I’ve not been to Vienna, but I’ve often visited a Vienna of the mind. How much my Vienna bears any relation to reality, I couldn’t say.
Germania. Here he writes of an occasion on which he spilled ice cream on his shoes:
The broad area outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna is one of those terrible tourist zones—like Covent Garden in London or the Place Georges Pompidou in Paris—which raise real questions about the nature of humanity. A sort of chimps’ tea-party of baffled tour groups, petty criminals and people dressed as Mozart drift listlessly about in a fog of mutual incomprehension and boredom. I do not say this from any lofty position, having just dropped chocolate ice cream all over my shoes.Danube, gives us another vantage point on the same square:
. . . there is an irregular pentagon marked out on the ground. It is nothing special; it merely marks the spot below which two chapels are located. But it is significant that a guide should mistakenly observe that the pentagon is the spot reserved for a monument which, after many projects of various kinds, was never built.Magris goes on to observe
Sometimes that empty space can be used to replace something which history had already put away in the cupboard. . . . the monument of the Republic, erected after the First World War, was put back on the Ring after 1945. The Fascists, who had it removed in 1934, had put it in a warehouse. Never throw anything away, one never knows.A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor witnessed the beginning of one of Vienna’s darkest hours upon arriving there in 1933:
. . . Trudi said we must be in the Weinerwald by now; Strauss’s Vienna Woods. But there were no lights on the horizon where Vienna should have begun to show. When the lorry pulled up, we could hear voices, and then a torch was flashed on us by a helmeted soldier with a slung rifle and fixed bayonet and we saw that we were in a built-up street, and already inside Vienna. But torches were the only lights on the pavements and the gleam of candles behind window-panes.“At the time,” Leigh Fermor writes, “one had only a confused inkling of events.” “I felt like Fabrice in La Chartreuse de Parme, when he was not quite sure whether he had been present at Waterloo.”
Carl Schorske wrote, “the liberals of Austria . . . . assumed power over the city of Vienna. It became their political bastion, their economic capital, and the radiating center of their intellectual life.” Among other things,
In 1873, with the opening of the first city hospital, the liberal municipality assumed, in the name of medical science, the traditional responsibilities which previously the church had discharged in the name of charity. A public health system banished major epidemics . . .1873 was also the year in which Johann Strauss II composed the Wiener Blut Waltz. The waltz was intended to celebrate the wedding of the Emperor Franz Josef's daughter. What has landed more prominently in the annals of history, however, is its first performance, which marked Strauss’s début as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic.
The Radetzky March, paints a picture of that pre-World War world at once ominous and sublime.
And the Kaiser came; eight radiant-white horses drew his carriage. And on the white horses rode the footmen in black gold-embroidered coats and white periwigs. They looked like gods and yet they were merely servants of demigods. . . . No lieutenant in the Imperial and Royal Army could have watched this ceremony apathetically. And Carl Joseph was one of the most impressionable. He saw the golden radiance streaming from the procession and he did not hear the dark beating of the vultures’ wings.
When it was first played, in front of Austrian officers in attendance, they promptly clapped and stomped their feet when they heard the chorus. This tradition continues today . . .I haven’t succumbed to Strauss marches. Though I’ll offer up a Radetzky to you now, overall, what they evoke is a little too martial for me.
But it’s always hard to resist carting out my stash of Strauss waltzes to bring in the New Year. This year, I caved in.
A Spotify playlist can be found at Vienna of the Mind. More listening selections can be found at the links listed below:
Wiener Blut Waltz
Also, because they must be included wherever waltzes are to be heard:
Ravel's La Valse, played here (in his own arrangement) by Juilliard student Sean Chen
Richard Strauss, Waltz Sequence from Der Rosenkavalier
And, as evidence that the waltz is alive and well in the 21st century, here is an excerpt of Bear McCreary's Passacaglia in live performance by Contemporaneous (more 21st century waltzes can be found on the listening list here):
I love this performance for many reasons, but one that particularly stands out is the way David Bloom, after a night of conducting his heart out, steps aside immediately at the end of the performance to give the performers center stage.
To all the members of Contemporaneous: Thank you for the gift of so much beautiful music in 2011, and to your continued success in the coming year.
Credits: The image at the head of the post of a Corpus Christi procession (a procession like the one Roth describes in the quoted passage) and that of Radetzky are from Wikimedia Commons. The images of books, except for Danube, are available from various sources. The photograph of Danube is my own. The quotations are from the indicated books, except for the last, which can be found here.