A River Runs Through It: Vienna

The river is still the Danube, but it’s less evident than it was in Budapest, where we walked by it or across it every day. In Vienna we feel the presence of the Danube as a musical time signature, curved and sweeping, superimposed over our daily activities. Music is everywhere. In the gift shop of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Jesus and the Virgin Mary share space with Mozart and other composers; rosaries and tiny music boxes get equal billing. You can hardly eat a chocolate bon-bon without having to peel off a very attractive wrapper with Mozart’s face on it.

That’s high classical—Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—but there is also the waltz, the Waltz King, and “The Blue Danube.” On our second day in Vienna, which happened to be Halloween day, we visited the Haus der Music, a modern, high-tech museum devoted to the history and science of Viennese music. We rolled dice—Joe threw the red die and I threw the blue one—and a giant screen made aleatory music out of the results. The composition wasn’t half bad, either. Then we let Mozart write music based on the spelling of our names. He seems to have composed a brief phrase for every letter of the alphabet, and the results could be played back in their original form or orchestrated. And that was just the first floor.

The next level was devoted to the science of music, and that’s where everything got very high tech. I learned that my ability to discern musical pitch was somewhat better than a grasshopper’s and nowhere near as good as a dog’s. On to the next level, with rooms devoted to various composers with Austrian roots, including Johann Strauss, called the Waltz King, who composed “The Blue Danube.” I remembered watching Kathryn Murray demonstrate the Viennese Waltz, and I wished I had sent away for the footprints. The museum’s app, which we had downloaded to our phones, contained additional information about each composer, along with links to You Tube videos of each composer’s music. Last stop was the virtual conductor room, where a large, interactive philharmonic was playing on the big screen. Anyone could attempt to conduct, and there were choices of three or four different pieces of music. We watched a couple of children make the effort, including one who was still a toddler. They both did quite well at waving the baton, but at a certain point the musicians stopped playing and started laughing at their ineptitude. It was all good fun, but I didn’t give it a try because I didn’t want the musicians to laugh at me.

But the Danube isn’t all waltzes and music. One odd association that I brought to it comes from research I did some years ago for a series of poems that I’m still trying to turn into a book. My main character’s gentleman friend—I’ll call it that, but it was more than friendship and certainly less than love—had an uncle who was instrumental in encouraging settlement near the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. The uncle, David Parish, was born to a wealthy Scottish family in Hamburg in 1778. He was associated with an international banking firm in Antwerp that sent him to the United States, where he supervised the transfer of Mexican silver to Europe via New Orleans. In other words, he was laundering money. In upstate New York, he invested in land purchases, iron works, and sawmills and built a mansion in Ogdensburg; the mansion is now a museum housing Remington bronzes. He returned to Europe, settled in Vienna, and, in an uncertain financial climate, made some bad investments and lost all his money. He drowned himself in the Danube in 1826. 

We had been spiraling higher and higher in the Haus der Music, and by the time we took the elevator back down to the ground floor, night had fallen. Halloween night. The nice people at the ticket desk were all wearing costumes, and the large ground-floor room was filled with children, little girls dressed as witches, little boys dressed as skeletons. Time for us to waltz out the door and look for a place to have dinner. 

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