Music is Trump

The Resonanzen Festival, nine intensive days of early music in January, confirms that music still holds all the cards.

It’s not fake news: Musik ist Trumpf (Music Holds the Trump Card) is the motto of the 2019 Resonanzen Festival – any political implications unconfirmed. Music for good reason, too: Its power has been extolled probably since before recorded time. Music touches our hearts and abducts our emotions; it can enflame warriors and soothe infants. It propels us out of our daily world, it hypnotizes and dazzles. It can bring fortune, incite self-indulgence and envy, bestow blessings, catharsis and well-being. In fact, it does what politicians can only dream of.

The Resonanzen Festival is Vienna’s annual nine-day torrent of “early music,” the catch-all phrase for any (European) music created before, say, 1750. Since only written and still extant works can be recreated and European musical notation was invented in the 9th century, that’s about nine centuries of music. Much, if not most, has not been heard since the era of its naissance. But there are plenty of dauntless musicians who continue to uncover ancient compositions with boundless enthusiasm and figure out how to play them on suitable instruments, be they familiar harps or flutes – or more exotic creatures like theorbos, buccinae and dudas. Regardless of whether you have heard of it, it is music you should hear: this is not dusty academia, this is adventure.

Verily, behind music’s power must be some godly hand, and so works honoring the patron saint of musicians, St. Cecilia, will be framing the festival. The UK-based ensemble The Sixteen opens the happenings on Jan 19 with Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739), its text describing harmonia mundi, the ancient Greek theory that music is the central force behind the Earth’s creation. The closing concert, on Jan 27, brings Purcell’s Hail! Bright Cecilia (1692), also an ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, performed by the French ensemble Le Poème Harmonique.


The Gabrieli Consort & Players, Purcell specialists, will perform his King Arthur. In this “dramatick opera,” the principal characters do not sing unless they are supernatural, bucolic or drunk, which is luckily much of the time. The work’s premiere was in 1691, deep in the Little Ice Age. The winter must have been a harsh one: the breathless pulsing of the Cold Song – “From everlasting beds of snow… let me freeze again to death” – is a musical experience hard to forget.

Music as therapy was already known in the Renaissance, when songs were even sung to cure syphilis: An example is Franco-Flemish Jacob Obrecht’s Missa Maria zart (ca. 1504), a four-voice Mass appealing for over an hour to “tender Maria”; it sprang from a dark time when fortuna desperata, desperate fate, controlled the lives of most. The male vocal ensemble Beauty Farm (what’s in a name?) will perform.

The festival also offers free “overture” events – preconcerts or films – as well as a “postlude,” this year a baroque dance course. The Resonanzen lounge offers a chance to hear what early music fanatics talk about and generally chill in a party mood at the Konzerthaus. The traditional exhibition and sale of historical instruments takes place on the first weekend (Jan 19 & 20), where it is possible to meet instrument builders from across Europe.

Of particular charm is the annual Essens­konzert, a concert followed by a feast, the lobbies of the Konzerthaus becoming the stage for a banquet served by the fine in-house restaurant, Weinzirl, featuring food inspired by and conceived to accompany the music just heard. Performers mingle, there is more music-making on the stairs and among the dining guests, the atmosphere is cheerful and celebratory. This year’s feast falls on Jan 25, after a performance of the Hathor Consort: a meeting of Elizabeth I’s England with the classical Indian dhrupad tradition of the 16th century Moghul court of Akbar the Great. I have some fantasies about the menu.

So let our trump be that of music: “Hail! Bright Cecilia, Hail to thee! Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!”

Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.

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