Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Unexpected Vienna

Statue of Johann Strauss II in Vienna's Stadtpark
It has been eight months since I visited Vienna, and in those months I have been writing and thinking about the city and my own experience there. I wrote a pretty good literary essay about why the city was a European nucleus of musical activity (largely support from the Hapsburg monarchy, it turns out), and another essay about Viennese affection for the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II. I winnowed my collection of photos to just a few hundred. All the while I was reflecting on what little piece of that transformative two weeks would be appropriate and interesting to share on this blog. And then it hit me: why not tell my readers about the unexpected Vienna, the stuff that surprised me.
Some of my companions approach the Reisenrad
There's a Ferris wheel in Vienna. That wasn't a surprise by itself--London and Paris have wheels. The Vienna wheel, the Riesenrad, is in the amusement park called the Prater, is one of the oldest wheels in the world. It was built in 1897, so it's possible Sigmund Freud, Johann Strauss II, and even Johannes Brahms rode it. Gustav Mahler could have, too, but I'm not sure he was living in Vienna that year.

The gondolas are big and hold at least twelve people who are permitted to walk around the car to see the views on each side. The ride moves slowly, so although you get only one rotation, you have plenty of time at the top to gaze down on the city.
From the top of the Reisenrad: that's a wax museum over there.

Some of the gondolas are outfitted with dining apparatus, at least one formal and one informal, and for an extra cost riders can enjoy a multi-course meal. Each course is delivered when the gondola reaches the bottom point.
Views of the Riesenrad
Vienna view from the Riesenrad
I toured the famous Vienna Opera House and learned that Gustav Mahler is one of the most-esteemed conductors in the opera house's history. I think of him as a composer of symphonic works, but unbeknownst to me, he was a sought-after conductor in his time specializing in opera. Vienna recruited him from the Budapest Opera. He made big changes during his time in Vienna including forbidding audience members to enter the auditorium once the opera had started and from cheering on their favorite singers. There were tributes to him all over that place including a bust by non other than Auguste Rodin. Way to go, GM!
The Vienna Opera at night
Just across the street from the Opera House is the Sacher Hotel, where the famous Sacher Torte is served. I can't say I was unaware of this famous pastry since my sister recommended I go there to try it, but I was delighted at how yummy it is. It's made from a secret recipe that bakers have attempted to duplicate, but there's nothing like the original at the original place. That fruity taste in there is apricot if you didn't know.
The original Sacher Torte at the Sacher Hotel
Johann Strauss II's Local Hero status did not surprise me even though he and his waltzes, polkas, and operettas were not mentioned in my American Music History training. Really: we music majors were warned not to get involved with "light" music of any kind, and this included John Philip Sousa marches, folk music, and American Musical Theater. I had  no idea there was a whole family of musical Strausses until I was inspired to write an essay about how defensive I became when I overheard a young American man slandering JS II's music after a Vienna concert. That's what surprised me, that I was inspired to defend this composer, research his life and career, and go in search of the famous Stadtpark statue and his apartment on the Praterstrasse which is now a museum.
Johann Strauss II's apartment is up there
I learned about his three (consecutive) wives, his musical father and two brothers, and became familiar with his waltzes, polkas, and operettas. I noticed his music meant as background being played in the hotel breakfast room, gift shops, my Austrian Airlines flight, and back home on my CD alarm clock. Once I noticed the music in these places, it took on a surreal quality as if it was inappropriate for the surroundings. It's good stuff, though, and I enjoyed including it along with Mozart's, Beethoven's, and Mahler's in the Music of Vienna course that I taught in the fall. When New Year's Day came along, you bet I was in front of the television watching the concert broadcast from Vienna. It looked similar to this:
This "Radetsky March," by the way, was played over and over in our hotel breakfast room. Did anyone else notice it, I wonder?