Music in Vienna

Ceiling painting at Palais Lobkowitz, where Beethoven’s Eroica debuted.

There is perhaps no better way to explore and understand Vienna than through her relationship to music. We chatted to our docent Gilles Gubelmann, who leads our Music in Vienna walk, to understand more about what makes this special city sing.

Context Travel: What was it about 17th century Vienna that drew in so many musicians and composers?

Gilles Gubelmann: For the most part it was the Imperial rulers’ love of music. Imperial weddings brought the tradition and love for Italian music and opera to Vienna. Ferdinand II married Leonora Gonzaga in 1622, and Ferdinand III married 1651 another Leonora Gonzaga. With them, they brought Italian musicians and singers to Vienna. Ferdinand III was a composer himself, as well as Leopold I and Charles VI. So logically , the aristocracy would follow the court and have their own “music chapels” (private orchestras attached to the court of a wealthy aristocratic family). Not forgetting the importance and role of the Jesuits in the diffusion of Italian music in the context of the counter reform.

CT: How did the city’s famous composers influence its art and architecture?

GG: Composers didn’t necessarily influence art and architecture, however, they were related to personalities who had a direct influence on artistic creations. For example, Pietro Metastasio, a famous librettist from Rome who had been called to Vienna by the court, was also in charge of elaborating concepts for large paintings, for example the huge, beautiful ceiling of the Academy of Sciences, painted by Gregorio Guglielmi. Metastasio was the librettist of Mozart’s “Clemenza di Tito”.

CT: How have the city’s numerous concert halls and theaters inspired music in Vienna, and how have they influenced it?

GG: Let’s not forget that Vienna was the capital of a huge empire and attracted many composers from abroad. Music and opera were for a long time the privilege of aristocracy, and they competed to have the best or most famous composer working for them. Haydn, for example, worked for the Esterhàzy family for over 30 years. Beethoven was a protégé of the Lobkowicz family. Opera, drama and comedy and ballet were performed in theaters. Sometimes concerts too. Instrumental music was performed mainly in the palaces of the aristocracy or in places with a  more or less convenient acoustics. You had to wait for the rising bourgeoisie in the 19th century to have the creation of the Musikverein (Music Society).

CT: Do you have a favorite venue?

GG: A great venue is the Theater an der Wien, whose audience room still has its decor from the early 19th century, and where Beethoven lived for a short period. He had the first public performance of his 3rd symphony there. The theatre of Schonbrunn Castle is a little jewel, but only accessible for productions of the University of Music and Performing Arts. The Musikverein and Konzerthaus are great locations for concerts.

CT: Music also provided a focal point for the intelligentsia of the 19th and 20th century. What is the context of this fruitful relationship?

GG: Gustav Mahler, for example, was one of the most important personalities in the music world at the turn of century. At this time he was even better known as a conductor and theatre director. He was a friend of the secessionist artist Gustav Klimt and encouraged many reforms in the world of Opera. He also knew Sigmund Freud.

CT: How has this rich history shaped Vienna into the city we encounter today?

GG: Vienna remains a synonym for quality in music. The Vienna Philharmonic is among the best orchestras in the world and the State Opera’s reputation is based on the years of glory between 1960 and 1990 where only the best stars in the world would sing there and where people would spend the night queuing to get a ticket. After WWII, Vienna has also developed into an international platform for contemporary music, with a festival called Wien Modern.