Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Vienna of the Mind

In 2011, Vienna, Austria, ranked first in the world for its quality of living.  I have no idea about the veracity of the report.  Its purpose seems to be to guide companies in deployment of their “expatriate employees,” and the categories used are understandably mundane.

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.

I’ve certainly had fine guides.  One of the most recent was Simon Winder, in 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.
Claudio Magris, in 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.
The history of Vienna is fraught, of course.  Its place in the history of the twentieth century is particularly bleak. In 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.”

In the face of the marks left on Vienna by the twentieth century, who wouldn’t want to retreat to the pre-World War world?  After all, that was when, as 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.

Joseph Roth, in 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. 
The march after which the book is named is by Johann Strauss, Sr., composed in the fateful year of 1848.  Strauss dedicated the march to Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky.  Does anyone of us remember him? Except for historians and descendants, I’d venture not.  But something of the history of that march endures:
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.

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A Spotify playlist can be found at Vienna of the Mind.  More listening selections can be found at the links listed below:

Radetzky March

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.

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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.

13 comments:

Suze said...

'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.'

Okay. Every once in a while we read something that just makes us fall in love. There's an example.

Absorbing Bear McCreary's 'Passacaglia' through every pore.

A little somethin' somethin' in exchange:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZdiXvDU4P0

Friko said...

Glad to see you back. A break from blogging is nice but it's always good when your favourites return.

I have been to Vienna, I have known several Viennese, male and female, I know all of the waltzes and marches and even the names associated with them.

I have the books you mentioned, I love Joseph Roth, but I didn't get on with Simon Winder. Germania has been on my bedside table since last Christmas when my husband gave it to me as a present and it's still partly unread. I'm not entirely sure why I find him so unattractive; perhaps it's because he jumps all over the place and there's (so far) little depth to any of it.

As you seem to like him, I'll give him another go.I trust your taste.

I have had Viennese colleagues, charming to the point of smarmy, some of them, but very sweet.

Watching the Vienna Opera Ball or the New Year's Gala on TV are highlights.

I love Vienna and the Viennese, I just don't take them terribly seriously.

David said...

As one of my best Viennese friends is Jewish, I have a strange take on life in the city today. Such a mixture of opposites. A much older friend who died in her late 80s also gave me a vivid picture of the working-class city, 'our red Vienna' as she called it.

Those J Strauss marches are usually a bit saucy or camp, like the Egyptian March where the orchestra has to turn into a chorus.

Rubye Jack said...

I love the marches as well as the waltzes. Perhaps it is from a time of beer hall happiness when my parents were known as "The Dancers" and we lived in Germany. If your parents are happy so are you.

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
Another informative and detailed, as per usual, article by your good self.
Just don't tell the folks of Vancouver that Vienna is ranked first in the world for quality of living. Then again, the Vancouverites will take comfort in noting the potential lack of veracity of the report :)
Actually, Vienna has been a place I always fancied visiting. I even recall watching a film about the Vienna boys choir, way back when. And now I'm thinking about a song by a band named 'Ultravox' and a sample of some lyrics from their song titled, you guessed it, 'Vienna':

"The music is weaving,
Hunting notes, pizzicato strings,
The rhythm is calling,
Alone in the night as the daylight brings,
A cool empty silence,
The warmth of your hand and a cold grey sky,
It fades to the distance,
The image is gone,
Only you and I,
It means nothing to me,
This means nothing to me,
Oh Vienna."

Take good care Susan as we are about to leap into 2012 :)

jms said...

What an entertaining post. I love Vienna and have visited there at least 3 times. Kindred spirit, Vienna is to me. I could live there. Personally Karlskirche would be my "cathedral" of choice although Stephansplatz was quite the introduction as we came up from the underground at the foot of the cathedral on our very first visit. Can’t say that Strauss was a first choice musically however listening to Mozart’s Requiem at Karlskirche last March was quite ethereal!

Mark Kerstetter said...

I'd love to go. For now it will have to be a journey of the mind for me too. Thanks for another playlist. I too have waltzes on the mind.... Happy New Year Susan!

Susan Scheid said...

Suze: I’m glad you loved that quote—I laugh every time. As for Bear McCreary, you may be interested to know that I was put on to that by none other than Dylan Mattingly. If you should glance again at this post, you’ll see that, at some point, I realized I had an excerpt of Contemporaneous playing that very piece. So, of course, had to put that up! (Thanks, too, for your little somethin’ in exchange. Who knew Vienna was on Billy Joel’s mind??)

Friko: Well, it’s nice to be back and catch up with my favorite bloggers, too, I must say! Isn’t Joseph Roth wonderful? And of course it’s you who alerted me to Leigh Fermor. I hadn’t realized, until I put this post together, how much Vienna has been on my mind this year!

David: I love the idea of the “red Vienna.” It’s definitely a complicated place to consider. Listening to the Egyptian March as I write, the orchestra as chorus just came in. Camp, for sure.

Rubye Jack: I love what you wrote here, and I can well see why you would love the marches. Hope you’ll write something about that time and place one day!

Gary: Hard, come to think of it, to see how Vienna outranked Vancouver. But, as I noted, the survey had a specialized purpose. Love those lyrics from Ultravox’s Vienna. Vienna clearly inspires many minds!

JMS: Well, I have to say, if you’re going to choose something to listen to in Vienna (or anywhere) Mozart’s Requiem is a pretty fine pick. How have you managed to get there three times, and I’ve not managed even once? Well, at least now I have two excellent Vienna fridge magnets!

Mark: And I loved your waltz. Fun to have that synergy to close out the year, eh?

And so, friends, here we are, in 2012. May everyone have a healthful and happy year!

shoreacres said...

Happy New Year, Susan!

I must say, I'm a little unhappy because I'm unable to use Spotify. They require you to be a Facebook member in order to sign up. I left Facebook some time ago and won't go back. So, no Spotify for me.

But there's plenty of music here, and delightful it is! The historical notes are interesting, too. Child of the midwest that I am, I grew up associating "Vienna" with nothing more than "sausage" until I began learning to dance at the Masonic Lodge with my father.

There was live music - mostly big band and swing - but when the band took a break, they'd put records (!) on the phonograph, and we often danced to Viennese waltzes. I've always loved them.

You may know the waltz is a staple in Cajun country. Every weekend, even at places with names like The Blue Moon Saloon and Whiskey River, the waltz is a big favorite. Here's a wonderful example. The woman who is shown in the video seated and playing the guitar is Cleoma Breaux, who with her husband Joe Falcon made some of the first recordings of Cajun music.

It's a long way from Vienna to the Valse de Cajuns, but there's so much pleasure to be had from both!

Susan Scheid said...

Shoreacres: Yech! This Spotify development is something I hadn't encountered. (I also am not on or interested in Facebook.) It seems to be something new, and there's quite a contingent of folks objecting to it. Hope they will rethink it. In the meantime, I love your Cajun waltz example--and, as now there are three who have offered up their own slices of Vienna/waltzes, I put all three up on the sidebar. Enjoy!

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
I wish you a Happy New Year! Being back from Munich now (which was marvelous - we even got a few snow-flakes) I read your very interesting post, thank you for that!
I have been in Vienna a few times, and I like it very much. It has still an old-fashioned charme, I like the old coffee-houses, the dialect of the Wiener (and their gruntling). The pace is still slower. My mother loved to be there as a young girl: they are very fond in Austria of titles (even today), and she, being of gentry, was very happy of being addressed as "little countess", she often told me about that.
Books about cities are informing - but I seldom see the places with the same eyes as the authors.
Thank you for the beautiful music you let as hear! Britta

Susan Scheid said...

Britta: Welcome back & Happy New Year! Wonderful to have your comments and memories about Vienna here--and I hope over your way we might soon read something about Munich, too.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. and you did drop another post in at the end of the year ..

... with some memorable play lists too to go with the descriptions of the eras ..

Very interesting .. one day I shall absorb .. Happy New Year .. Hilary

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