Ernst Lothar, who fled Austria and settled in California after the 1938 Anschluss, was a writer, director and producer who married an actress. Small wonder, then, that much of his novel “The Vienna Melody” (first published in the United States in 1944) takes place in what would make a good stage set: the sprawling townhouse of the Alt family, whose wealth derives from piano-building and who is required to live there by a provision in the dynasty founder’s will.
Several generations of Alts interact with some of Austria’s leading and most notorious denizens, including Sigmund Freud, Emperor Franz Josef, writer Arthur Schnitzler, Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg and even Adolf Hitler (who was an untalented art-school classmate of one of the Alt boys). The Alts’ haute-bourgeois disdain for Hitler comes across in this diatribe by a member of the family: “If we strip the man of the mysticism that surrounds him — what remains? A ridiculous person. He looks ridiculous; his teeth are false; his martial gait is false; his martial speech is false. He chose a style of moustache without knowing it was that of a Jewish comedian. He shies away from every foreign word, and if he ever uses one he mispronounces it. He says ‘status ko,’ and to this day is incapable of pronouncing the name of the very party he founded himself.”
While the Alt boys drift in and out of civic affairs, the girls lead more interesting lives off to the side. One of them, Henriette, becomes the favorite of Crown Prince Rudolf, who runs down his father, the emperor, as only an insider can: “A terrifying man by the side of whom life is impossible!” Prevented from marrying Henriette, Rudolf commits suicide (offstage).
What Franz Josef doesn’t quite understand and Hitler wants to stamp out is the fundamental Viennese outlook on life: “the frivolous . . . notion that to live is to enjoy!” Lothar’s bighearted, witty and wrenching novel — rescued from oblivion by Europa — reminds us how delicate, yet also resilient, that frivolous notion was.