First published in English in 1944, Ernst Lothar’s “Vienna Melody” tells the story of the Alt family of Vienna, scions of a famous 18th-century piano maker. In obedience to the terms of their ancestor’s will, all three living generations of the Alt family occupy apartments in the grand house he had caused to be built. It is not an entirely harmonious arrangement, and becomes even less so with the advent of Henriette Stein, fiancée of Franz Alt, a member of the youngest generation.
Beautiful, clever and predisposed to gaiety, Henriette is the daughter of a Jewish professor and an opera singer — a real poke in the eye to a family so jealous of its respectability. Worse, though not known by the Alts, is that she has a past with Crown Prince Rudolf, son of Emperor Franz Josef, an unstable, deeply unhappy man for whom her heart still burns. She has agreed to marry Franz Alt for ignominious reasons, and the two are wed on what turns out to be the day of Rudolf’s death (a murder-suicide) at Mayerling.
Thus begins the family’s intersection with the great events and people of the age: A member of the Alt family has an audience with Emperor Franz Josef, and another is present outside his death chamber. Franz himself meets a young, resentful Hitler, both of them failing the entrance examination for the Academy of Art; in time, a son of his is involved in the assassination of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. Yet another son, Hans, one more misfit in the Alt family, takes a class from Sigmund Freud and ends up marrying a social reforming Jew.
The novel moves from the last creaking years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where, if one had political ambitions “to be young was decidedly a dreadful mistake” on to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and World War I. Hans — first soldier, then prisoner of war — is forever changed by what he witnesses. Upon his eventual return to Austria, he is shocked and disgusted by well-heeled Vienna’s obliviousness to the world’s altered state. Through his eyes we follow the empire’s unraveling and dissolution and, finally, Hitler’s annexation of Austria in the spring of 1938.
The Alt family loses cohesiveness. There is backbiting, adultery, a duel, even murder — connected, we discover, to the political ideas poisoning the air. Although Lothar develops some complexity in his main characters — Franz, Henriette and Hans — the true subject of the novel is Austria, from which he fled in 1938, the year the novel ends. His melancholy and feelings of regret for his native land are palpable.
Katherine A. Powers, Minnesotan by birth, reviews widely and is the editor of “Suitable Accommodations: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963.”