Two o’clock in the morning at the Vienna Philharmonic Ball. A crowd has gathered for the last quadrille, a 17th-century square dance performed by rows of coupled guests. The air is heavy with sweat, flowers and sausages. The floor is so polished it feels laminated. In one corner, a man clasps his wife’s bottom as if it were a Fabergé egg. A nearby waiter rights an upturned champagne bucket. By all accounts, the event is a great success.
Launched in 1924, the Philharmonic Ball was – and still is – a way for the orchestra to connect with Viennese society. It’s one of more than 400 balls that waltz through the city every winter, and for many the Philharmonic is the highlight of the season. January’s event, attended by 3,000 people, was its first since 2020. The atmosphere was akin to a family reunion.
Austria’s ball culture is tied to the fasching (Catholic carnival), a period of festivities that runs from 11 November until Ash Wednesday (22 February). The season emerged after Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) banned celebrations on the streets, sparking hundreds of indoor parties in her wake. Most are related to profession – hunters, lawyers and chimney sweeps – and nearly all are open to the public. It’s also a huge source of revenue for the city: this season turned over around €170mn.
Now, more than ever, the landscape is shifting. On the one hand, Covid-19. On the other, an increasingly modern guest list, one less interested in waltzing and debutantes. “We are an endangered species,” admits Max, a young guest at the Philharmonic, both proudly and forlornly. A former debutant of the illustrious Opera Ball, Max’s waltzing commands much attention on the dancefloor. “You can’t escape the music in Vienna,” he calls out from the throng.
Over a schnitzel at Hotel Imperial, the Vienna Philharmonic’s archivist Silvia Kargl explains the rules of the dance. Along with other grand events, the Philharmonic Ball was always held on a Thursday as the presumption was that attendees didn’t have work in the morning. (Events associated with industry were typically held over the weekend.) Most importantly, no meal is served. “You never do an Austrian ball with dinner,” tuts Kargl. Instead, there are light snacks – “like sausages”.
In recent years, ball season has attracted attention for clashes between protesters and Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, a sponsor of the Academics’ Ball known for its anti-Islam stance. Other organisers – notably the Ball of Sciences – have responded by reassuring the world of their “diversity and openness”. For the state-run Opera Ball, which attracts up to 5,000 guests, that means a fundraising effort. “For the first time, the ball is sending out a signal of social responsibility,” says head of marketing Susanne Athansiadis, citing “new challenges”, including the war in Ukraine and Europe’s energy crisis.
The Philharmonic has also changed – or rather, as chairman (and principal tuba) Paul Halwax says, “it has developed”. Chief among these developments is a basement disco room, where DJ L Rock (aka the orchestra’s first violinist) spins contemporary hits for a Zoomer-heavy crowd. More meaningful changes come in the form of this year’s “premier” of a same-sex couple in the debutante procession. The pair must, however, obey the uniform requirements. Which is to say, one in a white dress and the other wearing tails.
Preparations for the Philharmonic, held in the 19th-century Musikverein building, start four days before the event. Halwax gives me a tour through the warren of rooms, halls and mezzanines, each with its own music and theme. Some are covered in special panelling; others feature Austrian artworks. We play a guessing game over the number of glasses (6,000) – the flowers are too plentiful to count.
Music is the centre of any ball, and something the Vienna Philharmonic takes seriously. This year there was a specially commissioned piece by John Williams, composer of film soundtracks from Harry Potter to Indiana Jones. Halwax is thrilled – “It’s John Williams!” – mostly for his younger guests. The hope is that Williams will lure youth back to the concert hall, where they will return for the pleasures of Brahms.
My ball experience begins at 6.30pm at the Chairman’s Dinner, an event in aid of the Vienna Philharmonic Society’s Young Talent Program (another way in which the orchestra is diversifying). This is a tight-knit community – an elite school committee springs to mind – but most of my tablemates are good company. There are presidents of champagne houses, children’s book authors and philanthropists from Texas. There are women in sequin dresses with four-strand diamond earrings. The only disturbance is the late arrival of PayPal CEO Dan Schulman and his wife Summerly Horning, fresh from the Open Forum in Davos. (“But we made it!”) For some reason, the conversation turns to Schulman’s haircut, which has been administered by Horning. Unsure of what else to say, I assure her it looks great.
Other notable guests include Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer, actor Tobias Moretti and soprano Anna Netrebko. These faces help make up the two-by-two opening procession – a procession that, regretfully, I find myself in the middle of. (I am attending without a partner.) “Take my arm,” says Werner, a Prague-based investor, which is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. I take the arm not occupied by his wife. “Look! I’ve got two!” he shrieks.
The ball itself, which goes from 10pm to 5am, is exquisite. It is soothing to be in a room where an orchestra rules the roost. Debutantes, I quickly learn, are not presented with any intention of marriage proposals. Instead they are the product of a culture where dancing lessons are almost as intrinsic as any other normal class; balls offer a chance to show off their hook steps and heel turns. I don’t once see a young person on their phone. Nor do I catch a whiff of self-consciousness in the young men who twirl across the dancefloor, toes outstretched. The point of being here is simply to enjoy oneself.
For those without a dance partner, there are still good times to be had. Most balls have a suite of “taxi dancers”, male professionals hired to look after women whose partners aren’t adept in waltzing. (You can find these men on the mezzanine above the organ, the furthest point from the dancefloor.) I ask Halwax how I can book my taxi, who responds, very gravely, by saying that approaching one is “not the style of a lady”. I look hopefully for Max, who is performing some kind of chassé to “My Cherie Amour”.
And who am I to judge the rules and niceties that dictate these ancient rituals? As Theodora Simons, treasurer of the Vienna Philharmonic Society and my companion for much of the festivities, says, “If you don’t like it, go out and get a pizza.”
Ball culture has survived on the basis that, for one night only, guests are transported back to a time when Vienna was the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It requires a degree of authenticity. Against a context of swirling social and political issues, that can feel at odds with 21st-century life. Against the context of Vienna, however, it feels surreally natural. Vienna is a music city – the home of Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven. It is the only place I’ve visited where a busker will sing opera in a way that is (almost) tolerable. And the only place I’ve heard locals sing along. Austropop plays in McDonald’s; I hear Schrammelmusik in a restaurant loo. That these traditions have survived in the face of modern life is testament to Austria’s enjoyment of them. I can only hope that the next season – the Philharmonic’s 100th – will look exactly the same.
Rosanna Dodds travelled to Vienna as a guest of the Vienna Philharmonic Society