(This is Betty’s and my first stop of four. We intend to visit Rovinj Croatia, Lake Como Italy and our favorite, Villa Buonasera, in Tuscany after seeing Vienna.)
Vienna! As the old saying goes, you have to be here to understand it
and its wild, colorful history. I don’t nearly understand it, but being here
gives me a powerful sense of it, and it can be almost momentarily
overwhelming, as I learn of the incredible people throughout history who
have called this place their home.
The Danube River runs through it, separating the old city from the new,
as several European rivers do. There are low mountains in the outskirts,
but the city is spread out on a flat. As a city of 2 million, with buildings
rarely reaching over 5 stories high, Vienna had no choice but to spread out.
And it did, with some grace. It does, however, have the same ugly industrial
landscape just outside the city that most large American cites have to
But never mind. The old, inner city has a strength and a charm that quickly
erases the mental image of the chemical plants and steaming smokestacks
of the outskirts. Inside old Vienna exists the strength, resilience and abiding
artistic culture that has made it a favorite of artists and the wealthy for
centuries. B and I have found, after only one day of exploring by tour bus
and on foot, a quiet, confident, almost elitist crowd, proud of being Viennese,
regardless of their nationality or race.
The folk we’ve seen around this city dress better, and appear to be in much
better shape than the crowds in the American cities. They seem to have long
since figured out their infrastructure problems, having an underground subway
system, surface trolley and buses that rival many of the cities we’ve seen
anywhere. We see there is underground parking everywhere, which is a
blessing to any major metropolitan area. And because it is so large, it is vibrant
and busy. There appears to be a curious separation between the traffic and
those who are walking. Unlike New York City, where the whole city seems to
be moving in a controlled, nonchalant panic, Vienna’s traffic is far more relaxed,
and its pedestrians, even more so. In this regard I would rate it to be more
like, even better than the Italian cities we’ve visited.
The meat and potatoes of Vienna for me, however, reside in the number of
famous people who have lived here and thrived for the last 400 years. From
the 17th century well into the 20th century, Paris and London were the
mightiest high-culture cities of Europe… at least to us Americans and our history
books. And that might be true, but don’t tell that to the citizens of Prague,
Florence, Rome, Venice… or Vienna.
On our bus tour today we passed the buildings (homes) of Sigmund Freud,
the old and young Johann Strauss and Franz Schubert. I was taken by a
statement from the young Strauss, who said, “If i am famous, I give total
credit to my beloved Vienna.” To me, a strong indication of the artistic
atmosphere that permeated 17th and 18th century Vienna. So, Freud, Strauss
and Schubert? Yes, we passed their “homes” today. But there are so many
more, who made Vienna their home, who became famous, who derived much
of their artistic energies from this city, this place, which seemed to feel right,
to have everything they needed, and which fed their creative souls in a way
that perhaps no other place could.
This is a thing I know about, that I can tell about, knowledgeably. Many of
our great American musicians, painters and writers gravitated to New York in
the last two hundred years, for the exact same reason so many artists and
great people gravitated to Vienna. In America’s recent artistic history, New
York has been the mecca, the place where they might be understood,
appreciated… a place where they could be recognized as being above the
norm, with a unique perception of their art… and perhaps be published,
displayed and promoted on a national scale. Many of my jazz musician
friends from my Berklee years, all of whom I considered brilliant
at the time, moved to New York… to make it, or break it. For that was “the
big test of how good you really were.” Making it in New York was the pinnacle
for many of us.
So it was with the artists and thinkers of the 18th century in Europe. My hero,
Mozart, for instance, left his home of Salzburg when he was 25, visited Vienna,
and, partly because he was relieved of his duties in the Salzburg court, stayed.
He became a hit in Vienna, but because he was also something of a renegade
in their polite society, was never the darling of the Viennese set. Vienna
welcomed all artists, but held many of them to a standard… a standard that
Mozart, independent rogue that he was, distained and consistently pushed
against. Yet another reason why I like him.
So Vienna, being the New York of that age, recognized his immense talents
and featured him in many venues here. And Mozart is a giant among the
musical composers of that age. Yet today, he is only one of many famous
personalities who lived and thrived in Vienna during that age. And it’s very
I’ve heard and seen WAY too much of the Strauss family here. And Freud,
for that matter. Curious, too, because there are so many greats who made
Vienna their home… Beethoven, for instance, guess you’ve heard of him –
Hayden, Bruckner, Brahms, Salieri, Schubert, Strauss and Schoenberg,
who you probably haven’t heard of, but in his time, he was “a heavy.”
Others, sure – great writers, painters and sculptors who have lived in Vienna
and become famous in Europe. And being here, it’s not hard to see why.
This city is vibrant, without being intense. It seems to embrace the creative
spirit, support and harvest its intellectuals, and provide a safe haven for its
more delicate creators and thinkers, as have the cities to the West, Paris and
London done also.
And so I find this unique city, so very far from Seattle, to hold a history of art,
literature and music that we can only imagine. To assume that the late
1700’s was a most creative and exciting time for a major European city, a
time that eclipses any time in our country, could be seen as a sort of insult
to our culture. Yet, sitting here in Vienna tonight, B and I are getting the sense
of where much of our artistic appreciation has come from. So, in that light,
let’s give credit where credit is due… to our European cities which spawned
so much of our concept of what is culture, what is tasteful, and what is art.
As a musician, I admit to being moved by the vibe in this city… by the vibe
of all the greats who have passed by here before. Who, among us all, has
not felt that, at some point in their lives? Whether we care to believe it or not,
we’re a product of all that came before us. If life recreates itself to the exacting
standards I think it does, then there are the very same geniuses walking
among us today, in our country. Problem is, we’re too big now, and they
get swallowed up by “more interesting news.” Truth is, we’re not an artistic,
creative society anymore, gang. Yes, we have some sense of a deeper, more
meaningful, supportive life… but we don’t honor our artists, we don’t support
them any more, we don’t acknowledge them as any sort of important part of our
present culture. We’re moving too fast, as a nation, to learn from our European brothers, to pause, take stock, breathe, and reconsider.
Well, that’s not entirely true… we do honor our artists, if you can call them that.
Today’s rockers and rappers have been honored with sold-out concerts and
large amounts of money, and fame… of a sort. But I hope we wouldn’t consider
them the representative artists of our country in 2017… though the more I think
about it, it’s probably true. For what it’s worth, my favorite American music
artists are the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joanie Mitchell, Paul Simon,
Bob Dylan, Roy Clark and Hank Williams. (Will share my favorite American
jazz musicians and composers another time.)
My era, my generation, sure; but there are so many other great American
composers who have represented us on the international level… George
Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin, Cole Porter. And
let’s not forget our movie composers… Howard Shore, Jerry Goldsmith,
James Horner, John Barry and, of course, John Williams. And might we
include Hans Zimmer in this illustrious company? Ah, what the hell…
Just one American’s point of view… I know. And I know that we have jazz,
Andy Warhol, and Kurt Vonnegut. Oh yeah, and Hemingway and Duke Ellington
and Count Basie, who are still immensely popular in Europe today. Not to
mention Ken Kesey, Robert Persig, Joseph Heller… yet I’m aware that our
American heroes today are of the new techno era – Steve Jobs, Mark
Zuckerburg,Elon musk, etc… these guys are defining our new reality, and
they’re geniuses in their own right. They are changing our world so fast that
I can’t begin to relate it to the Vienna I know tonight.
So where do I think we are going? What does all this mean? I have no clue,
except to my minuscule knowledge of world history. which would tell me we
are hell-bent on accomplishing what we think is important while ignoring
what our European past could tell us… if we would only listen.