To Austria,with love

September 12, 2021

Known for its lush green fields and vineyards, the mesmerising land of Habsburgs is also the birthplace of Mozart and Beethoven, among other maestros

Salzach River, Austria.
Salzach River, Austria.

As we drove past the lush green fields and vineyards, I gasped with wonder at the serene beauty of the Alps. Shahrukh Khan had wooed Kajol amidst the Alps in the Bollywood blockbuster Dilwalay Dulhaniya Lay Jayengay; I was ecstatic to be amidst them. My imagination was overworked and I could visualise Johanna Spyri’s Heidi along with her grandfather in their little cottage atop one of the precipices that we glided past. Unlike Shahrukh, Kajol and Heidi, I was not in Switzerland; I was in Austria, the land of the Habsburgs.

Historically, Austria was ethnically and linguistically diverse. The present-day Austria comprises the southernmost Germanic lands. Earlier, it had included the northern Czech-(Slavic) speaking provinces of Bohemia and Morvavia; the German-speaking Silesia inherited in 1527; and Hungary where the Magyar people spoke a non-Slavic Finno-Ugric language, also acquired in 1527, but largely lost to Turkish invasion a few years later. However, by the end of the 17th Century, the Habsburg monarchy had managed to reconquer all of Hungary, and the Magyar (Hungarian) nobles had surrendered their right to elect a king in 1687, to King Leopold. In the 18th Century, Austria, along with the rest of the German-speaking lands witnessed a revolution in the realm of arts (visual as well as performing arts), quite in the same manner as France and Britain underwent one in the realm of ideas and material culture.

Yes. I was going to Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, a doyen of classical Western music. As the name suggests, Salzburg got its name from the salt (salz) mines in the vicinity. The panoramic view of Lake Mondsee made me want to make the hamlets around it my permanent abode, but I was also eager to see Salzburg, the city of festivals and we drove ahead, without stopping.

Salzburg is located on the River Salzer and is bewitchingly beautiful. We stopped to savour the gastronomic delights at Nordsee (North Sea), a fast food joint serving sumptuous seafood, and walked down to St Peter’s Abbey, which is the oldest surviving Benedictine cloister in the German-speaking regions. In fact, St Peter’s district is said to be the birthplace of Salzburg. When the Romans occupied it, the city was deserted. It began to flourish with the founding of St Peter’s by Rupert around the year 700. The monastery church was built as a Romanesque basilica between 1130 and 1143. It was redecorated in the late baroque style in the 18th Century. The interior is done in the rococo style. While both baroque and rococo buildings emphasise movement, the baroque style exudes force and passion, and rococo communicates a sense of delicacy and playfulness. The basilica witnessed Mozart’s presentation of Mass in C-minor for the first time. Every year on the eve of the anniversary of his death, his composition, the Requiem, is performed here.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), one of the sublime geniuses of Enlightenment in the 18th Century, was born in Salzburg in a house at Getreidegasse, which is the historical centre of commerce. He was baptised in the Salzburg Cathedral, which is the earliest Italian style church built in the north of the Alps. The cathedral forms the core of the old town. A place of worship stood at its place during the time of Rupert, but in the 8th Century, Virgil and Arno undertook a new construction. In the 12th Century, Konrad III developed it into the biggest Romanesque minster in the German-speaking region.

Mozart was known as the wonder child (wunderkind) and travelled extensively. He was received by the royal families in Vienna, Paris and London and was awarded Knight of the Golden Spurs by the Pope. He was the darling of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa.

In the 18th Century, Austria, along with the rest of the German-speaking lands, witnessed a revolution in the realm of arts (visual as well as performing), quite in the same manner as France and Britain underwent one in the realm of ideas and material culture.

The 18th Century was the most fertile period of invention in the history of music, in Europe. Having no classical antiquity models to draw upon, the musicians of this age invented new musical forms. Opera was one such musical form; though it was invented by Monteverdi, the greatest contributor to this genre was Mozart. Most musicians of the late 18th Century had no inclination towards writing church music, unlike their predecessors. Mozart’s life is a classic example of the perils of struggling for a living by composing music. His most successful years (September, 1784-April, 1787) were spent at Domagasse 5, near the St Stephen’s Church in Vienna, the Austrian capital. Despite his frequently appalling situation, the music Mozart composed is characteristically joyous and serene. Rarely did he write in a minor key and when he did so, he usually paired a melancholic work with an exuberantly sunny one, as if to demonstrate, almost definitely, that the travails of his personal life had no effect on his art.

Mozart never lived by convention. His wife Constanze demanded that he lead a bourgeois existence but he frequently prodded his sister Nannerl (till she got married) to lead a more self-indulgent life, at least “for health reasons”. His amorous life has been surrounded by mystery. Two of his most well-known love affairs were with Aloysia Weber (his wife’s sister) and Nancy Storace, both highly talented singers.

Mozarts birthplace.
Mozart's birthplace.

In the 18th Century, Austria, along with the rest of the German-speaking lands, witnessed a revolution in the realm of arts (visual as well as performing), quite in the same manner as France and Britain underwent one in the realm of ideas and material culture.

As court concert director and organist, during the period 1773-1780, Mozart spent most of his time in Salzburg, except some short sojourns to Munich, Vienna and Paris. From the house of his birth at Getreidegasse, Salzburg, he moved to the Dance Master’s House on the Makart Square, after which he left for Munich in 1781 to attend the premier of his opera, Idomeneo. He spent the last ten years of his life in Vienna and Prague, where his most important works were performed – Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, The Little Night Music, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute. A memorial was established at the house where he was born by the International Foundation Mozarteum in the year 1917. The foundation organised music festivals in his memory. The first Mozart festival took place in the year 1842, when the Mozart monument was inaugurated. However, this monument at Mozart Square has little resemblance to him, according to experts. An unfinished portrait of Mozart (1789) by his brother in law, Joseph Lange, is considered to resemble him the most.

The Mozarteum Foundation organised several music festivals after 1842. In 1917 when Viennese theatre director Max Reinhardt formed the Festival Society, these festivals assumed a new form. Director Franz Schalk, composer Richard Strauss and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal were prominent figures in this society.

However, Mozart was by no means the solitary musical genius that Austria produced. Vienna (Wien), the capital city of Austria is known as the world capital of music. It was home to so many geniuses that it is known as the genius loci for music. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) composed several works here, including The Creation and The Seasons. He died during the Napoleonic occupation of Vienna at the age of 77. When a cannonball landed in front of his house, his reaction was –“Never fear, Haydn is here – nothing can happen.”

Haydn and Mozart were the leading representatives of the classical style of music that succeeded the Baroque style. Prior to the Classical, the Baroque was the dominant art style in Europe, in which the performing arts figured prominently. Since the exuberance of the Baroque was closely associated with the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs, it was resisted by the French due to nationalist reasons. As the French had been continually fighting the Habsburgs throughout most of the 17th and 18th Centuries, it seemed inappropriate for France to admit cultural inferiority by imitating the style of its political rivals. In the second half of the 18th Century, the style of music was called Classical as it emulated principles of order, clarity and symmetry inspired by classical antiquity. Composers of the classical school adhered to certain structural principles and their music was predominantly secular in keeping with the spirit of Enlightenment. Music writing was primarily in three forms – opera (music combined with theatre), chamber music and orchestral composition.

The most fertile and popular of all classical musical forms was the symphony. In the history of music, the genre may be compared to the novel in the realm of literature. Though Haydn is known as the ‘father of the symphony’, three of Mozart’s last symphonies are better known, for their grace, variety and technical perfection.

Other musical gems of Vienna include Johann Strauss Wohnung (composer of the world famous Waltz, The Blue Danube, Austria’s unofficial national anthem), Ludwig van Beethoven (composer of the opera Fidelo) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

Saint Peters Abbey.
Saint Peter's Abbey.

The personal circumstances of all these musical geniuses can be linked to the political and social backgrounds of their times, affecting the music they produced. A deeper study of their lives and music offers the possibility of opening up fresh vistas in the study of history. For instance, Mozart’s famous musical comedy, The Marriage of Figaro, was received with a general prevalent sentiment — “What we are not allowed to SAY these days, we will have to SING”. Except in France and Britain, Enlightenment ideas were met with resistance in Europe, from religious and state authorities. This offers a fascinating insight into the rigidity of Anciene Regimes on the eve of the French Revolution (1789), the influence of Enlightenment ideas on art and culture, and an unflinching commitment to overcoming debacles of the old order. While many compositions of these musical geniuses were reflective of the turbulent times, others provided the much-needed euphoria that enabled them to tide over values that were considered redundant in the 18th Century.

The writer is an   assistant professor of History at the University of Delhi, India.  She teaches the history of Modern Europe.

To Austria,with love