64th Gstaad Menuhin Festival | 17 July - 6 September 2020
Source: Gstaad Menuhin Festival
Vienna – world capital of music?
While the entire music world is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven in 2020, its eyes are also focused on the city where his talent originated: Vienna. The place that not only forged him, but also inspired him through contacts with great figure-heads, concerts and patrons he met there, right to his death in 1827.
The love story that links Vienna to the highest spheres of musical creation began in the Baroque period, within the court and nobility. The bourgeoisie came into it later, during what has been called the “Biedermeier” period. Today, the city radiates with all genres and colours of music. Cultural tourism flourishes here more than anywhere else in the world, to the extent of serving as model for the world's largest cities in merging and developing the association of history of music with the present times.
Vienna owes its ascension to the status of world capital of music – which is not only attested in the glossy tourist industry magazines but also in the daily choice of concerts of exceptional quality and richness – to the cultural commitment of the Habsburg dynasty in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Habsburgs dominated vast territories in Europe and considered themselves the artistic centre of the world. Music was for them a tool of power, a means of displaying the luxurious splendour of their Imperial court in Vienna. While other courts in Europe relied on architecture to establish their power – like Versailles for instance -The Habsburgs relied on music and its expressive power. To this end, they invited numerous composers to Vienna, whose stay they not only financed but also maintained orchestras and chapels at their disposal. Some members of the Imperial family were themselves excellent musicians: Maria Theresa sang admirably, while Joseph II was a passionate cellist and chamber musician. During the years 1750 to 1770, composers such as Johann Joseph Fux, Georg Christoph Wagnseil, Johann Baptist Vanhal, or Matthias Georg Monn made their mark at the court with compositions that laid the foundations for what has been called “Viennese Preclassicism”. In the 1760s, at the Wiener Hofoper, the Imperial Opera and ancestor of today's Wiener Staatsoper, composers such as Gluck and Salieri, but also the young Mozart, were on the forefront. Opera buffa was then the fashionable genre, and its sense of comedy and wit had a significant influence on the instrumental music of the latter as well as that of his senior Joseph Haydn.
The first signs of Viennese classicism coincided with the creation in 1771 of the Tonkünstler-Sozietät (Society of Musicians), which organised the first “public” concerts in the Imperial capital, attended mainly by the Viennese aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie.
Michael Kelly's diary account of a musical evening in the home of the English siblings Anna Celina Storace and Stephen Storace in 1784 reflects the wonderful atmosphere that must have prevailed in Vienna at that time:
Storace organised a quartet evening for his friends. The interpreters were fair, none of them stood out; on the aura side, however, it could hardly have been better:
first violin: Haydn
second violin: Baron Dittersdorf
I was there and one could not imagine any greater, more remarkable pleasure.
Kelly doesn't give us the details of the programme, but we can imagine that the four musicians would have offered the audience excerpts from their own compositions. What a fabulous display must have sprung from the interaction of four minds bubbling with such creativity! Perhaps to the extent of making this evening a key moment in the emancipation of “Viennese Classicism”? The meeting must have been filled with emotion for Haydn, who three years earlier (in 1781) had said to Leopold Mozart concerning his son – a phrase that has since become legendary: “I swear to you on my honour, your son is the greatest composer I know in person as by name: he has taste, and above all the greatest composition science ever.”
Finally freed from his Salzburg tethers, Mozart had been living as independent composer in Vienna since 1781. But this freedom came at a price: he had to seek out commissions himself. These Viennese years were nevertheless the happiest and most productive of his short life. He married Constanze Weber in 1782. That same year, he presented his Singspiel The Abduction from the Seraglio, commissioned by Emperor Joseph II, at the Wiener Hofoper. This was followed by the great piano concertos, masses, later symphonies, string quartets, the Kleine Nachtmusik and, above all, the Da Ponte cycle – with the operas Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni – as well as in 1791 the Requiem and The Magic Flute.
Haydn is considered both as the “inventor” of the symphony – in its classical four-movement form – and of the string quartet, and as the precursor of Romanticism. The attention he paid to the Mozart family and the young Beethoven proves that his talent went far beyond mere creative genius: he was a true passer-on – a discoverer, a facilitator, a “networker” as we would say today. Born in 1732 and deceased in 1809, he bridged the gap between three eras, from the last of the Baroque era to the beginning of Romanticism. His influence on the geniuses of Classicism and Romanticism and, more generally, on the whole of Viennese musical life, was invaluable. However, he lived and worked for almost three decades outside the city walls: in Eisenstadt, about forty kilometres away, at the service of the music-loving Prince Paul II Anton Esterházy. From 1761 to the 1790s, he literally redefined the codes of 18th century music. And the relative distance from the capital did not prevent him from gaining respect and recognition from all his peers and becoming the most famous composer of his time.
In 1792, a 22-year-old pianist from Bonn met the master at a breakfast organised by musicians from his city at the Bad Godesberg Redoubt, on Haydn's first trip to London: his name was Beethoven. Haydn immediately detected his genius and invited him to study with him in Vienna. Present at this first meeting, the Prince Elector of Cologne, Maximilian Franz, made a commitment to continue paying Beethoven’s stipend even after he had settled in Vienna.
Between 1792 and 1795, Haydn introduced the young Beethoven to the Viennese musical world. He recommended him to patrons such as Baron Gottfried van Swieten or Prince Carl Lichnowsky, organized concerts (called “academies”) not only to allow them to shine as soloists but also to present Beethoven’s music, and he even took care of his scholarship, ensuring he had enough to live on. A letter addressed to his protector in Bonn, Elector Max Franz, tells us that he even went so far as to lend him money personally to help him cope with the high cost of living in Vienna:
Vienna, 23 November 1793
Your Elector and Princely Highness... Connoisseurs and laymen alike must acknowledge that Beethoven... is destined to become one of the greatest musicians of his time, and I will then proudly be able to call myself his master; however, I hope he will remain with me for some time to come...
... that is why I would like to bring his economic situation to the attention of Your Elector and Princely Highness. 100 Talers were paid to him for the past year.
I am sure that Your Highness will readily agree that such a sum is not enough to live on, even modestly, though I am certain that Your Highness had excellent reasons to send him into the world with such a modest allowance... I have therefore lent him so much money that his debt towards me amounts to 500 Gulden, not a single Kreuzer of which has been spent without compelling reason...
In his early works, Beethoven combined the influences of Haydn and Mozart, as one of his patrons, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein, pointed out, with words that have since been passed down to posterity: “By constant diligence you will receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands.”
Beethoven was now permanently settled in Vienna. During the first decade (1792-1802), he composed no less than 20 of his 32 piano sonatas, a lot of chamber music, his first two piano concertos and his first two symphonies. However, his rise as a pianist and composer was hampered by the most terrible plight that could affect a musician: the progressive loss of hearing. This began as early as 1798 and was to end in total deafness.
This pathology not only jeopardized his career as a musician, it also threatened his social relationships. Falling into a deep existential crisis, he considered putting an end to his life. However, he finally came to accept his sorry fate and drafted a confessional text, written in October 1802 after an unsuccessful final attempt at a cure in the Viennese suburb of Heiligenstadt: the well-named “Heiligenstadt testament”. The “resurrection” was dazzling: 1802 to 1812 were the most fruitful years of his existence, with the composition of 6 of his 9 symphonies, the first version of Fidelio, the Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 4 and 5, the Triple Concerto, the Choral Fantasy, as well as the so-called “Middle” Quartets. The aggravation of deafness (as attested by his “conversation notebooks” from 1818 onwards), coupled with emotional disappointments (mentioned in his famous letter “to the immortal beloved”) and material problems, plunged him into a new crisis, from which he was only to emerge very slowly. These dark years saw the emergence of chamber masterpieces such as the “Hammerklavier” Sonata and the last two cello sonatas. The Missa solemnis was the result of a commission from his student and sponsor Archduke Rudolf in 1820. Beethoven only completed the work three years later, totally surpassing the framework set by the commissioner. The Diabelli Variations also date from the same time and likewise transcend the formal framework of the genre. The last three piano sonatas followed in their footsteps, before the final creative surge of 1824-1827, marked by the creation of a group of five string quartets, concluded by Quartet Op. 135, the last completed work in which he freed himself from all worldly conventions, achieving a form of transcendence.
Beethoven's revolutionary music was perfectly attuned to his time: that of a Europe undergoing profound changes, marked by the liberation of the individual and the human spirit. With his key compositions, he led Vienna into Romanticism, and subsequently to the main musical centres of the continent. Works such as Fidelio – “the opera of liberation” –, Missa solemnis, the Fifth (in which “Fate knocks at the door”), the Sixth (“Pastoral”) or the Seventh Symphony, embody this new era in their radically innovative form.
With Fidelio and its plot of the saving of an innocent hero in great danger, Beethoven seized the opportunity to speak out against all forms of tyranny by brandishing political freedom, justice and fraternity as fundamental values. With the Missa solemnis, the composer clearly freed himself from tradition by delivering a work that one cannot help but feel was not written for the church. It is the expression of Beethoven's personal creed and wears only the formal habit of mass, offering today still the aspect of a utopian work. Nowhere else has his genius delivered so clearly and truthfully his personality, his life vision and his suffering.
Whereas in the 1820s, due to his deafness, Beethoven was living a rather secluded life in Vienna, Franz Schubert made his lieder and chamber music resound as part of what were called “Schubertiades”, private concerts created to circumvent the censorship of Chancellor Metternich's state police. This is how the tunes that would later become famous cycles such as the Winterreise were unveiled in fragments during private concerts organised by the Schober, Sonnleithner or Bruchmann families.
Schubert's work developed on the fringe of the Biedermeier, the aesthetic movement that appeared in the Imperial capital in 1815, following the Vienna Congress. The budding bourgeoisie was happy to play music at home, but the subtle art of the Master of the Lied can hardly be contained within the narrow-minded tastes of this new audience. Like Beethoven in the final years of his life, Schubert produced unequalled works, which though traditional in appearance from the point of view of form, lead us aesthetically – emotionally – into another dimension.
The advent of this new Biedermeier bourgeoisie was marked by the development of a certain form of epicureanism in society. They attended concerts, visited salons and cafés, started to take an interest in the beauty of nature by going for walks at the Prater or in the Wienerwald. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1842. In 1868 the Wiener Staatsoper opened, taking over from the Imperial Hofoper. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Viennese decided to build the Wiener Konzerthaus, which remains to this day the capital's main classical concert hall together with the Musikverein. The Wiener Concertverein was founded in 1900 and is the ancestor of the Wiener Symphoniker. Last but not least, the Wiener Singerknaben – though in existence since 1498, first as Imperial Hofsängerknaben (under the name of Hofcapell-Singknaben) – were constituted in their present form in 1924.
The Biedermeier period also marks the rise of the waltz, of which Vienna is the undisputed capital. It originates from the Ländler, danced mainly in the open air. For the people, who are rushing en masse to dance it, it represented a privileged space where joie de vivre was accepted, a haven of peace, where, for an evening, life in a police state with extremely strict rules could be forgotten. Some composers and choirmasters were celebrated as genuine stars, Johann Strauss Senior and Joseph Lanner for instance.
The Viennese waltz has historically been the disguised expression of seditious political thoughts and described by Eduard Hanslick as “Marseillaise of the heart” for example. It is said to have “prevented the revolution in Vienna”, while Johann Strauss was himself called the “Austrian Napoleon” (Henrich Laube). Celebrated as “the king of the waltz” and still embodying to this day the image of this dance (as well as that of operetta), Johann Strauss Junior is at the heart of the famous New Year's Concert in Vienna, organised by the Philharmonic Orchestra in the Musikverein's great gilded hall and watched live on television by millions of people throughout the world.
With the emergence of this art of entertainment, about to become an industry in its own right, rifts appeared as early as the 19th century. The shattering of the Romantic symphonic framework by Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler made it difficult for their creations to reach the general public in Vienna. And this was nothing compared with the tidal wave that was about to hit the dawning 20th century with representatives of the “Second Vienna School”: the Alban Bergs and Anton Weberns who, around their mentor Arnold Schönberg, were shaking up the very structure of musical language by advocating Dodecaphonism, resulting in works created with an emphasis on technique – construction – rather than composition.
Despite the public's bewilderment at this radical shift, the apostles of this Second Vienna School saw their actions as being in a direct line with the Viennese classical tradition, through the legacy of Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler.
The influence of the authentic “Wiener Lied” – the one sung in the street, in bars and salons – is mostly represented in the operettas of Franz Lanner (Ich bin ein Wienerkind), Johann Strauss Junior(Draussen in Sievering), or Robert Stolz (Im Prater blüh' n wieder die Bäume). But is the Lied a typical Viennese art? One thing is certain: Viennese composers of the time of the Secession – those years around 1900 that marked a kind of breakthrough – continued to develop the genre. For instance, Alexander von Zemlinsky with his Walzergesänge, Arnold Schönberg and Cabaret Songs or, later, between the two wars, Erich Wolfgang Korngold with his Sonett für Wien, or Erich Zeisl and his Brettl-Lieder. These scores are often characterised by a double message, being alternately tragic and humorous.
Above all, the Viennese sense of humor and the “Schmäh” so difficult to grasp by the non-Viennese run through them. While a layman would tend to assimilate this “Schmäh” with a form of insult, in Vienna, on the contrary, it rhymes with “charm”, civility – even though, true enough, it can also convey indirect, even hidden allusions, often accompanied by a good dose of dark humour. Thus, one might legitimately wonder why Tauben vergiften im Park [Poisoning pigeons in the park] should make one laugh? In his Lied, Georg Kreisler provides no clear answer, but rather clouds our vision in a universe of duplicity.
Thus, it is not so much the golden clichés of imperial imagery, nor the somewhat tacky waltz industry exploiting Sissi's idyllic image, that have turned Vienna into the world capital of music that it is today, but rather the great figures of classicism – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert –, the Biedermeier – who enabled the emergence of a new bourgeois public and, in turn, of institutions such as the Musikverein and the Philharmonic Orchestra still active today – as well as the “titans” of the late 19th century – Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler.
May we invite you to relive the great landmarks of this Viennese epic through over 65 concerts, from July 17 to September 6, 2020.
Welcome to the 64th edition of Gstaad Menuhin Festival & Academy!
Christoph Müller, Artistic Director