With complete gravity and solemnity of expression (First Movement)
Living in Australia, it is difficult and expensive to visit the great European concert halls regularly, which is why I plan my rare family visits to the northern hemisphere with as much live music as possible.
On this trip, I was excited to attend two famous venues in Vienna – the Musikverein, and the Wiener Konzerthaus.
My sister was yawning, and my mum fell asleep while attending an orchestral performance of the young Wiener Symphoniker at the Musikverein.
The grandeur and exclusivity of the 19th century palace of music did not provide protection from the boring rendition of the uninspiring mix of Mozart, Haydn and Schubert pieces.
I have great respect and appreciation for classical music, but not enough to distinguish between the romantic and classical periods for example. My parameters for what constitute good music are simple – do I get Goosebumps or shivers? – if I do, it’s good – if not I’m indifferent or want it to stop.
As music is a function of time and space, Voltaire words are always relevant – “…Music nowadays is simply the art of executing something that is difficult to perform, and in the long run, something that is merely difficult, ceases to amuse…”
Voltaire knew this in the 18th century, before music was called “classical” and labelled it as noise if it lasted for too long or presented in certain circumstances.
I purchased the expensive tickets well in advance. I work as a sound engineer so I was curious about the status of the venue as one with the finest acoustics in the world.
While being in 1870 Great Hall was as acoustically impressive as it gets, the whole experience was very uncomfortable. The music reverberated majestically, un-amplified throughout the shoebox shaped golden hall but the hard wooden seats didn’t respond well to our bums, the isles were narrow, no one was allowed to take any pictures, all of the information was in German so we couldn’t understand what was going on, and at the end the staff hurried everyone out as soon as the musicians were off the stage. It was like being at the museum for music where we were not allowed to enjoy. Just quickly appreciate, and leave.
It was clear why my mum and sister preferred not to come to the other performance I booked, so I went by myself.
Very leisurely. Never rush (Second Movement)
In 2013, it was only five years since I moved to Australia and I was very amused by the Austrian memorabilia riffing on tourists confusion between Australia and Austria. There seem to be a real hunger here for beach culture and Kangaroos. As Austria is landlocked, man-made pop-up “beaches” are popular with locals and tourists alike.
My expectations of the next performance were not high due the oppression I experienced at the Musikverein. But it was only me now, so I felt less pressured for time and for subjecting my family to painful culture. I left early from our centrally located hotel with the intention of discovering the city on my way to the Wiener Konzerthaus. I found myself lounging on a beach chair, eating a Kangaroo steak and drinking VB not far from the venue. It was bizarre, but the sun was shining as I was pondering on the effort required to truck the beach sand to the middle of Vienna and about the trade of dead Kangaroos. Being there by myself, without my Israeli family, I had no worries, I felt Australian for the first time, amused by the silly Europeans attempting to be cool against all odds.
As I was approaching the venue, I could hear the sound of a brass section standing on the exterior balcony, playing joyful tunes to the people on the street as they gather around the main entrance. It felt much more welcoming than the strict regime of the Musikverein.
Inside, the large cavernous hall was imposing. The ushers were less militant and there was more time to admire the hall as people slowly made their way to their seats. I was sitting in the centre of the second row. At the feet of the large stage. Huge organ pipes stretched to the ceiling with balconies on either side. There were no loudspeakers to be seen and the only modern technology I could spot was several tiny microphones hanging on wires, presumably for recording.
Next to me sat an elderly man with a severe expression who seemed accustomed to classical music concerts. I smiled at him politely. His face was blank. I was there for the acoustics, not so much for the music, but I couldn’t stay indifferent to the fact I’m about to experience the most praised orchestra on the planet – It was the Berlin Philharmonic in collaboration with the Wiener Choir performing Mahler’s 2nd Symphony.
With quietly flowing movement (Third Movement)
As soon as the music started, I could hardly control my body. The power was so immense, shivers and sweat went down my spine. Each movement, more powerful than the previous one.
I closed my eyes and allowed my body to surrender to the music. At some point during the second or third movement, I heard the auditorium door to my right open, and much to my bewilderment, an offstage section of the orchestra comprising of twenty brass players and percussionists began to play in sync with the musicians on stage from the corridor.
I thought it must be a mistake, but soon discovered the genius of Mahler; the door was shut after a few phrases and a second door, further back was opened, and the same trend continued – the offstage section played more passages, which arrived from a different direction, melting into my ears and mixing with the sounds arriving from the stage. I was surrounded with music, perfectly balanced, without any form of electric amplification in a 2000 seat packed hall. The madness evolved and the offstage section went all around the auditorium, performing bits from each of the ten entrance points as the sounds danced in surround, merging and moulding invisible shapes in the air.
Mahler kept the best to the end. When the choir started in the fourth movement It all exploded and the tears started to flow uncontrollably. I was shivering and crying from joy, unsure if I’m going to be removed for inappropriate behaviour as memories of the strictness and stiffness of the Musikverein experience a few days before echoed in my mind. After all, classical music was supposed to be for serious adults, but I felt like a child in a theme park cuddled by dolphins.
Of course, the German text meant nothing to me, but the feeling was of resurrection. Which was what I later learnt the piece was all about.
After the final note I looked to the side and the person next to me was also in tears. We hugged and shook hands, looking into each other’s eyes feeling a deep connection.
The text as translated from German (Source – Wikipedia):
O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.
To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!
Primal Light (Fourth Movement)
Exiting the venue, I was slightly unstable and shaken, it was after dark and Vienna lit up with old romantic dimness, I walked the cobblestones without looking at the map, following my memory in the general direction of the hotel. The adrenaline was flooding my body, I wasn’t ready to go to sleep yet. I found a corner Irish pub. I walked in, sat by the bar, ordered a single malt whisky and read all about Mahler second symphony on my phone. When I finished, I noticed I had a companion drinking next to me, an old man with a distinguished beard.
“What are you reading?” he asked with a heavy Irish accent. So heavy, I wasn’t sure if he spoke English.
I told him about my night with the Berlin philharmonic.
“Oh. That’s nice, I love music. Where you from?”
His eyes lit up a little.
“Oh really? I’m Irish you know?”
It couldn’t be any clearer.
“What is it like to live with all the mess and terror you guys have there?”
“I actually live Australia” I said “I grew up in Israel, did my military service and decided I wanted to live somewhere else. Not because of the politics, it was only a small part of it”.
“What are you drinking?”
I looked into my empty glass. “Talisker”
He ordered me another one and another beer for himself, launching into a story about his life in Northern Ireland during the time the IRA was highly active. It took another three whiskeys for the story to be told. I could only understand a small fraction of it but tried to interact in the best I could. My comprehension abilities reducing as the whisky was pouring, but I nodded as I enjoyed the sound of his voice and recognised the intensity of emotion in his story. I will never understand what it was like to experience Irish terror, but I somehow felt related to him.
Maybe I was just drunk. When it was clear to me I’m unable to hold the conversation anymore, I thanked him for the whisky and the stories and left.
In the tempo of the scherzo (Fifth and final Movement)
Still thinking of Mahler, but now in the context of European history, war and the function of music, I wobbled on the cobblestones in the romantic dimness of old Vienna towards the hotel.
In the end, Mahler was a genius, but a bit delirious with all the afterlife stuff, judging from the text. Maybe he was just unable to find peace being such a genius and his own thoughts tormented him. I will never know.
It was about 1 am when I approached the hotel entrance. On the sidewalk, outside of the hotel there was a table with a few chairs in front of a parked bus. I passed three people seating there with drinks, staring intently at the bus. As I crossed their sightline, one of them addressed me.
“Excuse me”. said the man in the suit with an undone tie who was seated in the middle
“What do you think about this painting?”
There was a free standing two-meter-tall, colourful, abstract oil painting leaning on the parked bus.
“I don’t know” I said, “I need to think about it”.
“Come join us” He said as he pulled out another chair.
“Ok” I said, and sat down close to the moustached man with a hat. Before I could formulate a considered critique of the artwork, another man walked past the bus. The suited man addressed him and asked the same question.
The man looked at the painting for a short while and said something in German. The two man had a short exchange and greeted each other good night. I watched on as a few other passers-by shared their impressions until one woman asked who the artist is.
“He is sitting right here” said the suited man, turning to the man sitting to his right. “the artist himself!”.
“Wow, that’s a beautiful painting” said the woman. Is it part of an exhibition?
It was then revealed that the artist and the curator were on their way to install the painting at a nearby gallery when the suited man stopped them and suggested they could place the painting on the street to get the reactions of strangers “out of context”.
After about a dozen reviews from strangers, the artist called it off.
“We must go now, it is getting late”
With the help of the curator he carefully picked up the painting and carried it into the night. We wished them good night and the suited man asked me if I wanted a drink.
“Why not” I said.
It was late, but the suited man was just warming up. It was just me and him now, on a quiet Viennese sidewalk. A short introduction revealed he worked as a diplomat for the European Union, and had somewhat of boring night prior to the impromptu art exhibition he had organised. He was after a formal dinner which went badly so he decided to have a few more drinks. I don’t know how many he had, but he kept his charm despite the booziness. I was quite intoxicated by that point but curios as to what this man is about.
“So where are you from and what are you doing here so late?” he asked.
“I’m from Israel, I’m staying at this hotel with my mum and sister. I actually lived in Australia for the past five years but came to visit my family and really wanted to see Vienna…I just came back from this amazing concert at the Konzerhause…”
His face suddenly lost some of the theatrical aroma he held for the last hour.
“I once had a great love in Israel” he begun “She was the most beautiful women I’ve ever met. We lived together and I learned a bit of Hebrew. Shalom!” he said with an awkward smile.
“I loved her more than anything in the world, but it didn’t work out and she left me. I guess work got in the way, and I’m not really sure, to be honest”.
I was struck by the sadness in his voice. He was Austrian and his English was sharp and clear.
He asked me about my family and what I’m doing in Australia. What I love about living abroad and after seeing Vienna if I’m thinking about moving here.
We talked until the first light slowly appeared and it was time to go to sleep. He gave me his card and said I can contact him if I ever come back to Europe.
I quietly entered the hotel room trying not to wake my mum and sister, but mum being a mum, was waiting half-awake in her bed, quietly asking as I entered “Where have you been?”
“I had a really good night, I’m tired now but I’ll tell you tomorrow”
From Mahler writing larger than life music because he was unable to come to terms with the death of a friend, imagining an afterlife following the great pain of living, to landlocked Austrians setting up Australian beaches against all odds, to the Irish struggle with terrible violence rooted in disagreement on political ideology and the successful but broken-hearted EU diplomat who wanted to bring people together as he felt lonely.
In a single night, Vienna encapsulated the universality of what it means to be a human in the world.
Europe still has its charm…