From the Womb of Wien
By Srirupa Dhar
Motherhood and music may not necessarily seem to have an intimate connection. It does in my life. These twin treasures of life blend meaningfully in my trip to Vienna – the home of Haydn, Mozart, and Strauss – resonating the pulses of history, art, and music. We envision the past, smell the breath of immortal geniuses, and see life with a new perspective – that’s what Vienna is all about. I have been there not as a regular tourist, but as a parent of a nine-year-old boy who earns a scholarship to travel to Vienna for having won an international music composition competition (Golden Key Competition housed in New Jersey, U.S.A). My 2011 visit to Vienna lives not as a passive archive in my travel repertoire or a half-forgotten detail in my memory. This mid-July trip to the Austrian capital beats the concept of time and mutability. My experience of this north-eastern part of Austria has brought me so close to the past that I believe that no matter how fragile life is, time can never override truth – the truth underlying art and artistic minds. The Keatsian chiasmus at the end of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” keeps resurrecting itself.
Vienna is imbued with the presence of Mozart. He is there in the streets, conservatories, palaces, gardens, just everywhere. Even the urban political structures transform themselves to poetry – poetry of the power of music. The majestic monument of the genius in the Vienna City Center close to the Hofburg Palace is one such structure. This imperial palace originally built in the medieval times and redesigned down generations has been the winter home of many royals including the Hapsburgs. Now functioning as the Viennese presidential home and workplace, it is a visual feast with its dirty green ornate sculptures and intricate baroque architectural designs carved in greyish white marble. The colors, the enormity, and artistry of the huge palace echo the beauty underlying human minds – minds that can etch such splendor and outlive the temporal constraints of life’s brevity.
The Heldenplatz carries many memories, one among which is Adolf Hitler’s proud announcement of the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany in March, 1938. The place has its burden of history, yes. But there is something beyond these memories of ugly history in the heart of Wien. Within walking distance from this Hero’s Square is the white monument of Mozart in the Burggarten. Mozart is the hero, an indispensable part of this imperial garden of Hofburg. And his spirit of art cleanses all human darkness. Mozart preceded Hitler, true. However, the statue of Mozart reminds us that his music conquers inhumanity. He, not Hitler, is the artery of Wien.
The heart of Vienna breathes with both classical music and gothic architecture. About three kilometers from Hofburg Palace is St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The Stepansplatz, as this central location is called, bubbles with life. The place is not just seen, but felt, felt beyond its geographical locus where visitors all around the world come to see the awe-inspiring Stephansdom or St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The religious faith of the tourists doesn’t matter because they are here to view a different faith – faith in art. The city – with its predominant Roman Catholic population – has no place for religious fanaticism, anyway. The church is rich both inside and out – rich in its mighty limestone structure, myriad-colored tiles, and height of one-hundred and thirty-six meters. It is iconic in its symbolization of the culture of the city itself. One can internalize the solemn quiet of the insides of the church that offer solace – a moment of happy introspection. The north and south towers of the cathedral stand aloft reaching out to the blue summer sky silently proclaiming its resilience – for the church has survived fires and world wars. It stands there with the same dignity that has been its essence ever since the fourteenth century when it was built under the supervision of Duke Rudolph IV of the Hapsburg Empire. Once again, Vienna beats time!
Close to the cathedral is perhaps the most remarkable of places – the Mozarthaus. Even after seven years, I feel the surreal feel of walking into the domestic life of one of the greatest human minds. This Mozarthaus located at 5, Domgasse was the maestro’s rented home (on the first floor) and has seen some of the most celebratory phases of his life from 1784 to 1787. This house, in the old part of Wien, breathes life from the past telling us how Mozart composed some of his brilliant pieces here, including his opera, The Marriage of Figaro and how he still lives in every wall of the house. Is Time a thief, as the saying goes? Standing in Mozarthaus and watching my son, Abhik, play classical piano in the cellar of Mozarthaus, which is now transformed to a cozy concert hall, I reconsidered this clichéd saying. The courtyard of the house looking out to the cobbled paths has an old-world charm telling the story of how people who ran for their lives during the Second World War, found hiding places inside this courtyard as in the courtyards of many other houses in the neighborhood.
Temporality lost to the eternalization of human greatness is a motif that recurs in Salzburg too. Bordering Germany, Salzburg is situated to the south-west of Vienna. Salzburg also retains its old-world charm. It is the birthplace of Amadeus, after all, and a town that hosts old monasteries. One of the structures being the Nonnberg Abbey where the legendary Hollywood movie, The Sound of Music – the story based on the life of Sister Maria who later became part of the von Trapp family – was shot. The abbey has been reconstructed several times since its inception around 712 by St. Rupert of Salzburg. The semicircular arches of the abbey betray the Romanesque architectural style, a style that evolved into Gothic art around the thirteenth century.
Music flows in Salzburg, the native town of the great master. One can’t help but think of Julie Andrews singing with her rapturous voice while walking the pebbled pathways and admiring the quiet church aisles of Salzburg. The bus journey from Vienna to Salzburg and back is another visual and spiritual treat. The distance of about two-hundred and ninety-six kilometers covered in over three hours is not tiring at all. We, travelers, became one with the alpine beauty.
Hangovers from the Salzburg trip keep you alive with the feel of antiquity. The hangovers linger and get fused into the elegant nuances of classicism as we return to Vienna and its glorious music conservatory, the Prayner Conservatory of Music and Dramatic Arts. Less than four kilometers south west of Stephansplatz, this conservatory – built in 1905 – keeps alive the ‘City of Music’ and the presence of art in every sense of the term. The conservatory hall, called the Ehrbar Saal, will fascinate you with its gilded columns, gorgeous walls, red gallery seats, and a shiny Steinway. This is where the winners of the Golden key competition performed their own compositions.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s short life of thirty-five years did not impede him from leaving behind his legacy of a prodigious energy to the world of music. Unequivocally an original mind, Mozart also owed some of his skills and knowledge of the symphony, among other things, to his predecessor and mentor, Joseph Haydn. An Austrian composer, a stalwart of the classical period of music, ‘Papa Haydn’ contributed much to the development of chamber music and influenced great minds including Mozart and Beethoven. Haydn lived some part of his life, including his final years in Vienna in a neighborhood in Windmuhle. In 1809 – Haydn’s last year of life – came the Napoleanic bombings in Vienna. Haydn had seen much in his seventy-seven years of life. A significant outpouring of his artistic creations happened in Eisenstadt, the palace of the Esterhazys, where Haydn spent many summers and was the Kapellmeister. The Esterhazy was a noble family of Hungarian descent.
The palace in Eisenstadt – about fifty miles south of Vienna – was a medieval castle transformed into a luxurious home for the nobility. The Esterhazy splendor in culture and art resonates in the lush outer grounds, magnificent artifacts, wine museum, and the original lavish banquet room, later named Haydnsaal. Baroque in its architectural and mural designs, Hadynsaal is one of the most extraordinary concert halls in the world to this day.
If Mozart stands in the center of Wien, we could think of Haydn as Mozart’s past and Strauss as his future. Johann Baptist Strauss (Strauss II) is also germane to the understanding of the musical ethos of Vienna. Our visit to Strauss’s home – about three and a half kilometers northwest of Stephansplatz – is another transcendental experience, if you will, to musical talent that is born in time but surpasses time. The god of waltz created his masterpiece, The Blue Danube, in this apartment, which is now part of the Vienna museum. The time-travel offered here gratifies all aural and visual delights. Strauss’ violin and piano, among other things in the Strauss residence, at once transports you to a higher reality.
The lived lives of the great masters inspire Vienna and its surrounding towns with the spiritual presence of the composers. The Austrian capital also offers us an insight into the earthly nature of these great intellectuals. Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) located in Simmering – southeast of and slightly short of fourteen kilometers from Stephansplatz – is on the outskirts of Vienna. Covering an area of 2.4 square kilometers, the Central Cemetery built in the mid-nineteenth century, is a major tourist spot. My nine-year-old wanted to see where Beethoven, Strauss, Brahms, and Schubert are buried. The gravestones of all these musical minds as well as a cenotaph in memory of Mozart in Zentralfriedhof are tributes to the genius of art. A plethora of feelings take over you, when you see the names of all these composers engraved on stone layering the human bodies that were once parts of impeccable brains. We feel so close to them, yet we can never see them for real. The place becomes loaded with meaning: the mysteries of life and death. We wonder which of them is more real.
The thirteen-minute subway commute from Stephanplatz to Simmering is worth it!
Part of the majestic power of Vienna lies in its preservation of visual art. The Upper Belvedere Museum is one such place, where art lovers can enter into a tour of an aesthetic ensemble – from medieval painters to French Impressionists. One of the most revolutionary late nineteenth and early twentieth century Austrian artists – Gustav Klimt – occupies a special place in this museum. His bold and unconventional eroticism, so well brought out in works like ‘The Kiss’, graces the Belvedere. The Lower Belvedere is a temporary exhibition offering aesthetes to perceive Austrian art from an international perspective. The dual Belvedere palaces – baroque to the core – were designed by the reputed baroque architect, Johann Hildenbrandt. They were built in the eighteenth century as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, a general of the Imperial Army and a loyalist to the Hapsburg Empire.
Another major Viennese landmark is the Schonbrunn Palace.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Schonbrunn Palace is almost one-hundred and ninety hectares and dates its origins to the mid-sixteenth century, when the Imperial ruler, Maxmillan II, bought a floodplain of the Wien River. The palace changed and evolved over a span of three hundred years at the hands of many Hapsburg generations. The Tiergarten (Zoo) on the Schonbrunn grounds is the oldest functioning zoo in the world. Among other structures, the palace garden seats a Gloriette which harmonizes with the baroque motif of the rest of the architecture. This Gloriette – a wonder in its intricate sculptures drawn from classical myths – stands out aesthetically on the massive grounds.
While regal history and etiquette ooze through every pore of the Schonbrunn, Wien has its other popular attraction – modern in its flavor. We move away from the old classicism of Vienna when we come to Donauturm. The Danube Tower situated in the eastern district – called Donaustadt – distinguishes itself as the tallest Viennese structure and one of the most impressive towers on the global scene. The two elevators carry as many as fourteen people to the viewing deck (one-hundred and fifty meters equivalent to seven-hundred and seventy-nine steps) in thirty-five seconds. I call this one of those marvels of science and engineering that belies time in a special way. The speed elevators defy the notion of conquering impossibilities and Vienna emerges as an icon of progress and civilization. To me it seems that Vienna is a healthy amalgamation of the past and future. It does not cling to the past mindlessly, but rejuvenates the dead, making us realize the worth of creativity and tradition. It also keeps rolling with time looking forward to the new. The two revolving restaurants – in the Danube Tower – making full turns at twenty-six, thirty-nine or fifty-two minutes offer spectacular views of the aquamarine Danube meandering through the city.
No tour of a place is complete without experiencing its culinary delights. The food in Vienna is predominantly meat-oriented with the Wiener schnitzel hitting the top of the list and enjoying a history from the 1800s. Deep fried veal dipped in a batter of breadcrumbs kicks in with its blend of tender meat and gritty flour. Another meat preparation central to Viennese cuisine is the beef soup called tafelspitz with an interesting accompaniment of apples and horseradish. The heartiness of the broth fuses meaningfully with the gentleness of the apples and the zing of the horseradish. Wien is special also for its bakery, the apfelstrudel being something to die for. The ‘strudel’, in German implying a whirlpool, is a perfect manifestation of Viennese creativity. The city’s artistry does not confine to music, architecture or painting – the ‘baroque’ extends itself to the food, if you will. The sheer layers of the unleavened flour filled in with the sweet-tartness of the fruit all prove immensely generous to what the German language would describe as ‘zufriedener appetite’ (satisfied appetite).
Such desserts are perfectly complemented by the heavy texture of Viennese coffee. I am not much of a coffee person, but I would easily negotiate my conscience with the fullness of Wien’s coffee. It is a happy trade-off anytime with any other beverage. Coffee shops or cafes – intrinsic to the culture of Wien – add color and life to the vibrant city. Native to Wien is also its wine. Vienna is an unusual urban location in that it fosters growing vines in its six-hundred and thirty-seven hectares of ‘wine land’. The Pinot varieties thrive well in the northern areas while the black and brown soil of southern Wien is compatible for both white and red wine. Talking of food and beverages, I cannot forego an interesting aberration in Wien – drinking water is rare. People prefer sparkling water instead.
Tourism is probably the most thriving industry in Vienna. The city enjoys global appreciation for its tourist friendliness and of course elegant culture. The Austro-Bavarian dialect – more akin to West German than any other forms of German – is primarily spoken in Vienna. However, the vastness of tourist population in Wien has encouraged the locals to carry on a decent conversation in English with a predominance of the hard consonants, though.
The womb of Wien is graced with the spirit of Enlightenment and art in all forms flow in its veins. Intellectualism and creativity are at their heights in this historically rich city. It makes you rethink all negativity because Vienna sings into your soul with the energy to live – the energy ushered in my Mozart.
Srirupa Dhar is Indian by birth and has been living in the United States since 1998. She has three Master’s degrees in English Literature. She completed her M.A. and M.Phil. from the University of Kolkata, India. She has a third Master’s degree in English with Technical Writing Certification from University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A. Srirupa taught as a guest lecturer in the Department of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She has also been a Middle School English teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She is a voracious reader and takes an avid delight in all genres of art. Occasionally, she acts in plays in Columbus and is part of an amateur dramatic society.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.