This is weird.
In my notes for Friday, I have headings for “Judengasse” and “Hoher Market” but no actual notes; then under the heading “Albertina” I have copious notes for that museum’s retrospective of the 20th century South African artist William Kentridge. But the only thing I remember was one fragment of an 8-part film installation called “I Am Not Me, The House Is Mine”. It sounded like a Talking Heads song, but in fact it was the transcript from Nikolai Bukharin’s Feb. 26, 1937 Communist Party Central Committee Plenary Trial. In it the purged Communist begs to be given 25 years in Siberia instead of a death sentence, before a jeering crowd presided over by Stalin.
“But you must understand, it is very difficult for me to die,” he pleaded at the end.
“And it’s easy for us to go on living?” Stalin answered, displaying either unexpected poetic depth or more likely his murderous mind.
I cruised through the Prünksallen, the Albertina’s “state rooms”. They had a Rubens on one wall, a Canaletto on another, and between them some Schiele nudes. The Schiele addition makes a stunning yet appropriate contrast — though surely his “Reclining Female Nude, With Spread Legs” would not have passed the chastity laws of 18th century Empress Maria Theresa, who supervised the original administrative building’s transformation into today’s lavish palace.
As for the Albertina’s entire room full of Dürer sketches, I looked dutifully at each but seem to have no notes. I remember thinking, a visitor could not give a full nonstop week to Vienna, that I was already exhausted halfway into the adventure.
In fact, I was only sick. My notes for Saturday start with a blank half page and the word “Naschmarkt”, which was also a mistake because of the crowds. I fled Vienna’s most famous outdoor market to my comforting little room.
After a nap, as the Innere Stadt drew its wintry shroud around itself and smoke flowed early from bars, I walked briskly to the Haus der Musik, close to my hotel. This five-story temple to music is a fitting tribute to the city’s greatest pastime. The ground floor Vienna Philharmonic museum, just an appetizer, showed haunting photos of early 20th century Philharmonic members, more haunting for recent news that almost half the orchestra’s members belonged to the Nazi party by 1942 and that the orchestra expelled over a dozen others for being Jewish, and that some perished in concentration camps after their expulsion.
In Vienna you can fly upstairs to another floor, another period, if history grows too oppressive. I ascended to “The Waltz of Dice”. Mozart and Haydn were inspired by playing dice; now you could throw giant wooden dice eight times a day to compose your own three-quarter time waltz tune — “1,679,616 possible combinations over a one-year period,” the exhibit says. I took my chances on a waltz with the masters instead, sitting in a darkened auditorium to hear the past year’s New Year’s Eve concert, and being rewarded with the feeling of having heard “Blue Danube Waltz” and the “Radetzky March” as if I had never heard them before.
One floor up, you could recreate the sensation of being in your mother’s womb; then you can recreate “the journey of sound into the human ear,” thereby experiencing the equation √ = v/f (wavelength equals velocity divided by frequency) and the breakdown of sound into the “sonic atom.”
The 3rd floor let you interactively conduct the Vienna Philarmonic. I watched a group of eight young Italians take turns at the podium.
“Piu forte!” one shouted.
“Piu lentamente!” disagreed another.
The 4th floor is for “Future Sounds”. A “brain opera” let you use “hyper-instruments” to make music with touch, gesture and movement. I heard a waltz wafting from some floor below all this futurity and retreated, as is my wont, back down to the past.
On Sunday, my first Vienna visit’s final day, I headed to the Jüdisches Museum am Jüdenplatz, not to be confused with the Jüdisches Museum Wien on Dorotheegasse. Both are in the Innere Stadt, but this one stands on the city’s oldest documented Jewish site, the original synagogue. An exhibit on the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, showed examples from antiquity to the present. Outside on the gorgeous square, a house plaque depicted Jesus’ baptism and celebrated the burning alive on March 12, 1421 of 32 Jewish men and 120 women who had refused Christian baptism. The executions culminated a year of imprisonment, torture, and drownings in the Wiener Gezerah, Austria’s first recorded pogrom, when Archduke Albert V arrested all Jews for an alleged Communion host desecration. In fact, Albert needed Jewish money to battle followers of Czech Catholic dissident Jan Hus.
“Through the waters of the Jordan, the bodies have been purified from filth and evil,” the plaque read in Latin. “Thus in 1421 the flame of hatred arose, raging throughout the whole town and atoning for the awful crimes of the Hebrew dogs.”
But Mitteleuropa has always needed its Jews, though it has periodically massacred them. The mikvah exhibit showed how fully Judaism has been part of Europe since antiquity. It displayed photos of baths from ancient Rome, Montpelier, Worms, Friedberg, and other cities, plus beautiful modern examples from Mannheim and Frankfurt.
A riveting 3D film reconstructed the ghetto that surrounded this first synagogue, razed during the 1420-21 pogrom. At the time of the Wiener Gezerah, about 70 two- and three-story houses and a kosher butcher shop surrounded the synagogue – all destroyed.
The sparse foundation walls unearthed in 2002 are displayed in a space that places you inside the ruins: a platform with a reading desk, the foundation of the Tora-Shreins (the Ark of the Law), and the foundation of the Women’s School. The Jesuits used the bricks to build the new University of Vienna on Backerstrasse in the Innerestadt.
Since I saw it in 2011, the plaque has been removed. Austria only excavated this site in 2002, almost 600 years after the synagogue was razed. The nation is famously slow in acknowledging its crimes, but then why should we pick only on little Austria for that fault?
Afterwards, over a hearty supentopf and a glass of Blaüer Burgunder in the Innere Stadt’s Café Diglas, everything seemed right again, or at least forgettable.
Outside was sunny, bitterly cold, and windy. I was jammed into the usual solo table against the door next to three lovely Viennese women, which helped, too. The chattering of customers and servers, the owner’s musical commands directing kitchen staff, all inspired a feeling of well-being.
“We’re one of the oldest,” that owner, Elisabeth Diglas, told me. “We’re famous for our pastries.”
“My wish and hope is to acquire honors, fame and money,” the 25-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father in Salzburg after fleeing his stifling and poorly paid job as a court organist there. Mozart lived in 13 Vienna houses over his last 11 years of such a short life, but he spent his happiest and most profitable three here in what has become the Mozarthaus Museum. Conveniently, too, it is the only surviving one.
He arrived in March 1781, to a city of 50,000 within the medieval walls and 150,000 outside them. One of the original musical freelancers, he took advantage of all opportunities, especially because he had to wait six years before getting a salaried position as an imperial chamber musician. He played in the salons of some 20 princes and 70 counts.
“Mozart was passed around,” the exhibit bluntly states.
This house was known locally as the “Figarohaus” because Mozart wrote The Marriage of Figaro here in 1786. The opera was based on a controversial 1784 French play by Pierre Beaumarchais, La Folle Journeé, ou Le Mariage de Figaro. That play, about how servants Figaro and Susanna foil philandering Count Almaviva’s efforts to seduce Susanna and manage to marry each other, was banned by the Austrian censor.
“Since the piece contains much that is objectionable,” Emperor Josef II had written, “I therefore expect that the Censor shall either reject it altogether, or at any rate have such alterations made in it that he shall be responsible for the performance of this play and for the impression it may make.”
The censor chose prudence. But Mozart brought it to librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who removed all political references and replaced Figaro’s climactic speech against inherited nobility with a tirade against unfaithful women, and the emperor approved it. Still, the opera flopped in Vienna, but it was a hit in Prague – a persistent phenomenon for him, followed by the Prague successes of his “Prague” Symphony 38, of Don Giovanni, of La Clemenza di Tito, and by the extraordinary public grief after his death that had been all but ignored in his home town of Vienna.
“Meine Prager verstehen mich” (“My Praguers understand me”), he supposedly said, though recent research questions the comment’s authenticity.
I finished the week in Vienna by seeing Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at the Staatsoper and was thinking things do not get any better than this when the opposite came true: never say things cannot get any better, because sometimes the gods smile even on a poor Papageno. I pushed through the big doors into snow that had been threatening for days, now finally sifting down in tiny blown flakes. Pedestrianized Kartnerstrasse was already partly covered, and the pretty gothic side of Stefansdom was webbed with it. An orchestra member – small instrument, luckily – minced a few paces ahead in his dress blacks until I marched past him in my Doc Martens.
So, where and what to eat on a Sunday night in a town that shuts down early? I headed again for Café Alt Wien, zigzagging through medieval alleys back of Stefansdom that now I knew without a map, humming the opera’s ridiculously simple theme – what made Mozart want to sum it all up with just that?
I quickened my march to cross the outer smoking room’s thick clouds to the inner non-smoking room’s thin film. Like Mozart’s insistent theme I was determined to make it to the other side – to the gulasch!
The waiter knew me, which swelled me even finer. I ordered ein kleines gulasch this time: just three hunks of beef that open with the fork’s first touch, swimming in a stinging red sauce. How can you eat even a small plate of that with just one bread roll? I ordered two, and a glass of the house Austrian red, which was also a little stinging but somehow right for the moment. Bread, meat, sauce, wine – Papagena! Papageno! Papagena! Papageno!
Read Vienna a decade ago: part I here.
You can purchase Andrew Giarelli’s travel book “American Romanista” here: https://www.amazon.com/American-Romanista-Andrew-Giarelli-ebook/dp/B00AH1HUNW