I watched Tom Service’s documentary, The Joy of Mozart the night before I flew to Vienna. In it he explored the making of the Mozart myth and the fetishization of the composer; from the little statuettes in the shops in Salzburg which bear no resemblance to contemporary descriptions of the man, to the Mozart Chocolate balls, a weird concoction of marzipan and chocolate. No doubt the Austrian Ambassador spoils his guests with them instead of Ferrero Rocher…
The Mozart ®© that is peddled in the streets of Salzburg and Vienna seems so far removed from the reality of the man (as far as we know) that the actual music and the personality cult industry have become detached. You want to listen to Mozart in Vienna? You’ll be wanting to buy tickets from a man in a cloak, arrive by horse drawn carriage and enjoy it only in the light of flickering candles then…
Sure enough, the second I board my Austrian Airline flight from Heathrow, the loudspeakers are blasting the most unsubtle version of Eine Kleine nachmusik I’ve ever heard. Just as I think it can’t get any worse, The Blue Danube rears its saccharine head and I can’t wait for the roar of the engines to drown out the aural destruction of the music heritage business. I, unlike many, cannot claim to know what Mozart would have made of it all, but a man who could write such extraordinary music encompassing the depth of human emotion would most probably be surprised to see the way his legacy has been airbrushed and sweetened for public consumption in the 21st century.
As I run around Vienna, the sound of the city that I hear isn’t one that you would assume given the numerous musical excerpts that could apply. No, the sound that dominates for me is that of the ambulance siren. It’s nothing to do with a 40 something man going for a run, I can assure you, it’s just a particular sound. Everywhere else in the world seems to have adopted the more American wailing kind of siren, but here in Vienna, the sound of the ambulance is still the same as all the cold war thrillers that punctuated TV viewing in my childhood. The empty (compared to london) streets of the 1960’s of central Europe seemed to have a permanent soundtrack of these distinctive sirens as spies danced in the shadows. For a while this morning, it’s as if the ghosts of the past are chasing me down. In Vienna, even the ambulances look back to another time. The sky on the long, wide streets are criss-crossed with electric cables which reflect the tram lines underfoot. The old ladies still walk around in long fur coats, the roads are all named after long dead composers and Sachertorte is reliably available in the Hotel Sacher. On the surface at least, it looks like nothing has changed for a hundred years.
Performing Mahler in Vienna is always an interesting proposition. There is of course Mahlerstrasse, plaques all over the place showing where he lived, pictures in restaurants of him taking his daily walk in the city when working at the Opera - we even perform in the same halls for goodness sake! I do wonder whether in 100 years from now, Mahler’s memory will have been similarly airbrushed, his relationship with the city now nothing but harmony and success. Will the statuettes on sale have changed that famous silhouette into something more commercial?
I don’t think so. As we play his 4th symphony, I can’t help noticing that every time a melody approaches a nice, satisfying line, Mahler sneers and subverts. As the strings soar, the clarinets and horns growl underneath. There are waltzes as one would expect in Vienna, but Mahler’s will never appear in the New Years day concert. The peasant violin in the 2nd movement seems to challenge the audience, it’s like a big sign saying, No romantic pretty playing required here! This subversion is in all of his works which makes it difficult to airbrush without leaving a blank page.
So will you be able to buy Mahler’s Chocolate Balls in 100 years? Well maybe, but bite underneath the sweet exterior and there will probably be something quite unexpected inside.
This is my personal blog. All views are my own and are not endorsed by any of the organisations I work for.