, before he left Austria in March 1919, Emperor Karl still emphasized in a manifesto that for him the measures passed by the new government were ‘null and void’. The newly elected National Assembly reacted to this provocation by expelling the imperial family from the country and confiscating their property. At the same time a law was passed which forbade the use of aristocratic titles and made it a punishable offence.
In 1940 the Viennese historian Reinhold Lorenz published his book Der Staat wider Willen (The Reluctant State) on the time after the end of the monarchy. In his own words he wrote it ‘after the magnificent completion of union’ following a call to depict ‘the experience of almost unbelievable aberrations, which ‘fortunately’ had come to an end, as he had witnessed them himself.