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Oh Vienna… why there’s more than waltz to the Austrian music city

Young couples wait to dance in the "Golden Auditorium" of the Musikverein on January 22, 2009 during the opening of the Philharmonic Ball, one of the cities fanciest balls of the season, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, in Vienna. AFP PHOTO/ DIETER NAGL (Photo credit should read DIETER NAGL/AFP via Getty Images) - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The Austrian capital’s somewhat stuffy image as the home of classical music overlooks the fact it has always been keen on celebration, says SOPHIA DEBOICK

Vienna is the classical music capital of the world. The masters of the first Viennese school – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Haydn – all lived and died there, sustained by their aristocratic patrons from the Viennese nobility, and from this city emerged music that stands for the pinnacle of achievement in that art, the ultimate proof of music’s ability to express human emotion with exquisite beauty. In its golden age, this was a city of candlelit, gilded opera houses, of wood-panelled coffee houses and waltzes, and it still fosters that image today, the Viennese tourist trade pushing old-world charm and the status of the city as the seat of genius composers. But Vienna has new sounds to offer too, and the history of its musical life is less solemn than it first appears.

The Habsburgs were certainly up for a good time. The emperors’ court at Vienna rang with the sounds of the late Baroque and early classical greats, with three successive rulers – Leopold I, Joseph I, and Charles VI – all great musicians and generous musical patrons. By the end of the reign of Leopold I in 1705 the retinue of court musicians at Vienna outstripped any in Europe, totalling 76.

Charles VI, having been tutored by the Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux, promoted a wealth of musical entertainments at court, while his grandson, the future Emperor Joseph II, directed the musical life of the court under his mother Maria Theresa’s reign, holding frequent chamber concerts where he himself played the clavier and viola.

Joseph employed the Bavarian composer, Gluck, as chamber composer (his comic opera Il parnaso confuso premiered at Vienna’s opulent Schönbrunn Palace for Joseph’s 1765 wedding, with members of the imperial family in the leading roles), hosted the premiere of Haydn’s Russian Quartets at the Hofburg Palace at Christmas 1781, and arranged a contest between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Muzio Clementi that Christmas Eve. In promoting Haydn and Mozart – two of the greatest geniuses to emerge from the city – Joseph II made clear the vital role of the imperial thirst for music in making Vienna the unrivalled music city.

The prolific and innovative Haydn’s career was made in Vienna. Born in a village 25 miles outside the city, he went to the capital in 1740, aged just eight, to join the choir at the magnificent gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, but was turfed out when his voice broke (Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa complained the teenage Haydn ‘crowed’ rather than sang – still, it was preferable to his choir master’s suggestion of prepubescent castration). He suffered years of hardship as a jobbing composer and teacher in the city before he became Kapellmeister to Count Morzin in 1757 and his career took off.

In the 1760s and 1770s Haydn wrote symphonies using the form of heightened emotionalism known as sturm und drang (‘storm and stress’) and helped to establish the form of the symphony and the string quartet. By the time of his 1809 death (in the midst of Napoleon besieging the city), so revered was his genius that phrenologists unearthed his skull to examine it for tell-tale signs of musicality. His head was eventually returned to his tomb in the Bergkirche near the Esterházy Palace, some 30 miles south of Vienna, but in the city itself he still makes his presence felt through the Museum Haydnhaus, where he died, and an imposing statue in front of the Baroque Mariahilfer church.

Mozart, heavily influenced by the work of the 20 years older Haydn, went to Vienna from his native Salzburg in 1781 and stayed there, the city seeing 10 frenetic years of musical activity before his early death. The year after his arrival his three-act opera The Abduction from the Seraglio premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater and he married in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. In 1787, on the death of Gluck, he got a big break when Emperor Joseph II made him chamber composer. Yet, this only offered a modest income, and Mozart moved out to the suburbs in 1788 in an effort to save money. Still, he continued with a flurry of work that only slowed as his health began to fail in 1790. The original enfant terrible, his genius was only matched by his apparently highly abrasive personality, and today the Mozarthaus on the central Domgasse, where he lived from 1784 to 1787 – his only remaining Viennese residence – stands as a monument to his achievements.

Everywhere you look in Vienna, Beethoven peers out at you, from postcards, to his glum-faced statue on Beethovenplatz. His body lies in the central cemetery, while his former homes in Heiligenstadt, outside the city centre, and at the Pasqualati House are visitor attractions. Born in Bonn 14 years after Mozart, the composer first travelled to Vienna aged 17 to study under the master, although it’s unclear if they ever met. His considerable family troubles saw him soon return home, but at 22 he returned to study under Haydn and stayed until his death more than three decades later.

Beethoven performed in public in Vienna for the first time aged 25, playing either his piano concerto No. 1 or No. 2, and enjoyed a glittering career in the city from then on, his works performed across the most prestigious venues. He began to lose his hearing around 1800, but some of his greatest works followed in his twilight years, premiering his Ninth Symphony – his last and greatest – at Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor in 1824. This was the setting for the poignant story that, at the end of that premiere, he had to be turned from his conducting position to be shown that the audience were applauding – he could no longer hear them.

It was under the intimidating influence of the oeuvres of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven that the native Viennese Schubert began his musical career as a choir scholar at the city’s Stadtkonvikt Imperial Seminary in 1808. Mentored by Mozart’s rival, Antonio Salieri, he bumped down to earth when he could only find work as a teacher at his father’s school in the northern Alsergrund district of the city. Yet he continued to write music at a prolific rate despite suffering many professional setbacks and the persecution of his social circle from the musical salon of the lawyer Ignaz von Sonnleithner on the central Brandstätte in the paranoid atmosphere that followed the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.

The diminutive composer would be even shorter-lived than Mozart, dying at 31 in 1828, probably of syphilis, just a year after acting as a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral. Today this vital figure of the early Romantic era is honoured with a statue, capturing him in the midst of composition, in Vienna’s Stadtpark.

No family did more to create a distinctly Viennese sound than the Strausses. Johann Strauss I was born in the city and staked his claim to fame in 1826 when, at the age of 22, he debuted his Taüberl-Walzer during the Vienna Carnival to instant acclaim. He became the pre-eminent dance music composer in the city, and soon, in Europe, making the peasant dance of the waltz the ‘in’ thing in fashionable society.

Having forbade his sons to follow his path, Strauss was dismayed when his 18-year-old son Johann Strauss II debuted at Dommayer’s Casino in 1844. With waltzes like The Blue Danube among the over 400 he composed, and a quickly-acquired reputation as Walzerkönig (King of the Waltz), the son soon eclipsed the father.

Nevertheless, Strauss I’s Radetzky-Marsch, written to celebrate the crushing of the Sardinian rebellion against the Austrian Empire in 1848 – the Year of Revolution, which saw father and son take opposing sides during uprisings in Vienna itself – has taken its place alongside The Blue Danube as a staple of the New Year’s Concert performed by the Vienna Philharmonic every New Year’s Day morning.

While the Strauss dynasty have a museum dedicated to them in Vienna and Johann Strauss II’s rather kitsch 1920s golden statue in the Stadtpark is a favourite with tourists, their greatest monument is this annual concert, televised around the world and synonymous with the city for many.

As the 20th century approached, Vienna continued to set the musical agenda. Educated at the Vienna Conservatoire, Mahler was the link between the Romantic Austro-German tradition of the 19th century and the modern sounds of expressionism. He became director of the Vienna Court Opera and the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, yet the Vienna tourist board promises only ‘Mahler’s traces’ in the city today – he has no dedicated museum or statue, only plaques on his former residence on Auenbruggergasse and the sanitorium on Mariannengasse where he died. His protégé, Arnold Schoenberg, meanwhile, has his own cultural centre and his former home in Mödling, slightly south of the city, is now a museum.

Schoenberg was born in the former Jewish ghetto area of Vienna, Leopoldstadt, and established a reputation for stirring things up with his 1913 performance of his own Chamber Symphony No. 1, as well as pieces by Mahler and his students of the ‘Second Viennese School’, under the auspices of the Vienna Concert Society.

So outrageous was the experimentalism of the material that the concert deteriorated into physical violence and became known as the Skandalkonzert. Later, he would flee Europe well before the Anschluss, and would go on to write A Survivor From Warsaw – a musical setting for a Holocaust survivor’s testimony that was one of the most extraordinary musical responses to the war.

For all the emphasis on the past – in 2020 the city will celebrate the 250th birthday of Beethoven with much pomp – Vienna is hardly a place that trades only on past glories, and in displaying the Teutonic yen for hard electronic beats and sweaty nightlife it looks forward as well as backwards. There’s a large selection of hip clubs in the city centre, from Pratersauna, a 1960s sauna building turned semi-derelict techno club, to the more musically eclectic Flex, the city’s most famous club venue.

Vienna may have an image as a place of ‘serious’, emotional music, but from the court celebrations of the Habsburgs to the Strauss waltzes and the clubs of today, it’s also always been somewhere keen on celebration.

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