The Viennese Ball takes place in the Hofburg Palace, (from where the ‘Habsburgs’ once reigned over the Austro Hungarian Empire) and also in concert halls and in the famous Opera House under the glittering chandeliers and amongst mirrors which multiply the hundreds of dancers into thousands.
Balls where evening dress is de rigueur, where each debutante wears a little crown just like a prima ballerina. Where women carry fans and music and champagne blend with their jewels and laughter.
To the casual visitor there is something unreal about these balls. We are not accustomed to such romanticism. But a hundred years ago every court in Europe held receptions such as these: London, Paris, all the capital cities had their Ball seasons in the days when the guests arrived in their own carriages with their coats of arms painted on the doors.
Nowadays we only know this form of gaiety from films and plays or as the backdrop of operetta. Could it ever have existed outside the frontiers of Ruritania? It did and it does in Vienna, even to this day.
The Viennese ball season starts with the New Year’s Eve Imperial Ball (Kaiserball) at the Hofburg and ends with the Opera Ball in February. But there are now other balls running until the month of June.
THE VIENNESE BALL SEASON : From Yesteryear to Present Day
Historically, during Fasching (Carnival) the lower classes were allowed to wear costumes and masks and to mimic aristocracy and heads of church and state without fear of retribution for mockery. When things got out of hand, the custom was forbidden, for a while anyway.
Even Empress Maria Theresia (1717-1780) decreed at one point that masks would no longer be allowed in the streets, whereupon the revelry was moved indoors.
This was the beginning of the splendid Viennese Balls for which Vienna has become so famous and the real business of Fasching is, first and last, dancing but it is also a season of jollification for the entire city.
THE VIENNA OPERA BALL
His Majesty did not approve. Emperor Franz Josef refused the request by the artists of the Imperial Opera House to hold a Viennese ball in “their” magnificent premises on the Ring Boulevard, which had been completed in 1869.
Thus the first Court Opera Ball took place in the Musikverein, another magnificent and recently completed building and the home today of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which gives concerts and holds its own ball there. The permission of the sovereign to hold a “soirée” in the new opera house was not granted until 1877 – with the proviso that there be no dancing!
But the Viennese found a way around it as the evening drew on. As the Wiener Fremdenblatt reported: “………. it was very difficult at first but the Viennese spirit held firm,……….after midnight the first real dance took place in the ballroom of our opera house”.
The Viennese craze for dancing had prevailed. After the legendary balls during the Vienna Congress in 1814/15, vast circles of the population had been bitten by the bug. The number of balls arranged by artists, including events in the Redoutensäle of the imperial Hofburg, increased.
Johann Strauss and his waltzes for the Viennese Ball, became so well known that in 1835 he was appointed Court Ball Music Director. Johann Strauss junior was even more popular than his father; the Viennese called him the “Waltz King”.
His most popular waltz, “The Blue Danube”, was written in 1867 and has become a kind of national anthem. Needless to say, no ball would be complete today without it.
The decline of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918 did not affect the holding of imperial Viennese Ball at the Opera House for very long. Three years later, the invitation “Alles Walzer” (“Everybody Waltz”) was to be heard again.
However, Hitler did away with the Vienna Opera Ball, its designation since 1935, and it was not until February 1956 that the tradition was resumed in the rebuilt State Opera House.
Since then the Opera Ball has been an act of state: every year Parliament declares the event the official “Ball of the Republic”.
As in the days of Emperor Franz Josef: To the sound of a fanfare, the head of state and the Austrian government appear in full regalia in the middle loge of the State Opera House, the very loge that used to be reserved for the Emperor.
The 5,000 guests – women in evening dress, men exclusively in tails – stand while the Austrian and European national anthems are played. A festive sight and one that is firmly rooted in the tradition of the Opera Ball and other balls held during the season.
GLITTERING EVENTS IN VIENNESE BALL SEASON
More than 300 Viennese Balls take place in the Austrian capital every year, each attracting anything between 200 and 5,500 guests. What other European city can match this tradition?
Given these numbers, slick organization is required, especially for the prestigious Viennese Balls. They all take place in accordance with traditional rules. First there is a ball committee, often chaired by women – experienced managers who are the soul of the ball.
Then there is an honorary committee including high-ranking personalities. The high-profile balls are normally under the patronage of the Federal President. All names appear in the invitation, a pamphlet that also gives the date and venue, dress code, program and of course, the admission charge.
The loges at the Opera Ball are extremely expensive but despite their price – EUR 18,000 – they are highly sought after. The other prestigious balls, such as those held in Hofburg palace, are somewhat less costly.
One co-ercive feature of Viennese Ball culture is dress. In this regard the high-brow balls are uncompromising: evening gowns for the ladies and tuxedos for the gentlemen. For the Opera Ball even this is not enough – here, it’s tails or not at all.
It is surprising to see how many young guests are willing to bow to these rules. A tradition dating from the first half of the 19th century is the “Damenspende”, a token gift presented to the ladies. In the days of the monarchy this might have been an elaborately crafted bijou such as a mother-of-pearl fan.
These days it could be an elegant watch, confectionery, a CD or even, as in the early days, an artistically designed dance card, on which gentleman used to reserve a dance. In the era of gender equality, some balls also have a “Herrenspende” for men.
CEREMONY AT TRADITIONAL BALLS
The main ceremonial feature of all traditional Viennese Ball is the opening by the young ladies’ and gentlemen’s “committee”. The girls opening a ball for the first time are called debutantes. This debut is part of the ritual of entering into adulthood – the introduction into society – which dates back to the days of the monarchy.
Dressed in a long white robe with a coronet in their hair, long white gloves and a small bouquet in their right hand, they proceed onto the dance floor arm in arm with their tuxedoed escorts to the music of the “Fächer-Polonaise” by Carl Michael Ziehrer, former chief conductor of the imperial court, which is played at practically all opening ceremonies. At the end of this solemn ritual comes a waltz – with the pairs turning anticlockwise.
This is not as easy as it might sound and is perhaps one of the reasons why dance schools are so well attended. In Vienna alone there are over 30 of them. It is the schools that organize the opening ceremony – after having taught their students the necessary steps and held several rehearsals to inaugurate them into the secrets of the special choreography that they have devised.
Great importance is attached to the aesthetic precision of the figures, even among debutantes – after all, who wants to dance out of line?
At all prestigious balls the opening ceremony ends with a military-sounding “Alles Walzer” from the director of the dance school organizing the ball, inviting all of the guests onto the dance floor – this time to waltz in a clockwise direction.
The Opera Ball decor is unique. Hundreds of palms and lilacs are to be found on the magnificent staircase and in the foyer of the State Opera House. The ballroom is also adorned with thousands of flowers.
It’s hard to believe that it was the scene of an opera performance a couple of evenings previously. As soon as the curtain goes down on the final act, over 300 workers start to convert the opera house for the ball. The seats in the stalls are removed. A dance floor is laid over the orchestra pit at stage height.
Instead of the wings, loges are erected on three levels in line with the loges in the auditorium. Within 13 hours the opera theater is thus transformed into a harmonious, uniform and festive golden ballroom.
The Opera Ball is probably one of the most famous and elegant balls in the world. Live TV broadcasts have increased awareness of it even further. It has no shortage of imitators: from Istanbul and Tokyo to San Francisco.
But only in Prague and Budapest do these balls actually take place in the opera house. Even here the old ties from the days of the monarchy can be felt. Although the other prestigious balls in Vienna are not quite as well known, each of them has an unmistakable profile and a tradition in some cases that goes back over 100 years.
PHILHARMONIC BALL, BONBON BALL AND COFFEEHOUSE OWNERS’ BALL
One of the most high-profile Viennese Ball is, of course, the Ball of the Vienna Philharmonic. This world-renowned orchestra holds its ball in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein, one of the world’s most imposing concert halls, familiar to TV viewers all over the globe as the venue of the New Year’s Day Concert.
The Vienna Philharmonic itself plays only for the opening of the Viennese Ball. The entrance of the guests of honor is accompanied by a festive fanfare composed specially for this ball by Richard Strauss. But then the Philharmonic players leave the stage to other musicians – after all it is their ball and they no doubt wish to dance themselves. This is an evening for members, friends and patrons and is sold out long in advance.
In the closing phase of the ball season the traditional balls follow one another in close succession. The sequence is mostly unchanged from year to year, with the last Thursday in Fasching (carnival) reserved immutably for the Opera Ball. This is followed the next day by the Bonbon Ball, then the Lawyers’ Ball (Juristen-Ball) on Saturday and finally the Rudolfina Redoute on the last Monday of Fasching.
The Bonbon Ball is the only Fasching event to take place in the Konzerthaus, home of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Up to 4,000 guests can dance in the four concert halls.
A jury elects a Miss Bonbon from the female guests, and her weight in confectioneries is then donated to charity. Here, too, there are the debutantes in white but the dress code is not generally as strict.
The same cannot be said of the distinguished Coffeehouse Owners’ Ball. This ball is highly appreciated by the local population because of its typically Viennese ambiance and is virtually regarded as a smaller version of the Opera Ball.
It is the only ball to use all the ballrooms in the Hofburg, including the refurbished Redoutensäle and the elegant roof foyer with its view over night time Vienna. It is also the largest prestigious ball in the Vienna carnival calendar with over 5,500 guests.
The opening program is comparable with the Opera Ball: the debutantes are just as festively dressed and the Vienna State Opera Ballet accompanied by the Opera Ball orchestra also performs. Every year an internationally renowned show band is invited. Altogether there are six orchestras playing, not to mention the smaller musical groups.
Whereas the Coffeehouse Owners’ Ball has been in existence since only 1956, the Lawyers’ Ball (Juristen-Ball), which takes place in Hofburg palace on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, can look back on a tradition almost 200 years old. This classically elegant ball is opened, as one would expect, by the Austrian Minister of Justice and attracts lawyers and jurists from all over the world. Many international organizations arrange meetings to coincide with the ball.
The highlight at midnight, as at other prestigious balls, is the quadrille, which has been danced since the 19th century. The most popular is the Fledermaus quadrille by Johann Strauss. The steps to this jaunty pair and group dance are fairly complicated and are explained in advance by the dance master.
Not infrequently, however, the mad dash through the passages between the rows of dancers ends in good-humored chaos. At all events, it’s one way of giving renewed energy to tired dancers, who will need it, since the ball never ends before 4 am.
JOHANN STRAUSS BALL AND RUDOLFINA REDOUTE
The Johann Strauss Ball was held for the first time in 2002. It is remarkable that the Waltz King, whose music dominates Vienna’s Fasching scene so completely, had never had a Viennese Ball devoted to him before. As befits this famous figure, the young ball has all the classic insignia: from the opening with the State Opera Ballet to the quadrille and, of course, a midnight show.
Were the famous composer to attend the ball today, he would surely accept the fact that his music – brand new in the 19th century – now shares the limelight with more contemporary rhythms.
The last of the great traditional balls is the Rudolfina Redoute at Hofburg palace on the last Monday of Fasching. It is organized by the Catholic couleur-wearing fraternity Rudolfina, named for Duke Rudolf IV, who founded Vienna University in 1365.
Viennese Ball tradition does not go back this far, but it nevertheless has its roots in the monarchy. The Redoute is the only surviving masked ball of the many that used to take place. Masks are no longer compulsory, but nevertheless serve as a reminder of the original Fasching custom.
Gentlemen dress in tails or tuxedo and, if they are members of the fraternity, their colored caps and ribbons. The ladies are in evening wear with a mask to cover their eyes, as in the operetta “Fledermaus”. These masks, decorated with feathers or sequins, often match the evening dress and give the ladies a most mysterious allure.
This in turn gives them the right for the whole evening to ladies’ choice – until the demasking quadrille at midnight. After that both the gentlemen and the ladies have the right to choose their partners until the ball ends at 5 am.
The closing of the ball is also a traditional affair. The lights in the ballroom are dimmed and the orchestra plays Ferdinand Raimund’s song Brüderlein fein, musst nicht gar so traurig sein and the surviving revelers step out onto the dance floor for the last time. Typically, they will then go on for a spicy goulash soup at a nearby café, which during the ball season opens at 5 am!
RAINBOW BALL AND LIFE BALL
A slightly alternative Viennese Ball, but no less festive three-four time is danced by Vienna’s gay and lesbian scene. At the glitzy Rainbow Ball, which has been held since 1998 in the historical setting of Parkhotel Schönbrunn, lesbians, gays and transsexuals also celebrate the traditional entry of the ladies’ and gentlemen’s “committee” and the hectic midnight quadrille.
The exceptional feature of this event is the eye-catching and creatively designed costumes that are worn for the occasion: from classically elegant to freestyle and sixties outfits. The Rosenball at Palais Auersperg has also become a glamorous highpoint of the gay community season. The dress code is simple: anything that attracts attention.
There are two charity events that have become part and parcel of the Vienna ball season. One is the Vienna Refugee Ball, which has been held during Fasching since 1995. Under the patronage of the Mayor of Vienna, it offers a wide range of multicultural music in the setting of Vienna’s City Hall. The proceeds help to finance accommodation for refugees at Wiener Integrationshaus.
The Life Ball is two years older. Taking place in May, it supports various AIDS organizations. It is Austria’s most important fashion event and takes place in and around City Hall.
Highpoint of the evening is a fashion show by renowned designers – outdoors before an audience of more than 40,000, featuring top models and also international celebrities. Thereafter entertainment in all its forms is put on throughout City Hall: live appearances by international stars, performances, dance floors and a vast array of food.
The Life Ball is an opulent and open-hearted celebration of life, and what better backcloth could there be than a vibrant city like Vienna!
ALL GOOD THINGS MUST END (OFFICIALLY THAT IS)
The official Ball season and Fasching come to an end with Ash Wednesday the beginning of the 40 days of Lent. However there are balls for months to come and you have a chance to waltz into the month of June.
Article Author: Dr. Norbert Linz
WienTourismus (Vienna Tourist Board).
For more info about the Vienna ball.