Strauss: Perpetuum mobile / HK Gruber: Charivari

Perpetuum mobile, Op.257

Duration: 4'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO played: 2010

Charivari (An Austrian Journal for orchestra)

Duration: 12'
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
KSO played: 2010

“Charivari” is a folk custom originating in France but prevalent throughout Europe from the Middle Ages. In England it was known as “rough music.”  A group of villagers would congregate outside the window of a newly wed couple and “serenade” them: Raucous singing was accompanied by a noisy racket produced on makeshift instruments, pots, pans and any other object that could produce a noise.  An echo of the practice survives today in the tradition of tying cans to the back of the bride and groom’s car to rattle along the road as they drive off. 

Although it originated as a harmless prank, the tradition became less benign as it developed.  An unwed cohabiting couple, or a couple in a marriage considered unsuitable, could also find themselves serenaded in this fashion.  In this way the practice became a tool of social coercion, by which the community forced its members to adhere to its mores.  There is a German term that describes this acquiescence to a social norm: Gemütlichkeit.

Gemütlichkeit is a loaded term that for the generation of Austrians that grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War, including HK Gruber.  It suggests a particular kind of superficial cosiness and blithe ignoring of the past.  Gruber has explored this facet of Austrian culture extensively, both as a composer and as a performer of the songs of pre-war Jewish composers such as Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler.  By combining popular, “deacadent” styles with the high art of Mahler and Schoenberg, he confronts this head-in-the-sand attitude head on and aims to reconcile Austria with its history.

Charivari takes as its starting point the motif from a polka by Johann Strauss, Perpetuum mobile.  Gruber’s reasons for appropriating this particular piece are twofold: first, he had previously used the motif in some incidental music, and wanted to repay the debt.  But Strauss’s jolly polka also has a darker subtext: for Gruber it embodies the Gemütlichkeit that has characterised much of Austria’s official life, and has been used to gloss over and even to conspire with some of the less savoury aspects of the country’s history.  Thus through the course of Charivari, this façade gradually slips, as the style of the music drifts away from a simple 19th century dance to something closer to the expressionism of Mahler and Schoenberg.  Finally the mask is stripped away.  It is hastily restored in the closing bars, with a fleeting reference to another Strauss work, Wiener Blut, but its inadequacies are now plain to see.  As Gruber comments, “The uglier facts of history cannot always be glossed over; and except perhaps for the tourist trade, there’s nothing to be gained from obsessively harking back to ‘the good old days’.”

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