The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Vienna 2008

Okay, okay…I know it’s been a while. Indeed, this blog entry is about a trip I made two months ago already! But things have been pretty hectic at work so I really haven’t had time to work on it. Plus a lot of what I saw may not have broad appeal. But now that I'm home with a busted rib and can't do much else anyway, here it goes…

I’ve actually been to Vienna twice, but both were very brief visits on which I saw little or nothing of interest. But being such a renowned city—and above all the capital of classical music—I was excited to have the opportunity to return for a recent business meeting so I stayed on through the weekend to see what I had missed out on the last two times. Although it was chilly and overcast, Vienna is a beautiful city and lived up to all of my expectations (and years of anticipation).

Here’s me, clearly among my people:

The business portion of the trip was interesting if uneventful. During that time, I became obsessed with a late-night television broadcast called ”Bernd das Brot on a channel called KiKa:

Although it’s in German, it appears to be about an ornery loaf of bread who is trapped in the “KiKa Lounge” against his will. He’s sort of the un-Spongebob and apparently very popular in Germany. But the fascinating part is that this just goes on all night for hours and hours. Click below to view a sample as he complains about being told to “chill out” (which is the same in German, apparently).

Now on to more exciting things…

The Hofburg Imperial Palace is really a misnomer: more than a palace, it is a massive complex that covers an entire section of Vienna. Starting in the 1400s it was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. Different sections built over the centuries in a variety of architectural styles. It is now the official residence of the President of Austria but most of it is open to the public as a vast collection of museums:

The day I visited the grounds were given over to a big military recruitment fair:

Of course, we Jews get a little nervous around displays of Germanic military might, but I went along with it and enjoyed a giant pretzel before heading into one of the Hofburg’s many museums. The first one I visited was the Schatzkammer, or treasury. It was remarkable. This is the crown of the Holy Roman Empire; I was impressed at what good shape it is in (given that it is more than 1000 years old) and the rather unique design (as always, click on any photo to enlarge):

One of the cool things about the treasury is that it not only houses the old crown jewels of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, but it is also filled with works of art that depict them. Here you can see the crown of the Holy Roman Empire on the right, and to the left is a portrait of Emperor Charlemagne wearing it:

Here is another crown (along with a scepter and orb) called the Regalia of Rudolph because it was made in 1602 for Rudolph II. The crown above was only used for coronations, so this one was more of a “day-to-day” crown. The fine work and detail on them was simply astounding:

A cradle fit for a king (literally):

Though supposedly some kind of religious reliquary, this looked to me like the world’s gaudiest pillbox:

Some other random treasures:

I was glad to see that they’ve learned something from the Americans: the old “forced trip through the gift shop” trick:

My next stop in the Hofburg was the Prunksaal (“splendor hall”) of the Austrian National Library. I went because I vaguely recalled seeing it in a book once and being very impressed. The real deal did not disappoint: it is a vast, imposing, ornate hall with a rotunda in the middle. There are two stories of books (two million of them, all original) accessed by a striking labyrinth of ladders, spiral staircases, and hidden corridors. There are also statues, maps, and globes throughout:

You know I love my ceiling shots:

Meanwhile the library itself was having a special exhibit on torture…and all I can say about this one is “ouch”:

In the Hofburg I also visited a museum of musical instruments (which contained pianos owned by many of the great composers) and the Augustinerkirche, the main chapel of the Hofburg. It contains a vault of urns with the hearts of all the Hapsburg rulers (more on that later). The vault was closed and the chapel itself was not terribly impressive, but one striking feature was this tomb that featured a line of mourners disappearing into a dark hall:

St. Stephen’s Cathedral (the Stephensdom) is at the heart of Vienna, and much of the building is 800 years old. The most unique feature is the steep roof, covered with elaborate mosaic work. Much of it is currently under restoration, which—judging from how filthy the exterior is—is long overdue:

The most famous feature inside is the intricately carved Pilgram’s Pulpit:

Less beautiful but more entertaining is this pained statue of Jesus that the Viennese call “Christ with a Toothache”:

The original pulpit, from which St. John Capistrano once preached, was moved outside the church as a monument in 1515:

Of course, this being Vienna—and me being me—I had to visit some of the great composers’ homes. Vienna was the center of the music world in the 18th and 19th Centuries so there are plenty of landmarks accordingly. This entire building is now a museum dedicated to Mozart; it was once an apartment house and the Mozarts lived on the second floor for many years. It is sometimes called the “Figaro House” because it’s where he wrote The Marriage of Figaro:

Next up was one of Beethoven’s many, many homes (he moved around a lot). This one is called the “Pasqualati House” because it belonged to Baron Pasqualati, who rented the fourth floor to Beethoven:

He wrote many of his greatest works here, including his 4th, 5th, 7th, and 8th Symphonies and his only opera, Fidelio. The odd thing is that the rest of the building is still private apartments…so as you climb the stairs to Beethoven’s apartment (now a museum) you go past random people’s apartments who live in the same building that Beethoven once did. Weird. In any event, here’s one of his pianos:

And here are Beethoven’s salt & pepper and sugar boxes!

After seeing the places where some great composers lived, what better activity than to go and see them dead? So I headed out to the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery—ironic because it is actually quite a schlep from the center of town), which is apparently the second largest cemetery in Europe with more than 3.3 million “residents”—and counting. Conveniently collected at the cemetery’s center are the Ehrengräber, or “Honor Graves”, which include many noted notables. Here are the entrance gates, where you can buy flowers and hot wursts (both essential for any cemetery visit):

One area of the Ehrengräber is dedicated to great composers. They were either buried or moved here. Front and center are the graves on Beethoven (left) and Schubert (right). Between them is a monument to Mozart, who is buried in an unknown grave in another cemetery:

I have to say that it was a moving experience to find myself standing at the grave of Ludwig van Beethoven, at the final resting place of a man who had such a profound and lasting impact on Western society, whose music continues to move hearts and inspire genius nearly 200 years after his death:

The weird part was that, as I stood there, I could swear I heard a strange music playing faintly in the distance. Something familiar, yet foreign. It actually sounded like great works of classical music…but being played backwards. I looked around and saw no source of these strange notes. There was only one very old man, standing nearby at the grave of Suppé. It turned out he was a professor of music at the University and often came to pay his respects to the great masters. So I asked him if he could also hear this strange music, and if he knew what it was. He nodded knowingly. “Vell, most of these composers have been dead for many years.”
“Ja?” I replied in my best German. “So?”
“Zat is the sound of them DE-composing.”

(Sorry, it had to be done.)

I continued on my way to pay respects to these other titans of music, including The Waltz KingJohann Strauss Jr:

Johannes Brahms:

Christoph Wilibald Gluck:

Mozart (again, this is only a monument, not a grave):

And the more recent composer Arnold Schœnberg in a decidedly more modern grave:

Short on time, I didn’t visit too many other “Honor Graves” but it was hard to miss the Presidential Vault in the middle of it all. All of the leaders of Austria since World War II are buried here, in front of the Dr. Karl Lueger-

You know I love me some dead people…so back in town I visited the Kaisergruft (Imperial Vault), final resting place of most of the Austrian rulers of the Habsburg dynasty. It is under the Kapuzinerkirche (Capuchin Church), which is plain on the outside and simple but lovely on the inside:

The tombs below run the gamut from simple to ornate. The ample use of skulls and skeletons in their designs is rather unique and certainly shows that they have no bones about emphasizing death to be anything but that:

The most ornate tomb is reserved for Maria Theresa, one of Austria’s most renowned rulers:

The tombs of many other family members surround hers: she had a large one, given that she had 16 children herself! Her most famous child is not buried here (Marie Antoinette, who became herself Queen of France before being beheaded in the French Revolution). But nearby was this sad little coffin, all alone in a corner. It is Princess Christina, a grandchild of Maria Theresa who died at birth:

A more recent burial is Franz Joseph, one of the longest-reigning monarchs in European history. He died during World War I (which you’ll recall began when his nephew and heir to his throne, Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated on a trip to Sarajevo). After Franz Joseph, his grandnephew Charles reigned as Charles I for only 2 years before the monarchy was abolished at the end of WWI:

To the right of Franz Joseph is his son Rudolph, who was heir to the throne until he died with his mistress in a murder-suicide pact. To the left is Franz Joseph’s wife, Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria, endearingly called “Sissi”. Sissi has become somewhat of an icon in Austria of late; some people call her “the Austrian Princess Diana”. She was legendary for her beauty and grace, but apparently was very happy neither in her arranged marriage to the Emperor nor in the strict royal way of life she had to lead. She was not allowed to raise her own children, one of whom (Rudolph) eventually committed suicide. She also did not support many of the royal family’s policies and tended to empathize with the common people. Ironically, she was assassinated by an anarchist who was seeking to kill “any member” of a royal family—but killed the only one who was likely sympathetic to his beliefs. A cult of personality has arisen around here to the extent that you see “Sissi”-related exhibits and products everywhere you go.

I’m not sure why, but I’m a big fan of the Austrian Parliament building. Maybe it’s the high neoclassical design and big-ass statue of Athena:

Some detail of the Altes Rathaus:

The odd holocaust memorial in the Judensplaz, the heart of what was once the Jewish section of town:

The unique art deco Secession Building:

The famed statue of Johann Strauss in the Stadtpark:


Of course I lined up some performances for my free evenings. I was able to go to the opera twice and the symphony once. I’d been to the Vienna Staatsoper my one night in Vienna last time, but it remains an impressively beautiful house:

As beautiful as the public areas of the house are, the auditorium itself is quite simple. This is because the original auditorium was destroyed in World War II:

The first night I was Gounod’s starring real-life husband and wife team Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. Mephistopheles was played by Kwangchul Youn, whom I’ve never heard of but was impressively good:

Musically it as superb but the production was a very odd modern affair. Here the chorus is dressed in S&M outfits while the background includes giant lynched baby dolls:

The next night I was Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. I was more excited about this one because it is a truly Viennese opera. There was a certain thrill to seeing this opera the same city that Mozart called home, having just walked through the apartment where Mozart lived and wrote this opera. I was on the waiting list for a seat and ended up in the very first seat of the balcony, practically on top of the stage! The most unique thing was the orchestra. Opera fans among you will know that operas of this style have sections of recitative (a sort of half-spoken/half-sung dialogue accompanied only by a harpsichord) connecting the fully orchestrated big numbers. Usually there is a separate harpsichordist in the orchestra, but here they revived the standard technique from Mozart’s day: the conductor himself played the harpsichord portions and conducted the orchestra from it:

My seat put me right in the action! Here’s handsome Erwin Schrott as Figaro and Alexandra Reinprecht (making her debut) as Susanna:

Krassimira Stoyanova as the Countess:

The lady in the middle is Zoryana Kushpler, who played Marcellina. She gets special notice because, as you can see, she noticed me taking photos and waved at me!:

The last night I went to the Musikverein, the main concert hall in Vienna, to hear the Vienna Symphony Orchestra play an Austrian National Day concert (it don’t get more Austrian than that!) The Musikverein is an incredibly opulent hall, as much of a feast for the eyes as its unparalleled acoustics makes it a feast for the ears. It was truly one of life’s outstanding experiences to attend a concert there:

Should you be so inclined, you can see some crudely filmed highlights of some of the performances by clicking below:

Having packed quite a bit of adventure into one weekend, it was time to head home. I thought that the Jesus T-shirt and yarmulke made for an interesting pair of people waiting at the airport:

On the flight home, I found myself only 2 seats away from renowned opera baritone Thomas Hampson! I chatted with him and he was a very lovely man—and I’m going to see him at the Met in just a few days!

So all in all it was a quick but highly successful little trip to Vienna. I would definitely like to go back and see more of this beautiful city, as well as more of the country at large. Half of my ancestors came from Austria so it’s sort of a homeland for me, although in reality the places that they lived in are no longer in Austria (formerly part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, they’re now in Ukraine and Poland) and being Jews they lived in small towns where they kept to themselves (whether they wanted to or not!).

Well, here’s to further DougBlog adventures in 2009!


  • Hi Doug, I just came back from Vienna yesterday and your photos reminded me and informed me of some of the places I haven't been in Vienna (Jewish Quarters, Stadtpark, Inside of Karlkirsche; although I went to Schobrunn, Natschmart, Belvedere Garden, Rathaus etc.

    Anyway you took awesome pictures and everything I saw in your post wow-ed me!

    Thanks for sharing.

    By Anonymous JoV, at 5:26 PM  

  • Hi Doug,
    I am writing a paper on the Palaces and Royalty of Vienna and this helped out so much! I will be visiting this summer and found your pictures very helpful and exciting!

    Thanks for sharing

    By Blogger Rica, at 6:31 PM  

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