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The Witty Influence of Vienna's Biedermeier Style

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WHAT, or who is Biedermeier? A fair enough question, and an especially relevant one these days. In German the word breaks down into two parts, ``Bieder,'' which means upright and commonplace, and ``Meier,'' which is one of the most ubiquitous last names in this part of the world. ``Honest-John''? ``Plain-Jane''? Supply the English equivalent of your choice. The term first came into use in 1855, when it was applied as a pejorative adjective to the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie in Austria and Germany during the years from 1815 to 1848. Since then it has been associated with the fashion, furniture, and painting of that culture. And, like most names which classify 30-some years under one hat, and label them a ``period'' with a capital ``P,'' the catch-phrase Biedermeier is fine for broad speech, but begs closer examination. In the arts, as well as politically, a number of different influences and trends were simultaneously at work.

From the 1770s to the early 1800s, Classicism set the tone for the fine and applied arts in Europe. The flamboyant and asymmetrical shapes of the Baroque gave way to elements and values taken from Greek classical art - strict order, right angles, and geometric shapes.

The social-political picture, in 1815, was no less variable: Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy had lost some lands and gained others, stretching north through Bohemia to Prague, east through Galizia to the Russian border, and south through the Moldau. Vienna was Europe's third-largest city (238,000 inhabitants). Maria Theresa had been dead for 35 years, followed by a succession of short-reigned emperors, notable among them her son, Joseph, the reformer.

Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Chopin were the contemporary composers. Buechner, von Kleist, von Eichendorff, and Heine - the Romantic authors - dominated the literary scene. The industrial revolution (as well as the people's revolution) was in motion. The first railway and the electric telegraph had already made history. And Empire furniture, an offshoot of Classicism, was ``in.''

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