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Stalking Mozart

1 January 2018

Walking in the footsteps of Austria’s most influential composer takes time, dedication and a strong aversion to tourist-a-rama

Leopold Mozart would have admired the marketing skills of the persistent young men in ratty wigs and fraying red waistcoats who prowl Stephansplatz, Vienna’s central square. Just as the elder Mozart aggressively promoted the talents of his son Wolfgang Amadeus, these costumed hawkers are on a similar promotional mission: Their assignment is to drum up customers for the steady output of ingratiatingly light, short-attention-span classical performances programmed around town especially for tourists drawn to one of the most famous cities in western music history.

A visitor can’t go terribly wrong following the touts of these barkers in their cartoon costumes mimicking the great composer, whose image graces the boxes of foil-wrapped, chocolate-and-marzipan Mozartkugeln sold around town. After all, a bite-size portion of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is better than no Little Night Music at all. But on a November visit to Vienna, I waved off all enterprising impostors, with their handbills and hustles.

I am a lapsed violist and a serious practising Mozartian. I may no longer have the chops to play in a string quartet, but I retain my love of the man’s celestial music. It is because of him that I was in Stephansplatz in the first place on a chilly pre-winter’s day, looking for remnants of the real man.

Inevitably, while I was at it, I walked in the footsteps of plenty of other giants of the classical repertory who made Vienna their home over the last three centuries. Celebrated resident musicians have included Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, Franz Schubert, Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Hugo Wolf and a passel of Strausses, among them Johann senior and junior, and the unrelated Richard.

The little pension in which I set up Mozart-stalking headquarters was on an unprepossessing side street equidistant from the Vienna State Opera and the Stadtpark. In one direction stood the imposing opera house (rebuilt and restored after wartime destruction in 1945), where Mahler conducted at the turn of the century and introduced the radical notion of dimming the theatre lights during performances. (A quick detour on a street behind the building leads to a plaque noting where Vivaldi once lived.) In the other direction lay the stately municipal park, with its sculpted monuments to Bruckner, Schubert, Franz Lehar and Johann Strauss Jr. That last, an ornate masterwork of selfie bait called the Johann Strauss Golden Statue, features the waltz king poised with fiddle and bow as if to strike up the Blue Danube Waltz.

But with limited time available for exploration, I focused on one man – not least because Mozart set some kind of record for changes of Viennese address. Born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1756, he moved to Vienna in 1781, when he was 25. And in the next 10 years, until his death in 1791, Wolfgang (along with his wife, Constanze, and the two of his six children who lived past infancy) occupied some dozen apartments during his 35 short years on earth, all within the city’s inner District 1. Sometimes the tenancy lasted a matter of weeks or months.

There are plaques, but no extant homes, to show for Mozart’s first two addresses, at Singerstrasse 7 and Milchgasse 1 beside St Peter’s Church. There is no plaque at all at Graben 17. And to find any commemorative notification of Mozart’s last address, on Rauhensteingasse 8, a pilgrim must head to the rear of the Steffl department store, which occupies the footprint of an apartment building, demolished in 1847, in which Mozart and his family were living when he died.

On the other hand, one very solid edifice where the great man once walked continues to do big business. After two years as husband and wife, Wolfgang and Constanze moved in 1784 to fine digs at Domgasse 5, and they lived there for three years. (That was a record of stability for the couple; pity the missus, forever packing the family knickknacks and supervising 18th-century moving vans.)

Music poured out of the artist in that happy, prosperous time – concertos, chamber works, The Marriage of Figaro. And drink flowed, too, for guests including Joseph Haydn. Johann Nepomuk Hummel moved in for a time as Mozart’s student.

Today the building is renamed Mozarthaus Vienna. Managed by the city’s Wien Museum, it was substantially renovated and spiffed up in 2006 (timed to the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth) to emulate a model of modern exhibition showmanship: A relatively small nub of historical authenticity is padded out with slick, somewhat Disneyfied interpretive displays and audiovisual installations. Above all, the gift shop looms large, hawking Mozart pencils, key chains, perfumes, playing cards, paper napkins, thimbles, miniature busts, chocolates, golf balls and snap-on cases for cellphones.

Leopold Mozart would have been so impressed. But all those gaudy golf balls left me feeling vaguely bested by souvenirs. So much so that I walked back to Stephansplatz and into St Stephen’s Cathedral itself – called Stephansdom – to soothe my consternation and, indeed, to contemplate life and death. After all, it was here that Wolfgang Amadeus and Constanze were married in the cathedral, a magnificent symbol of all Vienna, in 1782. Two of their children were christened there. And an unspectacular requiem Mass (with none of Mozart’s music) was celebrated there after Mozart’s death; a plaque commemorates the event.

Haydn, once a Stephansdom choirboy, was married in the church in 1760, as was Johann Strauss Jr. At the other end of life’s procession, the names of Vivaldi, Antonio Salieri and Schubert appear in the cathedral’s death register.

Clearly, it was time for me to visit the final resting place of the man whose music Albert Einstein described as “so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master”. But where exactly was he resting? I took a tram ride away from the city bustle to the divinely quiet St Marx Cemetery on Leberstrasse 6-8 in District 3, where Mozart’s coffin was transported by coach. In contrast to legend and the Oscar-winning 1984 movie Amadeus, the body was interred not as that of a nameless pauper. Rather, adhering to a decree by the efficiency- and sanitation-minded Emperor Joseph II, his burial, like all others, took place in a communal, unmarked grave.

Unfortunately, without marking, Mozart’s resting place could not be found by the time his widow went looking for it years after his death (ill from grief, she hadn’t attended his funeral). In the intervening years, the bones in his contingent of dead souls had probably been dug up and reinterred to make room for the more recently deceased. Not until 1855 was an approximation of the gravesite selected in a grassy stretch of those communal graves, and a memorial built.

The cemetery stayed open for new business only another 19 years, closing in 1874. No wonder it is such a satisfyingly moody, atmospherically dishevelled sanctuary, thick with vegetation and mournful with pockets of disrepair. Lilacs bloom there in springtime, but late November was a nicely raw time to walk among the Biedermeier-period headstones.

And it was easy to find the romantically lachrymose memorial so often photographed today; just enter the main gate and follow the signs to Mozartgrab, where a grieving angel rests a right elbow, heavy with sorrow, on the base of an artfully broken marble column, and flowers are enhanced by offerings from reverent visitors.

Then again, this particular statuary has been around only since 1950, while the stone artwork installed in 1855 was moved to one last, and lasting, Viennese site of Mozartean contemplation. And so off I went by tram again, to the city’s central cemetery, the Zentralfriedhof. It is central, that is, to the history of the city: One of the largest burial sites in the world, it is, in fact, on the outskirts of town. Yet the founders were canny.

To draw visitors, Zentralfriedhof plans always included a selection of honorary graves, or ehrengraber. And chief among the honoured are the city’s musical greats, which is why the graves of Brahms and Schoenberg receive such regular foot traffic. And why the remains of Beethoven and Schubert were moved there in 1888, now flanking Mozart in a place of honour.

A stiff wind picked up as I stood in front of the three. Bits of Mozart’s own transcendent Requiem played in my head. Far from the concert carnies of Stephansplatz and the kitschy key chains of Mozarthaus Vienna, I was refreshed, sated. As I took the No 71 tram back towards my pension, I experienced the fervour Schubert must have felt when he wrote in his 1816 diary, “O Mozart, immortal Mozart, how many, how infinitely many inspiring suggestions of a finer, better life you have left in our souls!”

Words: Lisa Schwarzbaum

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