Musical Vienna

“A Woman of Note” tells the story of a woman musician just after one of the most fruitful periods in Vienna’s musical history. As a result, one of my main reasons for coming to Vienna is to soak up musical atmosphere. Here’s a rundown of my music-related activities during my three days in Vienna.

Beethoven House

After my amazing hour with the Director of the Anatomical and Physiology Museum at the Narrenturm (see previous post), I wander back into the old city to visit the Pasqualatihaus, which is one of the many houses in which Beethoven lived. The house is named after its owner and was built in the 18th century adjacent to the city walls (now long since gone). Beethoven lived for eight years in the fourth floor apartment at the top of a series of old stone staircases.

2014-08-29 02.24.16I love old staircases and now have a good image in my head of what a typical staircase in a typical Viennese apartment block looks like—handy for a few scenes where people are coming into or leaving an apartment.

The rooms are virtually bare and contain little in the way of exhibits. Two listening desks are set up for listening to various Beethoven hits on head phones. I indulge myself with the second movement of the 7th symphony for awhile. The place is empty so it is just me and Beethoven’s soaring melodies and the temptation to burst into tears. It doesn’t get any better.

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Me in front of the Beethoven House

Concert at the Sala Terrena

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String quartet in the Sala Terrena

Being a bit of an over-prepared traveler (you can never be too prepared for cultural stimulation), I had booked a ticket to one of the many classical music concerts that occur every night in Vienna. The vast majority of these concerts feature the old chestnuts—mostly by Mozart and Strauss—played by orchestras in period dress. In the St. Stephensplatz in the center of the old town, legions of young men dressed in frocked coats a la Mozart and many wearing faux wigs accost tourists to buy tickets to one or more of these concerts. I consider it my duty to attend one and so choose what looked to be one of the more authentic (and less expensive) options.

The Sala Terrena is a lovely old and rather small room next to a monastery in the centre of Vienna. Mozart lived in the building for about two months when he first came to Vienna as a young man. The room is frescoed from floor to ceiling with a cacophony of Italian baroque splendor—lots of fruit, cherubs, roses, urns, and even a leopard. I have a seat in the front row so close to the musicians that I’m just about in their laps. One of the reasons I’d chosen the Sala Terrena concert was because Schubert was on the programme. I was finding it surprisingly challenging to find Schubert on any concert program that evening and since Schubert makes a guest appearance in “A Woman of Note,” I owed it to my imagination to hear his music played at least once in Vienna.

However, twas not to be. The programme had been changed and now featured the American Quartet by Dvorak along with string quartets by Mozart and Hadyn. As it turned out – all good.

Four musicians dressed in 18th Century garb (someone in this city has a roaring trade in producing period costumes) enter the tiny salon and settle in to play. Unfortunately, as so often happens when attending concerts soon after landing in Europe, the jet lag settles in with a vengeance. I am in the direct line of sight of the violist who, I hope, does not get offended when my eyes close and my head starts that awful bobbing thing that happens when you desperately don’t want to be seen to fall asleep. I am worried that if I do fall asleep, I’m in danger of pitching face first into the lap of the first violinist directly in front of me. I defy any jet-lagged music lover to sit through a Mozart adagio without succumbing to the temptation to close eyes and drift.

In the interval, I chat with a young woman from Japan who is studying art in Florence.

The concert is a success and I drift out into the heaving mass of tourists and Viennese hanging out in the St. Stephensplatz. If I wasn’t alone, I would have hung awhile to enjoy a slice of strudel and glass of wine in the shadow of the floodlit cathedral. Instead, I let the atmosphere wash over me for about ten minutes, then take the metro back to my apartment.

Musical Instrument Museum

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Piano in the musical instrument museum

I spend the afternoon of my second day after going to see the Lipazzaner stallions (see next post) at the musical instrument museum near the Hofburg Palace. The ticket also includes access to the very impressive collection of medieval armor. I am particularly taken by the collection of pianos from the period when “A Woman of Note.” It was useful to see how big they were and also how beautifully made. The wood working is gorgeous.

Concert at the Schloss Laudon

I was determined to also see a “real” concert while in Vienna. By real, I mean a concert that does not feature costumed musicians and Eine Klein Nachtmusik (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But I wanted a concert that local people attended and discovered the five-day Schloss Laudon festival—a yearly event held in the salon at the Schloss Laudon or Water Palace about an hour outside of Vienna. With e-ticket in hand, I get on the metro for a ride to the last stop, wait for what I hope is the right bus for a ride deep into suburban Vienna (bordering on countryside). I confess to a bit of trepidation. I have absolutely no clue where I am and what I will do if I’m on the wrong bus or there’s no concert at the end of the ride and no bus back, stranding me miles from nowhere with only 60 euros in my wallet and a pathological fear of incurring data roaming charges on my phone. But living dangerously is the stuff of great travel. As it turns out, I hear a couple on the bus say Schloss Laudon and minutes later the bus stops and they get off.

I follow.

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Schloss Laudon Swan

The Schloss Laudon is exquisite. I am extremely early so I wander the grounds, glass of wine in hand, and enjoy the ambiance. The concert features a piano trio – piano, violin, and cello. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piano trio so I was pretty excited. The large salon in the Schloss Laudon is frescoed floor to ceiling, this time with exotic animals (tiger, rhino, elephant, etc.) and exotic scenes of idealized, vaguely New World native-looking people in turbans. Historical accuracy is not evidently a priority.

I snag a seat in the second row in direct line of sight of the keyboard (a pianist’s favourite place!). I feel a bit out of place in my running shoes, sensible day touring outfit, and worst of all, my gaudy flowered backpack. Almost everyone else is dressed to the nines—most of the men in suits and ties and the women in dresses. I may as well have a neon sign on my head – turista. But whatever. No one pays me any notice, not even a wee smile. I confess to feeling a tad isolated but what do I expect?

A drawback of the second row soon becomes apparent. I am right in line with the large spotlight and am soon sweating. This would be bearable if indeed there was music listen to but, to my dismay, two old guys—one the festival director, the other an expert on the modern composer featured on the program, get up to speak. Director guy talks for about five minutes which is a bearable length of time to listen to German and pretend to understand. Then composer-expert guy gets up and talks for at least thirty minutes. Believe me it is a challenge to keep nodding and looking interested when you have absolutely no clue. Composer-expert guy is standing directly in front of me so I can’t look like I’m not hanging on his every syllable. I do get a few words—Mexico, Nazis, Anschluss, Franco. I’m not kidding. I sneak a peek at the concert notes (in German of course) and manage to figure out that the composer left Vienna in 1938 and settled in Mexico.

Finally, the three musicians come in and play an early Beethoven piano trio in the style of Haydn. The heat, the somnolence engendered by composer-expert guy’s talk and those darn slow movements somewhat mar my enjoyment. I experience more than a few head bobs along with the terror that someone might notice. What if I snored or drooled? After the Beethoven comes the modern composer guy’s piece. It is actually pretty good in that dissonant, modern classical music kind of way.

At the break, I think about giving in to jet lag and catching a bus back to the metro. I even go out to the bus stop and check the times, but then I decide that no, that is wimping out and so I go back into the palace for the second half—the piano trio by Tchaikovsky. Holy Russian romantic! It is stunning—no chance of head bobbing for this one. Suffice it to say—I bought the CD.

So after a long ride home in the misty late August night, I prepare to leave Vienna for England.

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