“The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt”
This was the typically acid comment of the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, writing a hundred years ago. While recognizing that the city had an extensive and rich cultural life that was unequalled in contemporary Europe, he also seems to be saying that there was a self-satisfied smugness about it, perhaps even a sense that it was a burden. As Kraus pounded the streets of Vienna on the way to his favourite coffee house he would have been constantly reminded of the city’s cultural achievement, in art, architecture, literature and, above all, in music. From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards Vienna had habitually described itself as Musikstadt Wien – Vienna the City of Music. The centrality of the art form to the city’s identity remains to this day.
And why not? It was, after all, where many of the great composers lived and work, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, four members of the Strauss family, Bruckner, Mahler and more. But three related aspects of this long-established outlook had always intrigued me as I explored the music. First, what we seemed to know and understand about the history of music in Vienna was largely drawn from life-and-works studies of its composers; second, there was no history of music in Vienna that focussed on the wider context, the characteristics that informed the achievement of the great composers; and, lastly, that this absence of a broader study was a very odd, even embarrassing, situation for a music historian, given the long, distinguished tradition of historical and political writing in English on Habsburg Austria from the medieval period to the First World War.
A multi-volume history of music in Vienna from the medieval period to the First World War, indeed up to the present day, is certainly a desirable task, but also a colossal one. I alighted instead on a slice-history approach, devoted to three turn-of-the-century epochs, 1700, 1800, 1900, familiarly labelled as Baroque, Classical and Modern. The wider characteristics of musical life in Vienna are very different in each of these periods, but there are continuities too, particularly that sense of an inherited legacy that fuelled Karl Kraus’s comments.
Circa 1700 is an unjustly neglected period in Vienna’s musical history. The Habsburg imperial court had one of the largest musical retinues in Europe, singers, instrumentalists and composers, all exclusively dedicated to promoting Habsburg values and identity. Its promotion of Catholic church music was central and reached out to the wider public, while opera was a private, lavish affair, mainly associated with celebrating the birthdays and name days of members of the imperial family. Emperor Leopold I was an active participant, as a capable composer and performer, and a crucial figure in the formation of a distinctive shared identity between music, politics, religion, architecture, even human personality.
These wider values were still evident a century later in the Vienna of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but they were complemented by a wider base of aristocratic patronage which, in turn, was yielding to a new force, the formation of public institutions, including that of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, which remains central to musical life to this day. If that was a signal, long-term achievement, the travails of the Napoleonic wars – including two occupations by French forces and two state bankruptcies – had an impact on musical life at the time, creating its own heroes, notably Haydn, the composer of the national anthem, ‘Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser’, and Beethoven, the composer of Fidelio.
The image of music in Vienna around 1900 has largely been determined by the label ‘modernist’. But while the music of Mahler, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky may accurately be described as a product of Vienna, it was neither central nor pervasive. The new opera house on the Ringstrasse was dominated by the music of Wagner and the new concert hall of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde was dominated by Beethoven; if there was a popular living composer, it was Richard Strauss. Even more dominant was the music of the Strauss family, too often marginalized or patronized by historians. This was Musikstadt Wien, the musical asphalt that piqued Kraus’s sarcasm.
This guest post was written by David Wyn Jones, Professor of Music at Cardiff University.