Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Wohnungs: The Strauss and Mozart Apartments in Vienna

Johann Strauss II in the Stadtpark
I have had a long-term relationship with the composers of Vienna: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner, and Schoenberg, but during my two-week stay in Vienna I had to focus on just two. I was in the city for a summer residency, one of the requirements of the Pan-European MFA Program in Creative Writing at Cedar Crest College. We listened to lectures on art,  music, history, literature, and psychology, and visited some important places like Schonbrunn Palace, the Literature Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and further away Bratislava and Melk Abbey. I'm just skimming the surface here--we did way more than that in-between fantastic cafe meals and delicious desserts.

With my own writing projects in mind, I visited as many Johann Strauss and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart destinations as possible, and I was lucky enough to catch a tour of the famous Vienna State Opera House. This enormous building opened in 1869 with a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni which Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi") attended.

The Opera at night

The Opera's fountain
Inside the opera house
And then there's Johann Strauss II. Standing in below for JS is André Rieu at Schönbrunn Palace.

Johann Strauss II, "The Waltz King"
One of my essays for this writing program is a defense of the music of Johann Strauss. His waltzes, marches and polkas were intended to be light entertainment and succeeded in this genre. Strauss's face and music are iconic in his home city, so why is there so much resentment against him by high-brow music lovers and wannabes? In college, my classmates and I  were advised to ignore him by our snooty Music History professor. My essay argues for the man and his music and will benefit from my visits to some Viennese sites.

I had a Dickens of a time finding Johann Strauss's place. It's not well-marked and it's on the first floor which in Austria means up the first flight of steps. His apartment overlooks the Praterstrasse, a fashionable boulevard in the late 1800s when he lived there. I checked out his view and he could keep an eye on a good stretch of the Praterstrasse from his front room. The high-ceilinged rooms of the apartment are decked-out with memorabilia from his exciting life as Vienna's Waltz King. I saw newspaper articles about him, sheet music covers, a lock of his first wife's curly brown hair, his piano, and his violin in a fancy gold showcase. Listening stations are set up to provide the visitor with an audio experience, and all of the items are German. The item that made the biggest impression on me was the death mask. That was Johann Strauss's exact face in that glass case! I was surprised to see his teeth under that big mustache of his--do teeth usually show in death masks? Creepy: his right eye was slightly open. Creepy. (Photographs inside were verboten, sorry. You'll have to imagine the creepy death mask.)

The Stadtpark featuring the famous Johann Strauss II statue
 While walking around in the Stadtpark (the City Park), I found the famous golden statue of The Waltz King and snapped a few photos. This statue is quite the tourist spectacle, and it was fun to watch people attempting to photograph each other posing with the golden Strauss.

The Kursalon in the Stadtpark

Nearby is the Italian Renaissance Kursalon finished in 1867, where many Johann Strauss concerts were held. If you're looking for a venue for a big celebration, this could be your place.

I had time for one more visit on my last day in Vienna, so I chose the Mozarthaus, also known as the Figarohaus or MozartWohnung. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart figures prominently in one (or maybe two?) of my essays for the program and a course I'm putting together, so this visit was an efficient use of my time. This museum was much easier to find than the Strauss house, mainly because St. Stephen's Cathedral (its own subway stop) points right to it.
St. Stephan's Cathedral at the upper left, and Mozarthaus at Domgasse 5 at center right (Thanks, Google Maps!)
Mozart's house gave me shivers, but not the same kind of shivers induced by the Strauss death mask.. Even though there wasn't much authentic Mozart "stuff" in there, I was thrilled to look out the windows and see what he saw.

Looking out Mozart's front door at the Blutgasse
Mozart and his family (one wife, one child) lived in this space from 1784 to 1787, and composed The Marriage of Figaro here (hence the name Figarohaus). The rooms of the house/apartment are in the same configuration as they were in Mozart's day and before, but we are not sure which room was which. The curators of the space made some educated guesses and hung (mostly facsimiles of ) paintings and documents in each room. An inventory of Mozart's possessions at the time of his death exists, so we can make guesses: "Perhaps this is where Mozart's billiard table was since it is the only room big enough to accommodate it," and "This was probably Mozart's bedroom." Chills happened on my spine when the audio tour narrator said, "This is most likely where the Haydn Quartets were first performed for Haydn himself with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on viola and Leopold (his father) on violin." At that moment I was standing in the Billiard Room where light streamed in from the Blutgasse. It's the closest I'll ever get to time travel, and valuable inspiration for that new essay I've been mulling over.

And now if you will excuse me, I have to go do my homework.

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