Alcohol as the Veinnese Vehicle for Denial and Disillusionment

Alcohol as the Veinnese Vehicle for Denial and Disillusionment:

An Analysis of “Drink My Darling” and “King Champagne the First” from Johann Strauss’s Dei Fledermaus


By Sara Hartley Llewellyn (nee. Frister)

December 1998


            In Die Fledermaus Johann Strauss confronts political disillusionment with unmistakable Viennese escapist humor.  Ever since its opening in Vienna in the May of 1874, Johann Strauss’s most famous operetta has been received by critics and audiences as lighthearted entertainment, but a deeper look into the political and social atmosphere of the 19th century Viennese people, and at the text and music of Johann Strauss, however, will uncover many fundamental, dark realities presented in this operetta.  The political atmosphere of 19th century Vienna influenced the conception of Die Fledermaus and this article will explore what Johann Strauss did to portray this in text and music.

            The political climate in nineteenth century Vienna, which immerged out of the Hapsburg era, was sensitive.[1]  It was wrought with political failure and uncertainty that many Austrians would like to deny.  The absolutist era of what Brion calls “political quietism” ruled by “the great empress” Maria Theresa, followed by the “enlightened despotism” era of the benevolent “people’s emperor” Joseph II crumbled with the revolution of 1848.  The revolutionary movement further divided Viennese people when the constitutional regime was established in the 1860s.  Torn by contrasting movements of nationalism, liberalism and passivism the Viennese people turned to cultural rebellion in the fin de siècle (end of the era) movement of the late 19th century.  They relied more and more heavily on their eccentric style of living to escape an unstable reality.

            Behind this intoxicated front, Vienna slid into a world of denial.[2]  On the surface Viennese life had been sheltered.  The World Exhibition in 1873, one year before Die Fledermause’s composition, painted an inspired picture of Vienna as a rich and festive city.  This front, however, covered up such devastating fundamental realities as the financial panic that began in May of that year.  Vienna was the city that could celebrate ins way through any disaster.  A fragile political climate emerged out of this causing the Viennese to look to superficial sources for leadership and continuity.

            Johann Strauss touched the pulse of Vienna when he wrote Die Fledermaus in 1874.  However, he did not create this Viennese masterpiece on his own.  In fact, it is not even based on a Viennese source.  The plot for the “Komische Operette”, Die Fledermaus, was adapted from the Parisian vaudeville comedy, Le Reveillon by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, which premiered in 1872, based on the peculiarly French cstom of a holiday midnight supper party.

            In order to create a more Viennese conception, the focus was changed to a Viennese ball, and other details, such as names of locale, the addition of the jailer’s character, and the emphasis on the role of alcohol were added in the development of Die Fledermaus.  The fundamental aspects of the plot, however, were retained.  It was an ideal subject for the basis for Johann Strauss’s most famous operetta because of its playful identification with the Viennese exotic, eccentric style and feasible solutions for what many Viennese self-consciously viewed as a depthless existence, intoxication and celebration.

The operetta was an immediate success in Vienna after its premiere on Ester Sunday, April 5, 1874.  Although on the surface it seems that the work was a failure because it was taken out of the theatre during its premiere run, after only sixteen nights, a bit ore research will uncover that this was only because the Theatre an der Wien was pre-booked for the visiting operatic company season.  After this scheduled interruption Die Fledermaus returned to complete a healthy season.  In fact, fifty-eight of the eighty-eight operetta performances in 1874 were of Die Fledermaus making it the most successful operetta of its time.  Much of the success of this work can be attributed to the identification that the audience could make with the text and music.

One must only study portions of the text of this “lighthearted opera” to see that this is not a complete interpretation.  Te most obvious portrayals of deep political disillusionment can initially be found in the many references to alcohol as a substitute for reality.  In the Finale of Act I Alfred, the seducing ex-lover of the mistress Rosalinde, sings “Drink My Darling” revealing life’s “clarity” which can be found through the power of champagne. (fig 1)

A strophe of rhyming couplets in trochaic trimeter, which demonstrates a simple short-sighted mentality, is sun by Alfred, followed by a two line dactylic dimeter refrain.  Rosalinde intercedes with an aside in which she interjects her only objection to such a misleading plan, “O, what is to be done”.[3] Her argument is short lived and cut in half by the second occurrence of the refrain for which she joins Alfred.  Rosalinde quickly gives into his temptations, they sing an extended rhyme, he sings another of his seductive strophes, and finally Alfred and Rosalinde complete the strophe and refrain form with a final recital of the refrain.

The text shows how simple the irony of denial really is, “Once your fair eyes are bright and clear, you’ll see everything as it really is.”  The farce that alcohol could make one more aware of reality contradicts fact, which is that alcohol takes away the ability to judge reality.  This second purpose was really the goal of the self-conscious Viennese people.  The idea of disillusionment is clearly reestablished in the last verse of the text that states “Illusion brings us happiness, even through the joy is brief”.

            The theme of denial and disillusionment does not end with the text.  Johann Strauss uses harmony, melody, rhythm and orchestration to elaborate on this picture of Vienna’s consciousness.  Strauss never strayed far from the festive dance melodies even when he wasn’t writing on of his famous waltzes.  The duet is a light, “allegretto molto” dance tune in triple meter which never modulates, but does entertain strong inclinations towards the dominant key of D major. (fig 3)

            The illustion of lifting out of the tonic foundation is an overwhelming theme throughout the operetta.  One example of this arises in each occurrence of Alfred’s primary theme.  A recurring escape tone first appears, in some variation, in the second half of the first beat of every measure except the third of Alfred’s them, suggesting the evasive nature of the drink. (fig 4)  The escape tone leap is accentuated by the otherewise very conjunct, elegant line, and an accending out of the tonic can also be seen in the short circle of fifths progression found at mm. 21 and 81 of Alfred’s melody.  The apparently playful and carefree, buoyant, dancing melody, and the diatonic line, which begins Alfred’s theme at m. 5 and m. 65, also depict a misleading front.

            The most famous melody in the duet between Alfred and Rosalinde occurs at the end of the strophes and once in the middle of Rosalinde’s aside. (fig 5)  The refrain, marked “dolce”, sates that “happy is the one who accepts what has to be” is identified by its famous Viennese waltz rhythm in the bass, and lyric, chromatic ascending parallel thirds between the violins and vocal line.  An initial dysfunctional dissonance starts each measure, and minor-major third chord relationships in the harmony color this outwardly uplifting line.  The refrain, first introduced by Alfred, is accompanied by parallel orchestration.  A short, playful, staccato interlude then leads into the duet version of this theme.

            During this duet both characters sing in parallel motion on identical text, which suggests that they are at least superficially of like mind, but this idea is soon put into question during Rosalinde’s short, transitional recitative which prepares Alfred for his seductive second strophe.  An appoggiatura chord shos a hesitation in m. 96, but the couple does, however, end the piece in parallel agreement on the refrain, which suggests that Alfred might have won his case hat they not been interrupted.

            The idea of political escapism and social disillusionment through the empowerment of champagne is painted again in the first part of the Finale of Act II, “King Champain the First”. (fig 2)  Arranged primarily in irregularly metered couplets, the text for this piece is also in a verse and refrain format.  The solo verses are sung by Orlofsky, Adele, and Eisenstein, respectively, in which each soloist describes a personified view of the beverage, followed by a refrain, which is an alternating duet between the toasting soloist and the response of the chorus.

            This elaborate rationalization is, granted, primarily a drinking song with a playful affect, however, there are very serious realities buried in the text that seem to contrast significantly with the superficially lighthearted pretense of the work as a whole.  Orlofsky begins, singing his strophe describing the “heavenly substance”.[4] perhaps because he is Russian and not fully of the Viennese disillusionment mentality, Orlofsky’s text is not colored by the reliance on alcohol, but simply a fondness for it.  His descriptive praise only functions to lead into the darker connotations that Adele and Eisenstein introduce.

            In the second verse Adele praises alcohol with the power to “wash away many troublesome cares, and therefore it is a wise ruler who never allows his people to suffer from thirst”.  An extremely serious subject matter for a “lighthearted” drinking song, this text implies that other rulers fall sort of these basic needs, allowing their subjects to suffer from thirst and troublesome cares, and ultimately leaving a need for some form of replacement.  The Viennese tragedy unfolds when the characters acknowledge that the best solution that they can come to is through the illusion of a better reality found only in a make-believe world created through alcohol.

            Eisenstein sings the final strophe by relating the practical function of the “provider of refreshment”.  He brings a final dismal twist to the text when he claims that even the monk in the quiet cell needs to drink “until his nose at last resembles a sparkling ruby” in order to find happiness.  He suggests that not even the most gentle and pure are untouched by the emptiness that only alcohol can fill.

            “King Champagne the First” best relates musically to the concept of disillusionment through its complete pretense of gaiety, which clouds the underlying dark realities of the text.  The tripartite verse and refrain form of this selection lays out the foundation for the traditional, uncomplicated drinking song.  The fast, bright, duple meter and solid D major tonic key set the lively, festive mood.  Although this is not one of Strauss’s famous waltzes, this son exhibits clean rhythms and dance cadences.  Very minimal harmonic movement in the verse and much faster, regular V-I harmonic rhythm in the refrain combine with these many aspects which insinuate the simple, shallow nature of the music.  However, at the main cadences the harmony reveals the irregular resolutions that the text suggests, the most blatant example of which can be found at the end of the verse in m. 20. (fig 8)

            After remaining stagnant on the dominant chord for nine measures the harmony fails to resolve at the end of the verse.  Instead it moves straight into a f minor (iii) chord to begin the refrain.  The lack of resolution at the end of the verse supports the implication of a lack of resolution which is caused by the search for leadership where it ca not be found. The second use of unusual harmonic devices I in the final cadence of the selection.

            After the chorus has completed its celebration on a perfect V-I cadence the orchestra resolves on a sudden IV-I plagal cadence.  The progression is unexpected for two reasons.  The first is that one would expect a simple drinking song to end on a regular I-I cadence because an intoxicated them is generally one without a great deal of creativity.  The second, and more profound reason why this orchestral resolution is strange, is that it brings the orchestra out of the role of accompaniment and implies that it either has the power to influence or reflect on the action. 

            One possible implication for this is that the resolution that the intoxicated party guests reached was more idealistic and founded in an unconvincing reality.  Transversely, the plagal cadence also may hold some common associations with nature, implying that the chorus has come to what is only the natural resolution given their circumstances. 

            The primary verse theme corresponds to Vienna’s typical dancing melodies because its tune is conjunct with intervals of primary thirds, regular rhythms, and light ornamentations. (fig 7)  The basically upward progression joyfully accents the “tra-la, la” portion of the text, but contradicts greatly with the underlying serious implications of the verse text.

            It is impossible to say whether the librettists and composers of this operetta were trying to make a deliberate point abut the denial tendencies of the Viennese people, or if they simply communicated within the context of the dialect of the local people.  Either way the result is extremely revealing when broken down into its many parts.  Despite its frivolous story-line, superficial treatment of characters, and the shallow portrayal of their lives, thee is a deep tragedy in their story.  For the characters of Die Fledermaus, like the people of 19th century Vienna, alcohol served as the people’s solution to the many troublesome cares which they faced.


[1] Marcel Brion, Daily Life in the Vienna of Mozart and Schubert (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 7.

[2] Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siecle Vienne: Politics and Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), p. 15.

[3] Johann Strauss, Die Fledermaus (SBLX-3790), p. 4

[4] Strauss, p.6.


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