The City and Land of Music

Vienna made music ... and music made Vienna. As told by “Metropole” writers – a libretto for life in the Austrian capital. With an overture by our Editor in Chief Dardis McNamee.

There is something about Vienna, about Austria, that has nurtured music and musicians over the centuries, and produced a lot of the greatest works of western music. And from what you will read, it continues to do so to this day.

But it is not only Vienna, where it was built on centuries of royal patronage. Music has thrived as much in the Gasthäuser and Heuriger of the countryside. Theories ascribe this phenomenon to the benevolence of Austrian absolutism that left the ordinary person alone to enjoy his life. Or perhaps encouraged him to do so, assuming that he’d have less of a need to rebel. For a long time, that may have been true.

But does it explain the brilliance of 20th century? Or the energy of our time today? Writing about the Austrian capital’s “matchless array of musicians,” musicologist Marcel Brion was certain: “They would not have been what they were, what they had to be, if chance had forced them to live anywhere but in Vienna.”Luckily for us, we are here, too.

Music in the Time of Plague

Even if you wake up lying in a pit of corpses, for the Viennese, singing has always been an option.

by Kaja Šeruga

The House of Babenberg had long been known for its love of music, hosting famous troubadours at its court and supporting the work of minstrels in the city.

But it was Maximilian I who ushered in the city’s first musical golden age. In 1498 he founded the Hofmusikkapelle (the Court Music Orchestra), planting the seeds of what would later become the Wiener Sängerknaben, the men’s choir of the Viennese Opera and the Vienna Philharmonics. At the time of its founding, the Hofmusikkapelle was the first Viennese institution to attract renowned musicians from all over Europe, exposing the city’s budding musical tradition to a variety of influences.

While distinguished Italian and German musicians flocked to the court of Leopold I, himself a composer, the bubonic plague, too, swept through Vienna in 1679, killing tens of thousands. It also gave birth to an unlikely folk hero, Marx Augustin. “Lieber Augustin” was a well-known singer and bagpipe player who refused to let the plague affect his relentless good cheer – or his thirst. Staggering home drunk one night, he fell asleep in a gutter and, mistaken for a plague victim, was dumped into a mass grave outside the city walls. Upon awakening in the plague pit and unable to climb out, he played his bag-pipes until people came to rescue him. Miraculously Augustin was not infected by the disease and became a symbol of hope for the Viennese, making a tidy living out of recounting his adventure in song.

To this day, “Oh du lieber Augustin” remains the embodiment of the particularly Viennese talent for finding humor in the face of disaster.

The Giants of the Classical Era

Don Giovanni Mozart

In the 18th and 19th century, Vienna was the creative heart of Europe, reshaping forms and creating many of the finest works of all time.

by Dardis McNamee

In Vienna today, the presence of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is everywhere. From the marzipan Mozartkugelnto the t-shirts and tote bags filling the “Mostly Mozart” souvenir shops, he is clearly good business.

Fortunately, the music, too, is everywhere. The State Opera has four of his greatest operas in repertory, the Volksoper, two. Theater an der Wien is mounting the rarely performed La Clemenza di Titoand La finta giardiniera. And for visitors, salon orchestras across town perform Mozart and Strauss exclusively, whose glorious melodies and irresistible playfulness everyone seems to agree are the essence of Viennese music.

So it comes as a surprise to learn that in 1849, when a 24-year-old Johann Strauss Jr. memorialized his father with a full Mozart Requiem, the master of Austrian classicism was all but forgotten. Midcentury audiences preferred the romanticism of Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt, writes cultural historian Hans Fantel: “It was not until Gustav Mahler, fifty years later, staged a Mozart revival did Austria’s great-est composer reenter the mainstream.

”But a giant he was, composing more than 600 works in the brief 35 years between his birth in Salzburg in 1756 and his death in Vienna in 1791, many the best of their kind: Symphonies, chamber music, concertos, choral works, operas and incidental music. Today he remains among the most enduringly popular composers of all time, influencing all who came after. Beethoven composed his early works “in Mozart’s shadow.” Even the great Joseph Haydn saw Mozart as without equal: “Posterity,” Haydn wrote, “will not see such a talent again in 100 years.

”Which was saying a lot coming from Haydn, who too was a giant. A generation older than Mozart and living nearly 20 years longer, he was in his day the most celebrated composer in Europe. Born in tiny Rohrau near the Hungarian border, his craftsman parents sent him off at age 6 to train as a chorister in Hainburg, and then to St. Stephens in Vienna. Working as an accompanist, he found patronage with the Esterhazy family, whose lands stretched from Eisenstadt across western Hungary, who were his primary support for the rest of his life.

Overlapping Bach at one end and Beethoven at the other, Haydn is credited with developing the structural tools of classical music: the sonata form, the symphony and the classical string quartet. Some of his finest quartets were written in London: Inspired by a rousing congregation singing “God Save the King,” Haydn quickly penned the Kaiserhymne “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” whose melody became the theme-and-variations second movement of his great “Emperor” Quartet.

This magnificent hymn served as the Aus-trian national anthem for over a century, until the Nazis “stole” it, and after the war, the Federal Republic of Germany. An Austrian movement to reclaim it was defeated in Parlia-ment in 1957, and Austrians have had to settle for the far less inspiring “Land der Berge.”

The streets they walked

But back to Beethoven. Ludwig van Beethoven wasn’t actually Austrian, but a “Zuagroaster,” (loosely, a would-be local) born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770, who came to Vienna in 1792 to study composition with Haydn, and never left. A virtuoso pianist (pushed by his father who hoped for a second Mozart), Beethoven published his First Symphony in 1801, already stretching existing norms with sharp accents (sforzandi) and independent, whimsical voicing for solo woodwinds.

It may be a surprise to learn that in 1849, when Johann Strauss Jr. was young, Mozart was all but forgotten.

These are the voices that Beethoven used for his Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale, evoking the countryside on the sloping hills below the Kahlenberg. Here, from his apart-ment in Heiligenstadt, the composer would go for long walks through village and vineyard, capturing with luminous and poignancy the colors and sounds of the natural world. One of his favorite routes has been renamed the “Beethovengang,” where particularly in spring, the burgeoning plant life, birds and small animals scampering under foot, bring this wonderful music to mind. With these tone colors, Beethoven laid the groundwork for the Romanticism that followed.

But we’ve forgotten Schubert. Of all the Austrian musical giants of the 19th century, Franz Schubert was the only one actually born in Vienna, and the least successful in his lifetime. Trained by his father (violin) and his older brother (piano), and studied composition with Antonio Salieri. Throughout, he composed constantly, elegiac symphonies, soaring Masses, songs, chamber music, and folios of works for solo piano, widely admired among those who knew him.

At the heart of Viennese musical lore are the Schubertiaden, the evenings of music, lit-erature and good company at the home of Ignaz von Sonnleithner, at Brandstätte 5, in the 1st district. However innocent, these gatherings fell afoul of the secret police, who broke in and arrested Schubert and four of his friends as suspected anarchists. Still, the legend persisted, and the Schubertiade became a favorite motif in 19th century engraving, capturing an ideal of Gemütlichkeit the Viennese hold close to their hearts.

Schubert gave only one concert in his lifetime, in March 1828, performing his own compositions for the piano. He died eight months later, of what is thought to have been syphilis. In 1978, on the 150th anniversary of his death, his face was put on the Austrian 50 Schilling coin, withdrawn in 2000 with the entry of the euro.

Slaps & New Music

Arnold Schoenberg

With music thriving in fin de siécle Vienna, the splendor of the classics rivaled with new, strange sounds – before the barbarity of Nazism snuffed out this firework of creativity and drove its exponents abroad.

by Cynthia Peck

From about the early 19th century, there was a shift from “high” art music being the sole prerogative (and money drain) of the nobility. Now, Vienna’s prospering bourgeoisie got into the act, finding appropriate Viennese ways to celebrate their new grandeur: They bought pianos (by 1900, there were over 200 piano manufacturers in Vienna alone), organized musical associations (the Musikverein was es-tablished in 1814), and built concert halls and opera houses.

The Theater an der Wien was already completed by 1801, the work of the inveterate en-trepreneur Emanuel Schikaneder from funds earned from 223 performances (with paying audiences) of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. The State Opera was built in 1869, a modern edifice planted demonstratively over the recently demolished city walls. The Musikverein’s own concert hall opened its doors in 1870, funded mainly by private donors. To celebrate Kaiser Franz Joseph’s 50th year of regency, the Volkoper was built in only 10 months in 1898. And finally – the list is not over yet! – because all this was still not enough, in 1913 the Konzerthaus rose up on still open land next to the Stadtpark. Today, these five halls alone count nearly 10,000 seats and 800 standing room spaces.

In 1905 even the city’s working class became part of the mad rush to hear music, with the first of the “Worker Symphony Concerts” at the Musikverein. These concerts, organized by the Social Democrat’s Office for Art, continued regularly until 1934. In just the first years until the outbreak of the First World War, 10,000 workers had already gone to such a concert.

These new audiences thronged to hear works of the Wiener Klassik, the composers of the “First Viennese School” – Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. But it was also taken for granted that most concert and operatic fare should be music whose ink was still wet. The premiere of a symphony by Brahms or Mahler was a highly anticipated event.

It was only around 1900 that the first signs of a schism between “music” and “new music” appeared. The triumvirate constituting the “Second Viennese School” – Arnold Schoen-berg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, in their quest for a new language that spoke to the modern era, seemed to go a step too far. In 1913, Schoenbergdirected a concert at the Musikverein of new music by Zemlinsky, Mahler, Berg, Webern and himself that devolved into a “concert scandal” – the so-called Watschen-konzert(slap concert) – fighting in the aisles and the arrival of the police to stop the violence. By 1938, the schism was completed by the Nazis and their lists of “undesirable” composers – those who wrote “degenerate” music.

Expulsion from paradise

Indeed, some of the music most repugnant to the Nazis were the later compositions of Viennese modernist Arnold Schoenberg, with their sophisticated atonal intellectuality. But other prominent Austrian composers were also expunged: Ernst Krenek, Erich Wolfgang Korn-gold, Ernst Toch, Erich Zeisel, Hanns Eisler. Refugees from Hitler’s persecution, all six moved their creativity westward, to Hollywood, the land of blinding sunshine and unending financial opportunity. Viennese composer Max Steiner had blazed the trail, having left for California in 1929; the “father of film music,” his best-known works are probably the scores for Gone with the Windand Casablanca. Korngold, already a composer of international stature when he arrived in Los Angeles, promptly began to work for Warner Brothers. Zeisl, who had grown up at Praterstern, wrote the music for The Postman Always Rings Twice; Toch contributed to Shirley Temple’s 1937 Heidi.

In the 1930s, just 80 years ago, Los Angeles teemed with Austrian musical talent, with hundreds of film scores coming from Austrian pens. The legends of Hollywood are full of stories about the “serious” composer Korngold and the entertainer Steiner.

“So, Korngold, all your music has gotten a lot worse since you’ve been in Hollywood,” Steiner teased, “while mine has gotten a lot better.” Korngold replied nonchalantly, “Of course! You’ve been stealing from me, and I’ve been stealing from you.”

When I started studying music in earnest as a teenager in LA, more than a generation later, almost all my professors at the University of Southern California were still from Europe. A member of the Korngold family was in my cohort of music students. Krenek still lived in Palm Springs. Although Schoenberg had long passed away, his assistant, Leonard Stein, was at the height of his powers, head of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, then still at USC. Stein also watched over the Monday Evening Concerts, one of the longest running contemporary music series in the world, having started in 1939. A young music student of 18, I hung out at Benês European Bakery and dreamed of Vienna. The legacy of the Viennese composers was in the air, echoing in classrooms, concert halls, and movie theaters.

After 1945 and the end of the war, few of the artists who had fled ever returned to Vienna. Back in Austria, the young musicians born during the war were left to pick up the pieces themselves. Young composers, without a living tradition or mentors, had to overcome gaps in knowledge and example on their own. The musical bifurcation grew even deeper. Nonetheless, one-by-one, superb smaller groups dedicated to playing “new music” appeared, beginning with “die reihe” in 1958.

But that is another story.

The Sound of Being Austrian


From waltz to Austropop, Austrian identity is set to music that goes close to the nation’s heart.

by Benjamin Wolf

Every new year in Austria begins with the strains of the Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” waltz. And every home game of the national football team ends with Reinhard Fendrich’s “I am from Austria.” It is in this interval between classical music and Austro-pop, that modern Austria was forged.

Austrian identity? That’s neutrality, skiing and the Sachertorte– or so goes a quip that sought to explain the country’s spectacularly successful reinvention as a small Alpine nation, after the identity crises and catastrophes of two world wars. But music, the old, the new and the kitschy, provided the indispensable accompaniment.

The annual New Year’s Concert, the Staatsoper and the Wiener Sängerknaben are not just institutions of high culture, they are national treasures. After counting to midnight on New Year’s Eve, Austrians first listen to the chimes of the Pummerin (St. Stephen’s Ca-thedral’s big bell) and then grab a partner near them on the street to dance the eight minutes of the Donauwalzer, as the music plays over public radio to ring in the New Year. It is the same music the Viennese danced to on the streets of their war-scarred city in 1945, after they heard the news of the end of the Second World War. At international sporting events, it is the Radetzkymarschof Johann Strauss I that blasts from the loudspeakers.

But all that’s just the first movement in this sonata of modern Austria.

World-famous in Austria

True and beautiful as the classical heritage is, the 1960s and ’70s brought a new kind of music to the airwaves: This was Austropop, sung in local or Austrian dialect. Marianne Mendt’s “Wia a Glock’n” (1970; text: Ger-hard Bronner), Wolfgang Ambros’s “Da Hofa” (1971; text: Joesi Prokopetz), André Heller’s “A Zigeina mecht i sei” (1970), or Georg Danzer and the Madcaps’ “I man i dram” were hits – and Austrians relished hearing their language, intelligible to them and no one else.

“In Vienna, you first gotta die before they celebrate you. But then they celebrate you for a long time.”

Falco, alias Joann Hölzel, Austrian singer and songwriter

But they had just begun. Give any Austrian enough beer, wine or Zirbenschnaps, and they will race down the slopes with “Schifoan” (Ambros, 1976); or wistfully think of their grandparents with “Großvater” (S.T.S., 1985); talk up a new girl with “Entschuldige i kenn di” (Peter Cornelius, 1980); or descend into deep melancholy with “Komm, großer schwarzer Vogel” (Ludwig Hirsch, 1986).

The Zeitgeist of the golden ’80s is embodied by Rainhard Fendrich’s songs – Austrians made holidays at the “Strada del Sole” (1981), declared their love with “Weus’d a Herz hast wie a Bergwerk” (1983), wanted Vienna to be cool again with “Wien bei Nacht” (1985) and finally find their secret national (pop) anthem with “I am from Austria” (1989). And for a while, Ambros, Danzer and Fendrich joined together in the super-band Austria 3.

At the same time, the musical comet that was Falco blazed across the firmament – and he, too, was as Viennese as can be. His 1981 hit “Der Kommissar” drew directly from experiences with Vienna’s drug scene. His song “Jeanny” (1985) sparked one of the biggest scandals of German-speaking pop music with its lyrics – Germany even banned the song on public radio, to both the fury and delight of Austrians. And “Rock me Amadeus” (1985) was the first and only German-language song to reach No. 1 on the US Billboard charts. (It was the second Austrian song, though, after Anton Karas’ instrumental theme from the movie The Third Man.)

From Near & Far

But Austrians cherish songs in all dialects and from all corners of their country. Styrians in Vienna will longingly sing “Fürsten-feld” (STS, 1985) or “Weit, weit weg” (Hubert von Goisern, 1992). Tyroleans may vow their loyalty to their Heimat with “Dem Land Tirol die Treue” (new version by Die Zillertaler, 2004). And Vorarlbergers will challenge everyone else to understand a single word in “Vo Mello bis Geschoppenou” (Holstuonarmusigbigbandclub, 2010). Or make them think and feel, with “Ham kummst” (Seiler & Speer, 2019), “Jedermann” (Pizzera & Jaus, 2016).

More recently, Austrian music has been getting even bolder and more diverse – more women, more diverse backgrounds, and an enormous variety of musical style and topics (see “The Scruffy Troubadours” by Christian Cummins). However, they were not the first: Almost all the “classical” Austropop singers spoke out loudly for openness and inclusivity, singing songs about the good, the bad and the Melange that makes Austria what it is – be it “I bin aus Österreich” (S.T.S., 1995), or simply critical sentences in Fendrich’s beloved songs, such as: “I kenn die Leut’, i kenn die Ratten, die Dummheit die zum Himmel schreit” (“I know the people, I know the rats, the stupidity that screams to heaven”).

Austropop may be sentimental at times, but it’s certainly not saccharine. Classical music in Austria may play a role in public life that few other countries would assign it, but it’s never boorish. Music, in all its form, is, quite simply, the background against which Austrians live their lives, the sheet music on which they form their identity. And with that, they grab a partner and dance their Donauwalzer into the New Year.

The Scruffy Troubadours

5/8erl in Ehren
The Viennese band “5/8erl in Ehren”

Austria’s contemporary music scene is thriving – with new style, contagious rhythms and challenging ideas.

by Christian Cummins

If the Austropop generation of the 1970s seemed soaked in alcohol, cloaked in smoke and overwhelmingly male, the 21st century, refreshingly, has seen the rise of a generation of independent, sharp-minded female singer songwriters. Artists such as Gustav, Clara Luzia and Soap & Skin (a.k.a. Anja Plaschg) have been attacking misogyny and ho-mophobia, with subtle, metaphorrich lyr-ics in both German and English, all backed by complex musical arrangements. It’s a sound that makes you tap your feet while also challenging your mind.

If that sounds high-brow, don’t be surprised, says Robert Rotifer, a former curator of Vienna’s free-entry Pop Fest and the author of a book on the contemporary Austrian music scene called “Ein Deka Pop.” Rotifer, a musician himself, says Austria has “a way above-average level of musical education. This always used to be funneled only into the classical world, but now that has changed.”

Over recent decades festivals like Wien Modern have helped bridge the gap between classical and popular music, encouraging those with formal musical education to experiment with avant-garde visions. “There was a young generation of classically trained musicians who had grown up with pop and were no longer inclined to separate the two,” explains Rotifer. “They started to form bands or play in bands with musicians who worked in a pop way that is autodidactic or techno-logically driven. Things like this happen everywhere in the world, but in Austria, especially Vienna, this natural crossover is stronger than anywhere else.”

One striking example is the 34-year-old Austrian cellist and sound designer Lukas Lauterbach, a graduate of the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna and teacher at Prinzersdorf music school. He’s at home on classical stages from London to Taiwan, but he regularly collaborates on and off stage with several of the leading lights of the Viennese pop scene, artists such as the velvet-voiced Mira Lu Kovacs as well more earthy figures such as Der Nino aus Wien (The Nino from Vienna), a scruffy, acoustic guitar-wielding troubadour of the late night music scene around the Prater.

The Vienna alternative scene has thrived on these sounds, often playing in the many music bars such as Chelsea or the B72 housed under the arches of the U6 viaducts designed by Otto Wagner. Some have broken onto to the world stage, for example the band HVOB, founded in 2012, with Anna Müller’s haunting vocals over Paul Wallner’s minimalist electronic arrangements. The duo are regular guests at major festivals across Europe and North America.

Austropop, reloaded

Of course, the more raucous and less intellectual spirit of Austropop has survived in new incarnations such as Wanda. This band, formed in 2012, has proved to be a production line of catchy riffs, anthemic choruses, and memorably direct lyrics such as the “I certainly can’t sleep with my cousin, although actually I want to” that Marco Michael Wanda belts out at the opening of the decade-defining single “Bologna” (2014). The more artsy Bilderbuch, who play rock tinged with punk and electronica, is Austria’s equivalent of Blur, if Wanda has updated the abrasive no-nonsense role of an Austro-Oasis. The 4-piece band from Kremsmünster, fronted by Maurice Ernst, have developed such a large following that this summer they played two sell-out open air concerts outside Schönbrunn Palace.

“There was a young generation of classically trained musicians who had grown up with pop and were no longer inclined to separate the two.”

Robert Rotifer, former curator of Vienna’s Pop Fest

Austrian hip-hop at the moment is dominated by Yung Hurn, the 24-year old priest of the 22nd district, with the hazy, synthesizer-rich sounds of cloud rap and an adoring, young following. His raps are more quotidian, less humorous and less political than the veterans of Linz-based Texta who have been coloring the Austrian-music scene with their dialect-inflected rapping for three decades now; but maybe I’m just getting old.

Like all national scenes, Austria’s vibrant, eclectic contemporary musical culture refuses to be squeezed into any easily explainable box and there are international stars, such as global electro swing icon Parov Stelar that I haven’t even mentioned. It seems there are few genres, Austrians can’t master. The most recent star to be born, having enchanted the Pop Fest this summer and dazzled at the Radiokulturhaus, is the 19-year-old R‘n’B’s singer Lou Asril. From Seitenstetten in Lower Austria, Asril a master of the piano, a student of jazz and the owner of the most honeyed voice in central Europe. The Austrian music scene is always such a gold-nugget surprise and always seems capable of reinventing itself. Watch this space.

The Guardian wrote that the creation of Austria’s English-language radio FM4 in 1995 “was so significant that it helped shape the current generation of Austria’s music-loving youth who grew up with it.”

Christian Cummins is a journalist and DJ at the ORF’s FM4 radio, which is a proud champi-on of Austria’s vibrant and diverse contemporary music scene.

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