Music is central to Viennese life. From the concertos of Mozart and Johann Strauss's waltzes to opera and folk tunes, the Viennese are surrounded by music -- and not only in the concert hall and opera house, but at the heurige as well. The works of the musicians mentioned below are available on classical CDs.
The Classical Period
The classical period was a golden age in Viennese musical life. Two of the greatest composers of all time, Mozart and Haydn, worked in Vienna. Maria Theresa herself trilled arias on the stage of the Schlosstheater at Schönbrunn, and she and her children and friends often performed operas and dances.
Classicism's first great manifestation was the development of Singspiele, a reform of opera by Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714-87). Baroque opera had become overburdened with ornamentation, and Gluck introduced a more natural musical form. In 1762, Maria Theresa presented Vienna with the first performance of Gluck's innovative opera Orpheus and Eurydice. It and Alceste (1767) are his best-known operas, regularly performed today.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is the creator of the classical sonata, which is the basis of classical chamber music. Haydn's patrons were the rich and powerful Esterházy family, whom he served as musical director. His output was prodigious. He wrote chamber music, sonatas, operas, and symphonies. His strong faith is in evidence in his oratorios; among the greatest are The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801). He also is the composer of the Austrian national anthem (1797), which he later elaborated in his quartet, Opus 76, no. 3.
The most famous composer of the period was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). The prodigy from Salzburg charmed Maria Theresa and her court with his playing when he was only 6 years old. His father, Leopold, exploited his son's talent -- "Wolferl" spent his childhood touring all over Europe. Later he went with his father to Italy, where he absorbed that country's fertile musical traditions. Leaving Salzburg, he settled in Vienna, at first with great success. His influence effected fundamental and widespread changes in the musical life of the capital. Eccentric and extravagant, he was unable to keep patronage or land any lucrative post; he finally received an appointment as chamber composer to the emperor Joseph II at a minimal salary. Despite hard times, Mozart refused the posts offered him in other cities, possibly because in Vienna he found the best of all musical worlds -- the best instrumentalists, the finest opera, the most talented singers. He composed more than 600 works in practically every musical form known to the time; his greatest compositions are unmatched in beauty and profundity. He died in poverty, buried in a pauper's grave in Vienna, the whereabouts of which are uncertain.
The Romantic Age
Franz Schubert (1797-1828), the only one of the great composers born in Vienna, was of the Biedermeier era and the most Viennese of musicians. He turned lieder, popular folk songs often used with dances, into an art form. He was a master of melodic line, and he created hundreds of songs, chamber music works, and symphonies. At the age of 18, he showed his genius by setting the words of German poet Goethe to music in Margaret at the Spinning Wheel and the Elf King. His Unfinished Symphony remains his best-known work, but his great achievement lies in his chamber music and song cycles.
The 19th Century
After 1850, Vienna became the world's capital of light music, exporting it to every corner of the globe. The waltz, originally developed as a rustic Austrian country dance, was enthusiastically adopted by Viennese society.
Johann Strauss (1804-49), composer of more than 150 waltzes, and his talented and entrepreneurial son, Johann Strauss the Younger (1825-99), who developed the art form further, helped spread the stately and graceful rhythms of the waltz across Europe. The younger Strauss also popularized the operetta, the genesis of the Broadway musical.
The tradition of Viennese light opera continued to thrive, thanks to the efforts of Franz von Suppé (1819-95) and Hungarian-born Franz Lehár (1870-1948). Lehár's witty and mildly scandalous The Merry Widow (1905) is the most popular and amusing light opera ever written.
Vienna did not lack for important serious music in the late 19th century. Anton Bruckner (1824-96) composed nine symphonies and a handful of powerful masses. Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), following in Schubert's footsteps, reinvented key elements of the German lieder with his five great song cycles. Most innovative of all was Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). A pupil of Bruckner, he expanded the size of the orchestra, often added a chorus or vocal soloists, and composed evocative music, much of it set to poetry.
Shall We Waltz? -- Dictionaries define the waltz as a form of "round dance," but anyone who has ever succumbed to its magic invariably defines it as pure enjoyment, akin to falling in love -- a giddy, romantic spinning associated with women in long gowns, men in formal clothing, and elaborate ballrooms.
Many people think that the Strausses -- father and son -- actually invented the dance. However, the waltz has roots throughout Europe and began its life in theaters and inns. Fashionable hostesses considered it vulgar. At court, highly stylized dances, such as the minuet and the gavotte, were the rule. The waltz, gaining propriety in the second half of the 18th century, brought a greater naturalism and zest to grand parties with its rhythmic lilt and uninhibited spinning.
A violinist and composer of dance music, Johann Strauss the Elder (1804-49) introduced his famous Tauberlwalzer in Vienna in 1826. As a dance musician for court balls, he became indelibly associated with the social glitter of the Austrian court. His fame grew to such an extent that he began a series of tours (1833-40) that took him to England, where he conducted his music at Queen Victoria's coronation.
His famous son, Johann Strauss the Younger, was "the King of the Waltz." He formed his own dance band and met with instant success. He toured Europe and even went to America, playing his waltzes to enthusiastic audiences. By 1862, he relinquished the leadership of his orchestra to his two brothers and spent the rest of his life writing music. He brought the waltz to such a high degree of technical perfection that eventually he transformed it into a symphonic form in its own right.
The waltz lives on today in his most famous pieces, "The Blue Danube" (1867), "Tales from the Vienna Woods" (1868), "Weiner Blut," and the "Emperor Waltz." His genius ushered in the "golden age of operetta." Every New Year's Eve, the Vienna State Opera schedules a splendid performance of perhaps the best beloved of his operettas, Die Fledermaus (1874). The heritage of "the Waltz King" forms a vital part of Austria's cultural self-image.
The New Vienna School
Mahler's musical heirs forever altered the world's concepts of harmony and tonality, and introduced what were then shocking concepts of rhythm. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) expanded Mahler's style in such atonal works as Das Buch der Hangenden Garten (1908) and developed a 12-tone musical technique referred to as "dodecaphony" (Suite for Piano, 1924). By the end of his career, he pioneered "serial music," series of notes with no key center, shifting from one tonal group to another. Anton von Webern (1883-1945) and Alban Berg (1885-1935), composer of the brilliant but esoteric opera Wozzeck, were pupils of Schoenberg's. They adapted his system to their own musical personalities.
Finally, this discussion of Viennese music would not be complete without mention of the vast repertoire of folk songs, Christmas carols, and country dances that have inspired professional musicians and ordinary folk alike for generations. The most famous Christmas carol in the world, "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" ("Silent Night, Holy Night"), was composed and performed for the first time in Salzburg in 1818 and heard in Vienna for the first time that year.
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