Friday, September 6, 2013

Vilia, O Vilia...

My perfectly adequate little business hotel (sadly, a triumph more of function than gemütlichkeit) is located across the street from the Stadtpark, which even among the very high competition set by Vienna parks stands out as especially pretty and insistently themed.

The park is studded with tributes to great names in the Viennese arts, centered around an extremely candyboxische monument to Johan Strauss that includes a particularly gaudy, saccharine gilt statue of the great man playing his violin.

Off to one side I was pleased to see a somewhat calmer memorial to another fixture in one's mental image of Wien, composer Franz Lehár.  Given that his work has its own level of near-kitsch (sometimes without the "near") chocolateboxischeness (I'm becoming addicted to German compound words), it's actually a rather surprisingly austere creation, with the man himself looking more like one of the mid-century bureaucrats commemorated on statues elsewhere in the city than the creator of operettas like Frasquita, The Land of Smiles, and - above all - The Merry Widow.

One of the many legacies of my having been raised in large part by my grandparents, Edwardians all (the youngest of them born in the year of the Diamond Jubilee), is that music like Lehár's played a very large part in my childhood.  When she was a girl, maternal Grandmother Muscato sang in tab versions of operettas that filled out Vaudeville bills or the live part of a movie show, and while she must have been an absurdly young Lustige Witwe - she retired at 23 - Hanna Glawari was among her roles (another was Cio Cio San in what always sounded like an very odd version indeed of Madama Butterfly:  half hour, one act, and, for Vaudeville audiences, a happy ending - apparently it was all a misundertanding, and Mrs. Pinkerton was actually his sister).  She adored Lehár, and especially her big number from the Widow, "Vilia."

When, thinking about Lehár, I went to check the lyric, I was startled to learn that Lorenz Hart, of all people, had a written a set of English lyrics for the operetta.  They seem fine, if only that - restrained and appopriate, but not particuarly infused with the trademark Hart wry melancholy.  Those in Grandmother's version were considerably more florid.  I wish I could remember them all, given how clearly I can see and even, in dreams sometimes, hear her, standing at the counter in her kitchen, apron in one floral pattern over the shirtwaist dress in another, warbling in a voice that sounded like an echo, "Vilia, O Vilia, the Queen of the Trees/You rule o'er butterflies, birds, and the bees;/Vilia, O Vilia, a secret I'll tell/You rule o'er my well!"

Walking around Vienna, in the grand and elegant squares and the almost painfully scenic little sidestreets, I feel like the grandparents, those genteel, cultured, endlessly patient people, are all around me.  Paternal Grandmother Muscato would have been entirely at home among the old ladies enjoying a nice Esterházytorte at a café off the Kärntnerstraße (now that it's September, she could even shrug her fox furs off her shoulders, a highly characteristic gesture), and Grandfather Muscato stands behind me in a museum gallery, admiring a portrait of one of the eighteenth-century archduchesses ("fine figure of a woman!" - his highest praise).  Vaudeville Grandmother, though, drifts through the Stadtpark, with the faraway look she'd get when thinking about music, remembering her moment in a spotlight in some central Pennsylvania hall, resplendent in the dress of lilac lace her mother made her and wielding her sweeping ostrich fan, dyed to match her gown, the proper handling of which, she said, could silence the rowdiest Saturday matinée.

And oh, how they would love the food.  The Viennese, to their way of thinking, still eat, and properly: lovely great cuts of meat, rich sauces, vegetables and salads firmly in their proper supporting role (Suzuki to the schnitzel's Butterfly), and all of them prelude to desserts that top off each meal like the vast ladies' hats did the fashions of 1912 (some of which, clouded in rich whipped cream, they rather resemble). They'd even like the offal (last night I narrowly avoided adding kidneys to my earlier adventure in lungs).

How lucky I am to see, now and again, through their eyes, and to have the perspective that comes with having known so well people who knew first hand what now seems such ancient history.  There is music everywhere in Vienna - a Japanese lady plays Schubert on a spinet transported to the center of a shopping street; an old man grinds out waltzes on a battered accordion near my streetcar stop.  And there it is, in the distance, that echo - "Vilia, O Vilia..."


  1. Thank you for sweeping me out of a trying morning and transporting me to Vienna for a momentary but quite happy escape.

    I adore you, Muscato.

  2. I now have that bloody lied floating through my head... Jx

    1. Here, let me help you with that - me and Bubbles, that is. And she even has the dyed-to-match fan! Or perhaps you prefer La Stupenda? Or even, on a more contempo note, Miss Fleming? Or just dive into the whole thing, courtesy of The Wichita Grand Opera!

    2. Oh, sweetie! They are all fabulous.

      However, there is one performance that just about sums it all up...

      Miss Jeanette MacDonald!