Styrian Festivities

After several summers spent in Europe, MEBIIOYD LAWRENCE finds in Styria a wealth of sights and traditions as gay as any on the Continent. She was graduated from Radcliffe in 1954, and lives in Cambridge.


IT would be hard to spend more than a few days in Austria without running into a celebration — especially in the mountains, where pink and blue posters adorn the walls of every Gasthof, fireworks echo in the next valley, and girls in elaborate dirndls dance in the village Platz.

In Alt-Aussee, a small resort high in the Salzkammergut, we discovered festivities so enticing that all itineraries were abandoned. When we first opened the tall French doors of our room at the old Hotel Am-See and stepped out on a gabled balcony, one glimpse of the lake and the village below made us want never to leave. (Like most visitors to Austria, we had fell that way on many balconies, terraces, and cable cars.) Here, the converging reaches of cliffs, lakes, and foothills were dominated by a vast white glacier. No sooner had we glimpsed its distant perspectives than our attention was drawn to a swirl of activity in the village below.

The evening we arrived, just after dark, we suddenly heard gay, circuslike music. Two gondola-shaped boats tied together and loaded to the gunnels glided slowly toward the middle of the lake. Around them, rowboats with lanterns made wide, concentric circles. In the two large boats was the Salt Miners’ Band—almost indistinguishable in their black uniforms — filling the entire valley with booming, brassy music. Such a rollicking boatload, set against the immense mountains, gave an effect of happy absurdity, like midget musicians with bassoons and tubas. As they floated further away, the music grew sad and sentimental. “Himmlisch — heavenly,” said a curly-haired waitress on the terrace below. “Herrlich — glorious,” said another voice.

These miner-musicians, a village friend told us, have the softest jobs available. They do no mining and are paid for sporadic but lively concerts. The salt mines themselves, in Sandling and Hallstatt, are fascinating, in many ways the historical and economic center of the province. Hundreds of tourists visit them to descend on toboggans and ascend in elevators. Less hardy travelers are content to try the brine cure: twenty minutes in hot salt water with a dash of pine needles.

A private glacier and this personal welcome from the town band left us appropriately limp. On balconies above and below us, French and Italian families were also enjoying their private concerts. But unlike the illumination of Notre Dame, which goes on the bill along with the solid gold truffles at a certain restaurant in Paris, this spectacle still seemed spontaneous the next morning. It turned out to be one of the concerts given every week, which finish at the end of the summer in a gala event called a Seebeleuchtung, “lighting of the lake.” This water-borne festival holds a competition, won each year by the local electrician, for the best illuminated float.

’The concert gave us an insight into the mood of Styrian festivities — utterly relaxed and unadvertised. At the end of three weeks we still felt it to be a stroke of luck when bonfires appeared on the mountain or a wedding party all in costume rowed out on the lake. Sometimes, of course, there was more than luck operating (Pan American World Airways filmed the particular wedding we saw); but there is never the sense of a feverish chamber of commerce behind the scenes.

Besides, the non-traditional touches to these festivals can be very entertaining. In the tiny village of Toplitzsee, at the hundred-and-fifty-year celebration of the marriage of the postmaster’s daughter to the Archduke, not all the participants were unsophisticated. In fact, there were some rather cosmopolitan Styrians assembled to re-enact this mountain romance. At first we noticed only the lavish inherited costumes and distinctly heirloom faces. Then, circulating among these, pitting our Brownie Hawkeye against some overaggressive Leicas, we overheard (in clipped Oxonian English):

“As Shaw says, anticipation is nine tenths of realization.”

The speaker was a thin, decadentfeatured young man in gray flannels, dark glasses, and a Styrian hunting jacket. He seemed to be the nucleus of a large group, impeccably costumed and speaking a cultured potpourri of German and English.

The men, elongated and elegant, wore moss-green hunting jackets and leaned on black umbrellas. Others had narrow-striped shirts and tapered, prehistoric Lederhosen. The women’s costumes were much more elaborate — entirely antique, except for an occasional cigarette holder or pair of Cap d’Antibes sandals. Their damask dirndls were iridescent blue-green, purple, and sepia — a far cry from the usual bright cotton variety. Some of the hats were copied after the striking summer and winter styles of the postmaster’s daughter: huge straw cartwheels with drooping green linings, and white top-hats with black linings. Scattered among these were gold winged headdresses, black brocade jackets, and magenta scarves pinned in the back with filigreed emblems. These convoluted patterns, occasionally repeated in a flamboyantly embroidered vest, made the entire gathering one kaleidoscopic pattern.

We had plenty of time for details. A pompous Bürgermeister was reciting the royal love story in loaded and flowery German. Praises of das romantische Mädchen und der galante Johann droned on and on. In the background, the band tuned up with flasks of schnappes. One of the Oxonian hunters nodded to a handsome friend with sideburns and a luxuriant mustache, and whispered loudly to a dirndled neighbor: “You must look at Philip K——.He really has the face.”

When the Bürgermeister finally finished his speech, the romance of the ill-fated Archduke (later known as John Orth, after he gave up his title and went into exile in Denmark) and Anna Plochl, the daughter of the Bad Aussee postmaster, was delicately re-enacted. The Archduke and his hunting companions rowed across a lovely lake, into which fell a towering waterfall. On the opposite shore he met, by chance, a charming Ausseer maid. She blushed, he smiled, they joined hands, and the band struck up triumphantly.

A parade back to the village began a whole weekend of festivities. Dancing, drinking, and feasting continued late into Saturday night. On the fairgrounds were crossbow contests, where clowns in Pierrot suits and squirrel-tail hats yelled and yodeled at each bull’s-eye. On the cliffs above, fireworks exploded, starting small avalanches of earth and rocks. Several bands took turns, between rounds of beer.

One of these bands was a group of aged fiddlers who played only for one dance. This dance, however, was the main event, performed just as the sun went down. All ages came together, bowed, joined hands high above their heads, and began a graceful, intricate step. While they dipped and turned and circled, a few voices sang a wavering melody. The dancers were on a high plat form and their tall green hats and gold headdresses caught the last rays of the sun. In contrast to the rest of the sprightly festival, this dance was slow and measured. It is far older than Archduke Johann. In 1843, an English traveler said this about it: —

“I have seen many national dances that have pleased me; as the Hussar dance of the Hungarians, the vigorous mazurka of the Poles, the poetic Kozakka of the Russians, and the original Dioko of the Wallachians. I have seen also the voluptuous fandango of the Spanish, the stormy Gallopades of the French, and the Say-nothing waltzes of Germany; but I must say that, for grace, decorum, and good humor, nothing can exceed the national dance of Styria.”

Before this extended Saturday night of beer, cake, and dancing was over, we learned of a parade planned for Sunday. But we also learned that it always rains on Sunday. This proved very true, and everything was put off until the following Sunday, when it rained even harder. Regardless of the monsoon, the parade was scheduled. The streets in Bad Aussee were lined early with many patient spectators and few umbrellas. We fell in with this optimism and eagerly found places.

One hour later, a loudspeaker made a portentous but incoherent announcement . No one groaned or even moved, so we interpreted the news as reassuring. Red-faced officials, full of schnappes and devoid of information, went on selling brass buttons with pictures of the Archduke and his bride. The only other activity was the opening and closing of those wellstocked larders which non-Austrians take for briefcases.

Another hour later we questioned a policeman. He assured us the parade would start any minute. Every so often a damp and breathless dirndl raced down the street as if something were about to begin. A third hour later we were just about to climb into a bus when three bands pronounced a deafening chord.

No parade has ever had such a reception. Every window, balcony, and pair of shoulders was occupied. As if to make up for the slight delay, the parade paraded three times. Policemen strained against the crowd as if Franz Josef had arrived. It wasn’t a particularly good parade — the usual town, farm, and industry floats — but that hardly mattered. No one could see much anyway; and after three hours in the rain, staring at the backs of people’s heads, the Styrian anthem was wildly stirring. Later, over a cup of Mocca mit Schlag (rich black coffee with whipped cream) and Sachertorte mit more Schlag, the parade seemed very successful.

The most dramatic celebrations in Alt-Aussee are at night with lights and fires. One evening late in August, all-night bonfires began on the mountains. After dinner the Sandling Salt Miners gave another concert in the Platz. During their concert, distant flickering lights appeared on every mountaintop. Rows of other fires led up to the peak, and a bright circle of oil lamps was lit around the entire lake. From the main square, all this spread out in a fantastic network. The night sky obliged with a dense milky way.

After the concert and the deep intonations of Schön! had subsided, we joined some Austrian friends in their garden for sehnappes and cakes. The men were offered scharf (cognac), and the women süss (chocolate brandy). The bonfires and the brandy merged into a warm glow, fulfilling a ceremony that stems from early fire worship. Like the dances, parades, and water-borne concerts, the evening of bonfires was rooted in tradition but enjoyed very much in the present. The grandmother of our hosts lit a cigarette and told us how she had danced until four in the morning on her eightieth birthday.

We began to feel that Austria’s yearning for the past also has a thought for the present. The festivals of this remote part of Styria are neither the fading vestiges of ancient ritual sought out by ethnologists, nor the commercially thriving music festivals and trade fairs that attract thousands of tourists elsewhere. They are live celebrations, in incredibly lovely settings, enjoyed by Austrians. Any occasion becomes an excuse for one—the Feast of the Assumption, or a local girl marrying an archduke. The sweet and sharp brandies begin to flow, and town authorities issue

brass buttons in commemoration. One night after half the town was asleep, the Salt Miners’ Band struck up beside the lake. The only explanation given in the morning was that a gay young widow had wanted to dance.