Telegraphs, Electromagnetic Polkas and the Vienna New Year’s Day Concert

When I was a teenager growing up in a tiny border town in Romania, we used to look forward to the first day of the year, when the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra would play its traditional New Year’s Day Concert. I remember being fascinated by the glittering chandeliers, the massive, colourful bouquets of flowers, the guests from all over the world sporting their traditional attires and, of course, the music. Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz The Blue Danube was a favourite with us, perhaps because the music had a tinge of familiarity: the Danube was the artery which connected us to the rest of Europe and, via the Black Sea, even with the rest of the world. Listening to the waltz was like a reminder of the myriad ways in which our lives and histories had been intertwined with the history of this beautiful and sometimes capricious river. The Vienna Concert often became a topic of discussion among classmates and friends; for our music teacher, in particular, admitting that you didn’t watch the concert was just as objectionable as saying that you hadn’t done your holiday homework.

After I moved away and began my peregrinations around the world, I forgot about Vienna and its glamorous New Year’s Day Concert. Every now and then a friend would ask whether I was still watching it—to which my answer was an almost invariable “no”. But this year was different. As I was browsing idly the TV channels on the first day of the year, I happened upon the BBC broadcast of the event. What’s more, this year’s concert took place under the baton of the celebrated Indian conductor Zubin Mehta and marked the 650th anniversary of the University of Vienna and the 200th anniversary of the Vienna University of Technology. Little wonder then that the repertoire included compositions with intriguing names such as “Electro-magnetische Polka” (Electromagnetic Polka), “Accelerationen” (Accelerations), “Mit Dampf” (At Full Steam). For me, this was a new perspective on the New Year’s Day Concert and the music of the Strauss family, one which is quite connected with my professional interest in steam engines, telegraphy and other things electric.

It turns out that the Viennese waltzes and polkas were well attuned to the technological innovations of the nineteenth century. A quick look at the musical heritage of Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) shows the extent to which his music documented the technological developments of his age (or celebrated the old ones). Here are some examples, on topics ranging from the pigeon post to the telegraph and the telephone:

  • “Electro-magnetische Polka” (Electromagnetic Polka, 1852)
  • “Motor-quadrille” (Motor Quadrille, 1853)
  • “Schnellpost-Polka” (Express Mail Polka, 1854)
  • “Taubenpost Polka” (Pigeon Post Polka, 1860)
  • “Telegrafische Depeschen Waltzer” (Telegraphic Despatches Waltz, 1857)
  • “Motoren Waltzer” (Motors Waltz, 1862)
  • “Elektrofor-Polka” (Electrophorus Polka, 1865)
  • “Telegramme” (Telegrams, 1867)
  • “Durch’s Telephon Polka” (Over the Telephone Polka, 1890)
  • “Telephonische Nachrichten Polka” (Telephonic Messages Polka, 1894)

Many of these compositions were performed for specific audiences. The “Electromagnetic Polka”, for instance, was dedicated, quite fittingly, to the Vienna engineering students on the occasion of their ball (which, by the way, is Vienna’s oldest ball). The telegraph and telephone-themed compositions, on the other hand, were presented at the Concordia Ball, an annual event organized by the Concordia Association of Viennese Authors and Journalists. The association between telegraphy and journalism was hardly surprising, especially since in my doctoral dissertation I had dealt exactly with this topic: how the telegraph was used to report news in nineteenth-century India. But it was nevertheless fascinating to hear how Strauss transformed the sounds associated with the working of a telegraph instrument into music, thus creating a different type of archive which documents the history of this technology from an alternative, more … aural angle. If you listen carefully to the “Telegraphic Despatches Waltz” you can hear the tapping sound of the telegraph key; in fact, you can almost hear how the messages are transmitted over the wires.

Clearly, Strauss used music to celebrate the technological achievements of his time, but perhaps there was also more music about the telegraph than we usually acknowledge (there was also more noise about it, as many telegraph operators would have readily testified). For Strauss, the telegraph was not simply a medium for sending impersonal, concise, lapidary messages, as it often happened with market quotations and political news; it was also a means of transmitting music. The illustration below shows him seated in a corner, composing his “Telegrams Waltz”. In the opposite corner, his wife Henrietta Treffz, herself an accomplished mezzo-soprano, reads his musical telegram as it is being despatched via the five telegraphic wires of the musical stave. In many ways, this illustration is emblematic of a common theme in much nineteenth-century discourse: the telegraph as a vehicle for establishing connections between people, businesses, nations. But Strauss himself would have been aware that the telegraph could break, as well as make, connections. Rumour has it that in 1856, when the Viennese press published reports of his alleged marriage in St Petersburg, Strauss lost no time in disavowing the news. And he did so by telegraph.

Telegramme, Strauss

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