Vienna’s indestructible charm (“The Statesman”)

The Statesman (Kolkata)

24 June 2012

Vienna’s indestructible charm
A Hallowed Tradition That Is Jealously Kept Alive

Martin Kämpchen

WALKING around Vienna, Austria’s capital, is like a stroll through the garden of history. Last year, I had written from Vienna describing the burial of the eldest son of the last emperor (Kaiser) of the Habsburg monarchy. The imperial touch was very much present with a sea of people following the cortège as if Otto von Habsburg had been a reigning monarch. Even without such reminders Vienna’s architecture and open spaces are full of imperial grandeur. The inner city, the “First District”, is a compact ensemble of majestic houses whose fronts are decorated with imposing figures from history or from Greek mythology. Each house seems to tell its own story. This is also driven home by the numerous plaques fastened on house fronts indicating who lived or died there or wrote which book or piece of music. As a serious visitor does not, however, get sucked into the flow of the tourists who cannot resist the Stefansdom, Vienna’s cathedral, and the Graben, a promenade, and the Kärntner Strasse, an elegant shopping mall. Rather, follow the deserted cobble-stoned lanes with their corner shops and, squeezed into a row of houses, the small churches which bear wonderful treasures in their dusky interiors.
The Ring Road, encircling the First District, has Vienna’s most commanding buildings along its two sides: the Staatsoper (State Opera), the Hofburg (Imperial Palace), the Rathaus (Municipality) and Parliament, the Burgtheater (State Theatre) and University. But in between them you will find a variety of parks and gardens and beyond the inner city these gardens become open spaces again of imperial dimensions. They once provided the proper ambience for the summer residences of kings and queens. Today these gardens are open to the public and used as recreational areas for inhabitants and visitors alike. They give Vienna a quality of life which possibly no other European metropolis enjoys.
You can sense the proximity of the East. Friends jokingly claim that “Asia begins in the suburbs of Vienna”. Historically, the Turks battled their way up to the gates of Vienna and could only then be contained. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, Vienna was full of East Europeans, but thereafter the influx has still increased. Sitting in a tramway, you rarely hear Austrian German being spoken. Some beggars who squat before church doors or the musicians on the pavements are generally Romanians. Their music is heart-rending in their sentimental monotony; I could listen to them forever. But the South, too, is close: Italy and the erstwhile Yugoslavia have a border with Austria, and you are aware of their extrovert temperament on the streets, while the Vienna gentlefolk prefers to be more formal and remote. Even then, compared to, say Germany, life in Vienna is relaxed. Punctuality is not at a premium, and discipline is evident only when really needed. It’s Asia’s gentle knock.
Vienna’s grandeur is jealously kept alive in its music culture. The State Opera is one of the premier opera houses in the world with famous singers and conductors performing, making every opera night is an unforgettable celebration of beauty. People tell me that a crisis of the State Opera’s management is considered more serious and perturbing than a government crisis. The Musikvereinssaal, a gilded hall, and the Konzerthaussaal, each seating about 2000 people, bring to the public a concert virtually every evening. When you have famous artists returning to the city after an absence of several years, they will be applauded with shouts of “bravo” and standing ovations which may last for half-an-hour.
And then there are a dozen other, smaller, concert halls and two more, smaller, opera houses, all that in a city of just 1.5 million inhabitants. Wherever you walk on the crowded streets you will invariably spot a musical instrument fastened to the back of its player. Music is everywhere, reminding me of Kolkata; no celebration is complete without a Tagore song.
When I was a student in Vienna, I could not of course afford to buy seats in the opera and the theatres. Instead, I got inexpensive tickets for the “Stehplatz” behind the seats, from where you could watch standing. Young enthusiasts that we were, we believed we were the real “experts” and arrogated to ourselves the right to lead the rest in apportioning praise and disapproval. Our judgment was severe, but once we fell for the brilliance of a performance, our “bravos” knew no end.
Another hallowed tradition is the coffee-house culture. Entire novels are said to have been written in these coffee-houses with their small tables and large mirrors. Writers used to chat with their colleagues and read newspapers, meet their publishers and write letters. Sipping coffee is just one of the many activities. Even today the Vienna coffee-houses have their distinct flair. No music, no television, no loud voices. Guests may sit forever reading the many newspapers that a coffee-house provides. The waiters treat newcomers with an air of aristocratic haughtiness, while the regulars are being doted on.
Why, I wonder, is Vienna wrapped up in an air of melancholy? Why is the humour in its literature, in the cabarets and in common parlance so much laced with ideas of the macabre and visions of death? Is it because of this imbalance between a grandiose style, borrowed from history, and the humble realities of a relatively unimportant country? Is it because of the loss of the monarchy which threatens the country’s cultural vitality? There is a variety of answers to this. But even the kinky irony in newspaper editorials is filled with the vibrations of mortality. Important contemporary writers like Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard have fled Vienna and its culture preferring to nurture their misgivings about the city from afar.
Two episodes experienced during this year’s stay in Vienna, demonstrate to me its ambiguities. One Sunday noon, I was sitting with a Pakistani scholar in a simple street restaurant discussing literature; he wanted my advice for his thesis. At the table beside us was an elderly couple having a leisurely meal. After my acquaintance left, I began a conversation with them, mentioning my roots in India and my regular visits to Vienna. When we finally exchanged visiting cards, I discovered that they were none other than Prince Wolfgang Liechtenstein and his wife, members of one of the old aristocratic families of Vienna with even a museum to their name.
The second episode occurred in the State Opera during a ballet performance. Next to me sat a very old man who had arrived supported by his companion and a stick. During intermission we started talking and with surprise I came to know that he was a Jewish businessman who in 1938 was lucky enough to escape when the German Nazi rulers took over Austria. He made his home in Israel while his entire family was wiped out in the concentration camps. He related this without much emotion. Mr Zehngebot said that whenever he travels from Tel Aviv to Europe he would without fail route his trip through Vienna in order to spend a few days (and attend the opera and the theatre). His daughter, who was with him, spoke Hebrew. She had grown up in Israel and therefore knew little German.
The writer is a German scholar based in Santiniketan. He can be reached at

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