2016: This is the year I discovered the Vienna New Year’s Concert. This is the year I discovered Deflater Mouse.
Our family was zipping down the New Jersey Turnpike on New Year’s Day, while I clicked through radio stations in hope of either Frank Sinatra or classical music. Old Blue Eyes must have been sleeping off his celebrations, but a handsome German accent was broadcasting live from a concert in Vienna, and I am always happy to visit Vienna, so we lingered. He announced, “And now I present you: ‘Deflater Mouse’ by Strauss II.”
Now, at this point my mind ran along two tracks. The first one really did hear the announcer say Deflater Mouse. I visualized a mouse with a tiny air pump, a little villain who frolics about letting the air out of your children’s inflatable burros and soccer balls and such, arch-nemesis to Inflater Mouse. Inflater Mouse is a sort of good brownie mouse. He sneaks in at night and makes sure toys are fully inflated and ready to play with the next morning. I expressed this pleasing vision to Jonathan and listened to the orchestra. The music was frolicking, definitely frolicking.
But my mind’s parallel track figured that surely it couldn’t be a Deflater Mouse. This was serious music. It might be German, so Die Fleder-Maus. I requested Jonathan to do a little Googling on his smartphone. I guessed right. Jonathan read us the true story of Die Fledermaus, much to our entertainment. (Meg: “But what is a Fledermaus??” Me: “We still don’t know! That’s what we’re trying to figure out!”)
A long time ago, there was a farce with one of those boring grown-up plots, involving everyone going to a costume ball and flirting with each other’s spouses and servants. Someone’s frenemy went through a great deal of trouble to get revenge on the first guy for an episode where the first guy abandoned the second guy in a city square drunk and dressed up like a bat.
A bat is the Fledermaus, flutter-mouse, of the title. That’s an interesting parallel to the old Anglo-Saxon word for bat, which is “reremouse”. I first came across reremice as a plot point in Patricia Wentworth’s mystery Run, which featured them in a family crest. The “rere” prefix is from the Old English “hrere”, which means move or flutter. An East Anglian dictionary shows that their dialect also had a related word “flittermouse” for bat. Our word “bat” seems to come from the Scandinavian “bakke” or “natt-bakke” in the 1570s. That seems late to me – we were still changing animal names in Elizabeth’s reign, really?– but who am I to argue with Merriam-Webster? What I really want to know, now, is whether Shakespeare or Spenser talked about bats, and if so, what word they used. My take-away from this is that apparently Germanic languages all thought bats looked like winged mice…which they do.
So, we left the frenemy in a town square, in his bat costume. Someone wrote this story as a farce, and other people adapted it and argued over it, and one of the authors changed the party from a French Reveillon to a Viennese costume ball. And now I have learned that Johann Strauss II put this random story to music, and a lot of people have made movies of it since.
Between the radio announcer and Google, we also learned a little bit of the history of the Vienna New Year Concert. It started in 1939 – World War II! At first I thought it was a national-identity kind of concert, like singing “Edelweiss” in The Sound of Music, but apparently not. The first performance seems to have been pretty friendly to Nazis. But the concert survived the war, and now it’s a solid tradition. They play lots and lots of Strauss music, and every year they are so popular that you have to sign up a year in advance, and even then tickets are distributed by lottery.
I, however, got to enjoy the concert from the comfort of my own car, and the encores lasted us to Ikea in Baltimore. I counted it up, and this teachable moment covered classical music, history, and comparative linguistics – and we did it on a holiday, too. When we got home, the girls played Deflater Mouse with our excellent collection of stuffed mice. No trip to Vienna was necessary.
Photo Credit: First photo by Gavin Whitner; all other images by Carolyn Bales.
 Which is ironic, because Strauss was definitely a popular composer and not a fancy one. He wasn’t considered serious enough for the New Years Concert to play, for the first few years. They came around.