Vienna is the world’s foremost classical music city, indeed of the arts in general, and is one of my favourite places. For music and culture it can’t be beaten. During its musical zenith it was home to great composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms and the father and son waltz kings, Johann Strauss I and II.
It’s no surprise therefore, that Vienna is the setting for part of my novel, The Virtuoso.
In addition to its musical pedigree Vienna was the birth place, and or base, of artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, as well as some of the world’s most respected and ground breaking writers, thinkers and psychologists such as Franz Grillparzer, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Viktor E. Frankl, and more recently, Hans Asperger, Konrad Lorenz, Ludwig von Mises, and Peter Drucker. It was the seat of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire and home of the Habsburg dynasty for many centuries. Vienna became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.
I have been to Vienna in both winter and spring. My first visit was in 2005, which also incorporated a trip to Salzburg and Innsbruck. On my second trip in April 2011, I was focussed on consolidating my research for the venues to be featured in my novel, plus my mum and I had tickets to go and see Joshua Bell perform at the Wiener Konzerthaus! He played beautifully, alongside Jeremy Denk on the piano, and I was thrilled to have met him afterwards and he signed my newly purchased CD.
This superb BBC documentary gives a wonderful overview of the ‘City of Dreams’ and its history:
Vienna has it all: the beautiful Danube river, palaces and parks, museums, galleries, concert halls, churches, coffee houses, baroque architecture, modernism, a rich history, warm and friendly inhabitants, and not forgetting apple strudel to die for. It’s an easy place to fall in love in and with, and that’s exactly what my heroine does!
In chapter nineteen Isabelle Bryant travels to Vienna to do some research on her hero Ludwig van Beethoven, so that she can write about his life and music for an article in High Notes magazine. During her stay she has a fortuitous second meeting with enigmatic publisher Daniel Carter, (who has already awakened intensely amorous feelings in her at their first meeting), and they begin a passionate love affair amidst the wintry splendour of the city.
I hope this small section of the chapter gives you a flavour of the musical legacy and delights of Vienna:
The day started out brightly. From her small balcony Isabelle peered over the numerous rooftops, her eyes sweeping over the narrow pavements lined with historical houses, each with their own unique story she pondered. Snow lay undisturbed on the pavement below her in Kirchbergasse, still fresh from the heavy fall the night before. She filled her lungs with the wintry air and then made her way to the lounge for breakfast.
Suitably filled with rolls and orange juice she pulled her handbag across her shoulder and waited for Hans in the hotel lobby. It was dead on 9am. A tall dark figure stood erect and patient by the front door. She smiled at him. He smiled back at her, and in a few strides he was by her side greeting her with an outstretched hand.
‘Good morning Frau Bryant, my name is Hans Moser. I am your guide for the day. I understand you wish to visit some of Beethoven’s Houses?’ His slow and clipped accent immediately warmed her heart. She looked up at his strong features. His wide set jaw, olive skin and dark moustache gave him a strangely Latin appearance, and his large brown eyes were framed by substantial eyebrows. Isabelle guessed he must have been about forty.
‘Good to meet you Mr. Moser. That’s right. I’m researching the composer for an article I’m writing.’
He signalled towards a smart black Mercedes waiting at the entrance and pulled open the rear door for her. ‘Is this is your first visit to Wien?’
‘Not exactly,’ she mumbled, clambering into the seat.
‘I used to be a concert violinist, Mr Moser. I’ve been to Vienna once before, I was on tour playing with the Vienna Philharmonic, and most of my time was spent at the Wiener Musikverein. It was just for a couple of nights and unfortunately I didn’t get to see anything of the city. I spent large chunks of my time rehearsing and preparing. I- I had an accident recently, so I can’t play anymore.’
Hans’ eyes caught hers through the rear view mirror. He had already noticed the dressings on her left hand, and bowed his head.
‘I am sorry for your loss. I wish I had been able to see you play. I am a great lover of classical music and especially of Beethoven. I will do my best to make an enjoyable day for you. Also, please call me Hans.’
‘Thank you Hans, I really appreciate your help. I probably could have made it round the city on buses, trams and by foot, but I’m on quite a tight schedule and I don’t really have time to get lost.’ She raised her left arm. ‘My injury isn’t too good in the cold weather either.’
‘It’s a pleasure for me to assist you in such an important task,’ Hans replied.
Isabelle showed him her scribbles of some of the venues she wanted to see and he looked thoughtful.
‘I will take you to the Beethoven Platz first,’ he said, ‘followed by the famous Theater an der Wein, before stopping at the Memorial Rooms in the Pasqualati House, and perhaps the site of the Schwarzspanierhaus, where he died. Beethoven moved house over eighty times during his time in Wien, so there aren’t many houses that we know of left standing. Also in the city is the Palais Lobkowitz which houses the Eroica Saal and the Palais Pallavicini which is opposite the Spanish Riding School of the Hofburg Palace.’
‘That’s great. If there’s enough time afterwards I’d also like to visit the House of the Heiligenstadt Testament, and the Church of Holy Trinity where Beethoven’s funeral was held.’
Hans gave an accommodating nod. ‘I am at your service, we can go wherever you would like.’
They drove in silence as dark clouds gathered in the sky above. Hans pulled the car into a lay by and proudly pointed towards an imposing statue of Beethoven sternly surveying his eponymous Platz.
Isabelle got out and wandered up to the statue. He looked regal and rightly honoured in pride of place in his own little square. Groups of young students came and went as Isabelle took in the scene. To her left was a gothic building containing a performance hall and rooms, and on the opposite side of the square the view was dwarfed by the towering Intercontinental Hotel, and next to that was an ice rink and some construction cranes. The wind whipped around her like a mini tornado but she felt exhilarated.
She took a few pictures and climbed back into the warm interior of the waiting car, brushing her hair away from her face, and Hans sped off further into the city.
Their next stop was the Theater an der Wien, a relatively innocuous looking building amongst the classical finery of the city. Its early nineteenth century yellow façade appeared a little shabby, but the theatre had seen thousands of Viennese concert goers through its green doors during its history. She studied the guidebook to see that it had been built in 1801, and the statues above the doorway were in fact depicting Papageno, from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Reading further she saw that it had also premiered Beethoven’s Fidelio in 1805.
‘It’s hard to believe Hans, but his violin concerto, which was my favourite, premiered in this very theatre on the twenty third of December 1806, after a rushed completion and next to no rehearsal. The Viennese didn’t take to it, and it wasn’t performed for about another four decades. These days it’s in every soloist’s repertoire as one of the great violin concerti, and has even been transcribed for the piano.’
‘It seems even the best of us sometimes have to wait for success,’ concurred Hans.
Isabelle studied her book. ‘Luckily his grand Symphony number five in C minor fared a lot better in December of 1808. His pastoral Symphony and the fourth piano concerto were also premiered in this unremarkable looking building. What I find amazing is that it’s still in use for concerts in the twenty first century.’
‘The concert hall interior is magnificent.’
‘Can we go in Hans?’
Hans disappeared into a small door around the back of the theatre. Isabelle could hear lots of banging and drilling going on inside. He emerged a few moments later shaking his head.
‘I’m so sorry, but unfortunately they are doing renovations ready for Mozart’s two hundred and fiftieth birthday celebrations in the New Year, and so it is closed to the public.’
Isabelle’s shoulders dropped as she sighed. ‘What a shame.’
Hans led her back to the car and she obediently followed him as he opened the door for her. This kind, tall, strong Austrian man had a grace of movement that was masculine and yet gentle.
The snow began falling again as the engine roared back to life, and they drove towards the Palais Lobkowitz.
‘Hans, I understand Prince Lobkowitz was a great patron of the arts one of Beethoven’s strongest supporters?’
‘He was indeed, Isabelle, along with Prince Karl Lichnowsky, Count von Fries and Archduke Rudolph. If you like, I have an interesting anecdote to tell you, about when Beethoven was making a reputation for himself in Viennese society as virtuoso pianist.’
‘Oh Hans, yes please, do tell, I need insider information for my article. I’d love to know what happened.’ Isabelle leaned forward slightly, stretching her seatbelt.
‘You may know it already, but Prince Lobkowitz organised an improvisation contest between Beethoven and a Prussian pianist popular in Vienna in 1800 called Daniel Steibelt.’
‘I’ve never heard of him, Hans. How cool, a salon duel on the ivories. Please go on.’ Isabelle strained her neck a little closer to Hans.
‘In fact they met twice, firstly at the von Fries residence, the Palais Pallavicini. Steibelt was already an established virtuoso on a tour of European capitals and wanted to make his mark in Vienna. He was known for his, how do you say, tremolandos. The first time they met I’m afraid Steibelt apparently impressed the aristocracy more than Beethoven with his fancy performance of his own Piano Quintet. By all accounts he was condescending in attitude towards Beethoven, who refused to play again on that occasion.’
‘Knowing what an irascible temperament Beethoven had I’m sure his blood must have been boiling after that,’ Isabelle said.
‘Most certainly, Isabelle. A rematch was planned a week later at the Palais Lobkowitz.’
‘Oh! The anticipation! What happened Hans?’
I’m pleased to tell you that Beethoven got his revenge on Steibelt at their second meeting. The aristocracy must have been on the edge of their seats under such an atmosphere of hostility. It is said that Beethoven parodied his precious tremolandos and indeed Steibelt’s entire composition. He imitated Steibelt’s Quintet for the ordinary piece it was, and exposed it in a humiliating fashion. He then began to improvise on it with such brilliance that the audience could barely believe what they were witnessing.’
‘Steibelt stormed out of the salon while Beethoven was still playing, indeed, mocking him.’
‘Game set and match Ludwig,’ replied Isabelle.
‘Beethoven was known for having small but very intense and bright eyes. They must have surely been blazing that night,’ Hans concluded.
‘Wow. It would have been incredible to have seen him in full flow, going hell for leather against an opulent backdrop with all his unrefined clothes and mannerisms, trumping some posh, over inflated big wig,’ Isabelle said.
‘Yes. He so comprehensively showed up Steibelt that he left Vienna with his pride in tatters and went straight back to Berlin, refusing to ever play in Vienna again if Beethoven were present.’ Hans pulled the car to halt. ‘And here we are, in front of the very building where it all happened.’
You will have to read the novel to become immersed in the rest of Vienna and the raunchier scenes! These chapters of The Virtuoso are a love letter to Beethoven and Vienna.
I wonder if other writers also worry that they haven’t got enough information on a real place to do it justice? In my case I had to work from old memories and photographs, but my emotions at the time made a big impression on me.
I found this piece of music written to evoke Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin:
I have included a small gallery of photos mostly taken on my 2011 trip. Just click on a picture to enlarge.
Vienna truly is the ‘City of Dreams’ as well as the ‘City of Music’.