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Thinking About Vienna and the Legacy of Mozart

Jun 7, 2009 • creativity, general

Having arrived a little early for the Transalpine Conference, where I'm giving a WordPress workshop and a couple of presentations, I spent the day wandering Vienna. In the morning I saw the Schonbrunn Palace, which is kind of mind-blowing in how huge and magnificent it looks. It housed 1,500 people at the time, and makes the White House look like servant's quarters. One of the emperor's wives had a special room where she beautified her ankle-length hair, the keeping of which took several hours a day. The same emperor's wife often skipped dinner so she could stay thin. Apparently she was attractive and knew it, and wanted to keep it that way.

In another room, a sitting parlour of some kind, Mozart at age six once played a concert for the emperor. After the performance, little Wolfie ran over the empress, sat on her lap, and gave her a big hug.

After the Schonbrunn, I rode the subway system to the Haer der Musik, which as you can guess is the Hall of Music. I listened to Beethoven and Mozart and Strauss and Hayden, and then explored the sonosphere, a myriad of weird sounds and sound paradoxes, including the sounds inside the womb.

I also attended a concert on Strauss and Mozart that was no doubt put together for tourists, with a small orchestra playing highlights of the most famous pieces everyone has heard. a hundred times.

I wandered down through the center plaza by St. Stephen's cathedral—a 900-year-old cathedral which dwarfs any cathedral I've ever seen. Apparently it took 300 years to build and looks as if you could house a miniature universe inside it. Long baroque spires point up upward into the sky. The outside covering is mostly black (due to deterioration) and a bit chilling. Inside, the long, endlessly high ceiling helps amplify the sacred space and provides an appealing acoustical environment for composers, especially for pieces such as Mozart's Requiem.

The streets jutting out from St. Stephen's are narrow and bustling with city shops and strolling people. I passed a duet of street singers, a small accordion band, a guitar soloist, and finally came across about a hundred people staring up at an enormous outdoor LCD screen displaying live opera. I sat down next to the others and gazed at the opera scene. I think a woman killed someone, and the man was sitting down trying to figure out what to do. It was all in German.

As I was later eating dinner at a pizzeria, looking out onto the people on the streets, I wondered what it must be like to live in Vienna, with such a legacy of music. What exactly do you do with that legacy? How does it influence your life, to have Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, Strauss be the forefathers of where you live and breathe every day? When you see opera on a live screen, even though it might seem a little ridiculous, do you reverently stop what you're doing, sit down on the cement, and watch it? Do long symphonies strike a pleasing chord inside of you, tapping into a gene you possess because of your Vienna birthright?

The interesting thing about travel is that it takes you two places at once: on the one hand, you're surrounded by a new culture, which can at times be mesmerizing, especially in Europe. On the other hand, you also begin to see your own culture, your own ways of seeing and doing and being. You couldn't see it before because you were immersed so deep and were blind to it. As such, I also thought about my own cultural legacy (whatever that might be), and how I am handling it.

I love Mozart's music, especially symphonies with flutes, and upbeat music like Rondo Alla Turca. But in the Haer der Musik, listening to Beethoven Re:loaded (a modern rendering of Beethoven into Moby-like electronic rhythm), I couldn't help but wonder: if Mozart were alive today, would he compose 18th century symphonies, or would he be more like the Beatles? Would he write operas, or play an acoustic guitar? Would he compose baroque symphonies or rhythm and blues?

In a way the legacy of the past traps us. We immortalize the seemingly timeless art of our predecessors, but the art is not entirely timeless. It is dated. It fits a particular time and culture. I don't think any historic composer, if somehow born today with the same talent and musical ambitions, would be writing operas unless there were a legacy of operas.

Traveling solo can be lonely, with reflection as my only companion. Forgive me for the jab at opera.


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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.