Have I waltzed in Vienna before? Perhaps back in 1971, on my very first trip to Europe, with a magical young maiden I met in Zurich? The trip is now a distant memory, perhaps real, perhaps imagined. Does it really matter?
If you love music, this is the perfect city. More famous composers have lived here than any other city. But it is not confined to classical and opera. Music spans all genres here, including pop and rock. After all, it is called the City of Music!
Once somewhat disreputable, the Viennese waltz epitomizes Vienna thanks to Johann Strauss. His Blue Danube Waltz, the highlight of every ball since, became famous internationally. Vienna has a museum dedicated solely to the Strauss family history and music.
Following on the coattails of Strauss comes the Vienna Boys Choir, who range in age from kindergarten to high school, and includes some girls. The choir can be traced back to 1498 when Emperor Maximilian I laid the foundation stone for the Viennese Court Music Orchestra, of which the Choir is a part. Members are selected by audition, and must rehearse at least two hours a day while going to school. Both Franz Schubert and Joseph Haydn sand with them as children. There are actually four choirs of 25 boys each.
Every night in Vienna, about 10,000 people are treated to live classical music. Each year, the Vienna concert schedule includes more than 15,000 concerts and events in all genres. Here is a brief into to the Vienna Four of classical music:
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), by the age of 8 he was a choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. He was booted out of the choir when his voice changed in his late teens, and he became a freelance composer, performer and teacher. So during his childhood and young adult years, Haydn was immersed in the greatest music of Germanic culture. Haydn spent nearly 30 years presiding over the musical activities at the prince’s palace 30 miles outside Vienna as well as at the summer residence over the border in Hungary. Still, during these decades Haydn was a regular visitor to Vienna, where he presented his works, soaked up musical life, made friends (with Mozart, among others) and joined a Masonic lodge.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), though born in Salzburg, spent extended periods of his childhood as a prodigy on tour throughout Europe. The arduous trips undermined his health and nearly killed him a couple of times. But he made his break at 25 and lived in Vienna until his death, through periods of triumph and exasperation, writing his greatest works during his last, heady decade.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was born in Bonn, Germany, the son of a drunken, abusive court singer. He tried to escape to Vienna at 16 but had to return to stabilize the family when his mother’s health deteriorated. Six years later he was back in Vienna, and he never left. He soon became a towering figure there, his path-breaking works both intriguing and baffling listeners, including his former teacher Haydn.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was born in Vienna to an impoverished schoolteacher and briefly became a teacher, until he threw himself into music and lived as a struggling freelance composer at a time when the patronage system was breaking down. Still, Schubert had a support system of friends and musicians who adored him and were sure they had a genius in their midst.
So, many have asked what made Vienna the hotbed of classical music. Was the typical Viennese music lover more sophisticated or astute? According the H. Sachs: Yet clearly there were musically astute listeners, as well as informed monarchs and patrons, who got what was going on. Haydn is often called the father of the symphony as it came to be known, as well as the string quartet and the piano sonata. Haydn was a pioneer in figuring out how to write a sizable multimovement instrumental piece that sounded organized and whole, an entity. The system of sophisticated tonal harmony had developed to the point where a genius like Haydn could figure out how to process themes and manipulate key areas to dramatic effect throughout the many sections of a long work. Moreover, Haydn was the first great master of what is called motivic development, in which bits and pieces of music — a few notes, a melodic twist, a rhythmic gesture — become the building blocks for an entire symphony in several movements.