Listening to Vienna

Trapped in London during the pandemic, a musicologist is reminded of the films and stories, the tastes and sounds, from Schubert to Billy Joel, that embody a unique sense of time and the pleasures of a laid-back life.

With the pandemic curbing most plans for international travel, I find myself in London, longing for Vienna. There’s a lot I could do about this. I could watch Before Sunrise (1995), as I did the night before a flight in 2013; or perhaps lose myself in the smells and chattering trade of Stefan Zweig’s Buchmendel. Indeed, I could try my hand at baking itself: how hard could it be to whip up a Sachertorte? From whisking to glazing, baking an approximation (because, of course, the original recipe is a tightly-kept secret) would give me enough time to listen to an entire Schubert symphony, three Mozart string quartets, or even, Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder.   

Yet the top Spotify searches for the Austrian capital don’t deliver any of these, of course.

Vienna is the fifth song on Billy Joel’s 1977 album The Stranger. It was released as the B-side to his single “Just the Way You Are”. Cited as one of Joel’s favorite songs, it’s also no surprise that it’s been covered multiple times, including by Austrian-dialect band Granada. With lines such as “Und mochst olls vüi z’gschwind” and its churning accordion backdrop, it’s a fabulously Austrian rendition

But is there anything inherently Viennese about the song? Or is it just autobiography? When Billy Joel was young, his parents got divorced. His father, Howard (born Helmut) Joel, returned to Europe and settled in Vienna, while Joel and his mother remained to the States. 

So it would seem that Vienna is a song from father to son, a warning from wise man to “crazy child” from across the Atlantic. The father urges his son to slow down – “where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?” – and its advice came at just the right time: The 1970s saw Joel begin an intense career of touring, a relocation from Los Angeles to New York City, and a flurry of studio recording successes. Joel was on the road to burn out. 

Vienna represents the wisdom of slowness. Its inhabitants are famously laissez-faire, exuberantly so. Take-away coffee is almost taboo, and hours melt into entire coffeehouse afternoons spent reading, smoking and philosophising. By this Londoner’s standards, even its traffic lights demand an exacting patience. 

There’s a laidback-ness to Joel’s song too, the sound of musicians sitting on the very back of the beat. When Joel’s voice enters, the piano’s chords become regularly spaced out, rarely filling in the gaps between beats. It’s as if the music follows its own advice – “better cool it off” – and only in the lyrics’ momentary ellipses (“When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?” ) does the piano coolly care to embroider in a flicker of arpeggio. The strings avoid active counterpoint and opt for communal sways of homophony. Then comes the accordion refrain: slurring and semi-drunk, or just satisfied in its own slack? 

So give Vienna a go. “Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while”, give Joel a listen – it’s a snippet of a song, a mere 3 minutes 34 seconds – and think of the real Vienna, wherever you are. 

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Mark Seow
Mark Seow is a musicologist at the University of Cambridge, critic for Gramophone, and a BBC Radio 3 broadcaster. His research explores metaphor and embodiment in early modern Germany, with a particular focus on the sacred cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach.

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