It’s just different here. Just like it’s different having a bowl of pasta in Rome or dancing flamenco in Seville, classical music is somehow different in Vienna than anywhere else. Maybe it’s because there is more of it; pretty much everywhere you go you’ll be approached by people dressed as Mozart selling concert tickets for all sorts of venues. Maybe it’s because Vienna is a city that has always valued art above military conquest, with the most beautiful monuments in the city being those of composers and not generals. Or maybe it’s because here, in this city, so many of the all-time greats worked their magic.
My favorite thing to do at a classical music concert is to close my eyes, letting the musical notes form images in my head. Tonight’s concert at the Kursalon, a villa in Vienna’s Stadtpark, focuses on the music of Mozart and Strauss, though it includes interludes from other composers as well over its hour and a half. Mozart’s overture for The Marriage of Figaro highlights the first half, while Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz – perhaps the most iconic Viennese piece – headlines the second. Some of the music is familiar; other pieces are new to me. All are beautiful, capturing the soul of what it means to be in Vienna.
Vienna was home to a huge percentage of classical music’s pantheon: Beethoven (after his time in Bonn, which you can read about here), Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Vivaldi… the list goes on and on. But for me, two composers are more intertwined with the soul of the Austrian capital than any others: Mozart and Strauss. It is these two I have come to the city to get to know.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756. The son of a violin master, the young Mozart was a prodigy, giving a concert for Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa at the age of six! (It is said the young boy jumped into her lap and gave her a kiss following the performance.) In 1781, Mozart arrived in Vienna, where his fame won him considerable sums of money for his commissioned works, money that he would largely blow gambling.
Over the next eleven years, until his death at the age of thirty-six, Mozart would reside here in Vienna, though he would change addresses thirteen times, largely depending on his financial state at the moment. One of his apartments remains, and is now home to the Mozarthaus Museum. Little remains of Mozart’s possessions, although the museum tries to recreate the feel of the rather luxurious apartment through period pieces. The highlights are some original music written in Mozart’s own hand (make sure to view the six consecutive pages of the Figaro score, equivalent to his supposed daily output) and the audio tour that discusses the composer’s life.
Mozart died in 1791 at the age of 36, but in that time composed more than 800 works! He apparently even was working from his death bed, singing through parts of his Requiem mere hours before he would pass away. (Desperate for money, his widow would make sure the work was finished quickly by his assistant.) The tour discusses theories and conspiracies behind his death, such as his supposed poisoning by a jealous Antonio Salieri. Ultimately it is all speculation; all we know for sure is that an early death cost the world what would undoubtedly have been some more incredible and iconic music.
A century later, Johann Strauss would have Vienna again buzzing over music. Born here in an outskirt of the city in 1825, Strauss would spend his entire life in Vienna, living to the age of 73. He is known as the Waltz King, for the huge number of waltzes he composed, as those were the most popular fad of the mid-nineteenth century. However, he was much more than that, also composing polkas and operas (headlined by Die Fledermaus).
As with Mozart, only a single dwelling of Strauss’ time here remains, a small apartment north of the Danube Canal. It is now the Johann Strauss Apartment Museum, which is generous to sponsor my visit. The apartment consists of only a few rooms, but with a rather impressive collection both of original and first edition works, collectibles owned by the composer, and a huge array of portraits. It is especially delightful to follow the history of Strauss’ life in portrait via his facial hair. One of his three wives apparently disliked his beard (which was huge and worn in the same style as the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph). She made him shave it, but leave a distinctive mustache, which Strauss would dye black (along with his hair) to appear younger.
This museum has no audio tour, but a helpful employee/docent points out important features, speaking over the ever-present melody of the Blue Danube Waltz, which I hum for the remainder of the day and much of my stay in Vienna. He makes sure I notice drawings of some of Strauss’ international appearances, from Paris to Boston, as well as images of his conducting of his orchestra.
The highlight of the Strauss Apartment is a listening room. Two stations are set, each with a ten song playlist of some of the most important and iconic works of the great composer. I listen while admiring a collection of caricatures, of which Strauss was apparently a fan. One in particular amuses me, with musical notes coming out of his huge beard.
While both Mozart and Strauss are buried in Vienna’s Central Cemetery (along with many of the others), monuments to each are more conveniently located in the city. Mozart’s statue is currently being renovated, but sits in the Burggarten, just outside the Hofburg Palace complex. Strauss’ statue is a wonder in gold in the Stadtpark. (It is here that one of the concert ticket salespeople wins me over. The discounts offered are legit; I ask at the box office before returning to make my purchase.)
If you do one thing in Vienna, eat cake. (Seriously. Click here to read all about Viennese cakes.) If you do a second thing, see a classical concert. Experience some of the greats who have called this city home. The music just sounds different here.
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