The Past as Future for Music in Vienna

For many music students from around the world, Vienna is the place to be. They honor the traditions of the past and invent new ones.

In Japan, Vienna is the Ongaku no Miyako, “the capital of music,” and that’s where Mayu Kotari wanted to be. A pianist from Tokyo, Kotari has been living, studying and performing in Vienna for the last four years, and “there couldn’t be a better place” for her and her music.

Today, Vienna is the undisputed capital of Western music; a cultural and musical center nurtured by centuries of Habsburg patronage and an honored place in 20th century social
democracy. Beginning with the vibrant scene in the 17th century in the court of Leopold I, Vienna has attracted musicians, students and aficionados from far and wide.

Today’s music scene is complex, with dynamic and avant-garde music styles flourishing, alongside the greats of the traditional canon. In many cases you have the best of both, as new directions emerge in the rich soil of the past. In others,
Vienna’s allure can seduce the unwary, as conservatories of inconsistent quality feed off the city’s reputation.

But most seem to find just what they were looking for.

“It is an extremely popular choice for the Japanese,” says Kotari. Coming from a family
of musicians, her choice was natural. Her current professor, Avedis Kouyoumdjian, had visited her university in Tokyo to conduct master classes, as part of a worldwide search for talent. “After two master classes, I realized I wanted to study with him.”

The sheer number of composers and performers who have lived here is enough to make it a musical mecca. Here, you can experience music from every angle – starting from the many concerts and operas, or delving into the museums and exhibitions dedicated to music. However, it is not just about the numbers. It is also about quality: Being the best has always mattered here.

“Even in Tokyo, there are concerts everyday. But here, every one is by famous and really good musicians ,” Kotari says. “And,” she grins, “it’s a lot easier to get tickets.”

Vienna can jump-start a career. Last September, Kotari won the International Johannes Brahms Competition. “It was a relatively small competition here,” she says. But it was big news back home in Japan, where winning in Vienna really counts.


Continuing the Habsburgs’ patronage, the reign of Maria Theresia was musically definitive, nurturing the Austro-Bohemian tradition across the Empire. Composers came to Vienna from all over Europe, and many chose to remain because of the attractions of the city and the increasing public involvement in the musical scene. Beethoven, in a letter, described Vienna as “above all others, the most precious and desirable” city where he had enjoyed “the favor and approval from both high and low.”

Today, not all that much has changed. Musicians still come here, seeing it as the fulcrum
of the music world. But they stay on because of much more.

Japanese violinist Ayako Bedolla moved here as a 21-year-old. “The approach to music here is holistic,” she says. “You are made to think about the feeling, the experience, and even enjoy the mood of the composition.”

While her primary motivation was to study under a professor she admired, the way of life for musicians in Vienna was also part of the appeal. “I loved that this city had so much to offer a musician,” she says. “But more than the music, you can also live [a good] life here.” In her university in Osaka, there was enormous emphasis on practicing entire pieces over and over. “We were exhausted and had no mental or physical strength to discuss anything else!” Here, she says, the learning is more systematic but also more laid back. “And I can discuss politics, languages and anything else with my musician friends.” 

Vienna’s orchestras, concert halls and operas enjoy international renown. This reputation, excellent universities and the afterglow of a grandiose music-historical past attract many aspiring music students from around the world.


In the last 50 years, there has been nearly a 40 percent increase in the share of international students at the University of Music and Performing Arts (MDW), a large percentage from the Far East. After Austria and Germany, the highest number of students currently are from Japan, Republic of Korea and China, in that order.

“Music students from Japan, China and South Korea are extremely good technically, and extremely hard-working. It is ingrained in them,” says harpsichordist, early music scholar and teacher Petra Zenker.

“So our Austrian students really have to pull up their socks!”

Apart from the draw of the faculty, the Austrian government is also encouraging cooperation with Asian countries. Deals worth €1.3 million were recently signed with China, that included cultural exchange as part of the package. The Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra often perform in China and Japan, and many private conservatories have targeted Chinese students, featuring them on their website and providing assistance in the application processes over WeChat, a Chinese equivalent of the messenger service WhatsApp.

While Vienna’s pull in East Asia is perhaps the most visible, musicians also come to Vienna from other parts of the world. The MDW in Vienna currently has students from 70 countries, including Peru, Turkmenistan and Syria.

“It is Vienna, the city,” says Ulrike Sych, rector (president) of MDW. “If you study here, you have a chance to access the cultural life in Vienna.” MDW students studying voice or opera are trained for auditions at the Staatsoper; instrumentalists can substitute with the Vienna Philharmonic or Vienna Symphonic Orchestra. “I am convinced this is a strong reason,” she says. Of course the free tuition is also a factor. “So you have access to the best education for a lower cost.”

“If we study music in Vienna, it is a matter of pride for our people back home. And if we return after studying here, we are gold!” says Serkan Güney, a flautist who moved to
Vienna from Turkey in 2005.  But in his case, the experience was mixed at best. The private conservatory he went to was weak, and his teacher died shortly after he arrived. Since then, Güney has been doing odd jobs to support himself and his family. At the
moment, he is working at a bakery while he completes his second master’s degree.

“There is more hype about the city of music than what it really is,” he says. “We grow up hearing this is the land of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and all the great composers. But when I came here, I felt the people didn’t care about classical music so much as popular music. You have a bigger audience for Conchita.”

Still, despite the hardships, many like Güney stay and continue to try their luck.
“I had more opportunities back in Turkey; I got three job offers,” he says. “But the
political situation is so unstable; I don’t know if my music career would survive there.” Güney is also determined to give his newborn son all the opportunities possible to be a musician.

“He can be whatever he wants, professionally, when he grows up. But I will give him a professional music education along with it,” he says. “That’s why we have named him Sonat.”


“When you observe politics nationally and internationally, you realize that musicians, scientists and researchers play the role of ambassadors abroad,” Sych emphasizes. “So it is important that they are sensitive to diversity and gender.”

But perhaps the best ambassadors of music in Vienna are the Viennese musicians themselves. Across the board, many students confirm the warmth and camaraderie extended to musicians from abroad.

“Whatever competition there is, the Viennese musicians and students don’t let that get in the way,” says harpsichordist Zenker. “They all make music together.” For instance, Zenker asked her class to create a drama piece that included all students who were at different levels of learning the instrument. “Through this theater piece they could work as different parts of the same puzzle!”

Music stays alive through the give-andtake of ideas, and with the growing number of international students bringing their histories and cultures with them, new styles and forms are also getting their due. Africa Days Vienna is one such music festival spread over two weeks that also includes food and a splash of culture. KulturRaum Neruda is another example, where some musicians and artists from South America started a dedicated festival to celebrate Latin American music and culture. This festival now brings musicians from Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, and they collaborate with Viennese enthusiasts of their rhythmic genres.


“Innovation,” says Sych. “This has been the Viennese tradition. What we do as innovation
now will be the tradition in the next 100 years, and cultural organizations are aware of this responsibility. We have to give space for new styles and new thoughts.” Just this month, for example, they are collaborating with Wien Modern, a festival geared to “revitalizing traditional music.”

Other broad-reach festivals include: The Donauinselfest, Europe’s largest open air music festival; Klangforum, where contemporary chamber music is commissioned and performed at the highest level; programs at Theater an der Wien; Voice Mania, an a capella festival; or the various jazz and blues festivals like Vienna Jazz Festival, Jazz Werkstatt Wien, Vienna Blues Spring; or the KlezMore Festival where medieval European Jewish music is reinterpreted by spirited musicians. The Wean Hean (Viennese Song Festival) is another example of preserving tradition while encouraging newer interpretations to the art form. And that’s only a partial list.

“Tradition,” Sych concludes, “is the innovation of the past.”



Ramya Iyer
Ramya Iyer is a masters graduate in International Journalism with a specialization in documentary films from Cardiff University, UK. After a stint at an ad and short film production company in Bangalore, India, where she was born and raised, she is now a freelance writer and content creator based in Vienna. She has published articles in reputed news outlets including The Times of India and ZDF. In her free time, she dabbles with poetry, Indian classical dance and scouts Instagram for funky earrings. She tweets at @pseudobard.

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