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Musical Vienna: where to visit its greatest composers' homes and music

Vienna Hofberg Orchestra concert in the Imperial Palace, an optional event on Viking River Cruises' 'Romantic Danube' sail, was a highlight of the Austria, Germany, Hungary trip.
Vienna Hofberg Orchestra concert in the Imperial Palace, an optional event on Viking River Cruises' 'Romantic Danube' sail, was a highlight of the Austria, Germany, Hungary trip.
Vienna Hofberg Orchestra gives Mozart and Strauss concerts in the Hapsburg Imperial Palace. Photo: Vienna Hofberg Orchestra

What city can boast Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and -- huge hint -- the (Johann) Strauss family?

If you guessed Vienna, read on to learn where their lives echo resoundingly across Austria's capital. (If you didn't guess right, guess you won't read this.)

Mozart said Vienna is "the best place in the world for my profession...a magnificent place." It was the center of the musical world in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Here are Vienna musical spots I applaud enthusiastically, visited during a magnificent "Romantic Danube" Viking River Cruise:

Hard to restrain myself from waltzing, as the Vienna Hofburg Orchestra and four soloists performed classics like Mozart's "Champagne Aria" from "Don Giovanni", Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow", "Wiener Blut" (Viennese Blood or Spirit), "Die Fledermaus" (The Flying Bat) by Johann Strauss II, and concluding with his "Blue Danube Waltz". Ach, those rousing polkas, "Tritsch-Tratsch" (chit-chat) by JS II.

The star of stars was the percussionist Gunnar Fras, who played a rifle, a shotgun, bird whistle, among many other "instruments" as well as drums -- but no magic flute in Mozart's opera of the same title.

Was it New Year's in August? For some ears, it may be schmaltz; but to mine, it was not just scrumptious schlag, but schlagobers (whipped cream).

This Redoutensaal ("Masquerades Hall") concert hall is within the über-sumptuous Hofburg Palace of the Hapsburgs, who ruled for more than 600 years. In the Redoutensaal, Archduke Franz and Maria Theresa married, to the music of Salieri; Mozart performed his "Masquerade" in 1783; Beethoven's 8th Symphony premiered in the hall, as did Schubert's 8th Symphony, better known as the "Unfinished Symphony".

The finished redesign of this elaborate, historic 1705 concert hall is unsettling. Its remodeling after a 1992 fire includes gigantic abstract murals and a 400-square-yard ceiling fresco by Josef Mikl, plus behemoth cylindrical chandeliers evocative of Marriott hotel lobbies.

Instead of focusing on the clash of eras and decor -- or on the just-passed 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that sparked World War One -- I listened to the music, that "gift of God".

The 145-year-old Vienna State Opera House, one of the world's greatest, and its museum can be toured. Alas, no performances are held from July 1-Aug. 31. But that was virtually the only disappointment of my entire eight-day Danube cruise.

The museum offers costumes, photos, stage design models, and memorabilia, including the piano of its most famous director, composer Gustav Mahler. A special exhibit focuses on his enormous impact as the opera's director from 1897 to 1907 -- "Mahler's Opera Reform and the Vienna Modern Trend".

Despite elevating the opera to its zenith, Mahler was dumped! When the same fate happened almost a century later to conductor Lorin Maazel, whose name means luck, he pointed out that they'd done the same to Mahler. Maazel, like Mahler, went on to head the New York Philharmonic. Maazel (who died July 13 at age 84) was its music director from 2002-2009, and Mahler's tenure was 1909-1911.

This elegant house museum, steps away from the Gothic St. Stephen's Cathedral (where Mozart married his beloved Constanze), is the only one of Mozart's dozen-plus Vienna residences that still exists.

"Nowhere else did he compose more music," the museum says in its excellent audio guide that's interspersed with his music. In the two and a half years the Salzburg native lived at this house, 1784-1787, he composed "The Marriage of Figaro", dozens of piano concertos, and quartets. Haydn mentored him here, and told Leopold Mozart, "Your son is the greatest composer that I know in person or by name." Haydn, and later Mozart, taught Beethoven.

The Mozart house focuses not only on his musical genius, but also on his rakishness: "I confess all these, my sins, in the hope that I may be permitted to confess them more often," he said. The museum notes he was "a gambler, pleasure-seeker and fashion fetishist." Five peepholes let visitors glimpse "titillating amusements in this erotic era." He was a clothes horse on the scale of a Lippizaner. He finagled Baroness Elisabeth von Waldstädten into paying for some of his garb, like an elaborate red and gold satin brocade suit, reproduced at the museum.

Its largest room is a gaming salon, where he ran up huge gambling debts. Constanze managed to pay them off, mainly through securing publications of his works while he was away in Germany in 1791, shortly before he died at age 35.

One of the museum's few original personal items include a gold flute clock c. 1790. The ornate clock plays his "Andante for a waltz in a small organ". No, not "The Magic Flute". However, a three-dimensional multi-media model theater presents a collage of scenes from "The Magic Flute", from 1791 to today. And visitors can hear arias from it as they tour the illuminating museum. A concert series, on the museum's Bösendorfer piano, resumes on Oct. 1.

As Mozart said, "My wish and my hope is – to achieve honor and fame and make money ..."

The Mozart House is where his wishes and hopes became fully realized.

The Mozarthaus is one of eight house museums run by the city's Wein (Vienna) Museum to honor its greatest composers. The others are: three for Beethoven; two for Vienna native Franz Schubert; one, Haydnhaus, is for Franz Josef Haydn, dubbed "Papa" as the so-called "Father of the Symphony" and "Father of the String Quartet"; and one, of course, is for the Johann Strauss family, famed mainly for waltzes, but also polkas.

  • Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven, who was taught by Haydn and Mozart, made his reputation in Vienna. The native of Bonn, Germany lived in Vienna for 35 years -- at 70 to 80 different addresses, and died there in 1827.

The main Beethoven house museum is Pasqualati House Museum (Pasqualatihaus).

Beethoven lived here six different times, when he composed many works, including four symphonies plus his opera "Fidelio" (disastrous premiere at Vienna's Theater an der Wien, albeit where Beethoven had many successes). Wealthy arts patron Baron Johann von Pasqualati was quite the indulgent landlord.

Pasqualati reportedly told his eccentric renter, "You can't knock holes in my walls just because you want a view of the trees!" Beethoven replied, "I can. I have, and I will."

Why? Well, who wouldn't want to view the Vienna Woods? They inspired his "Pastoral" 6th Symphony (and were also immortalized later by Johann Strauss II in "Tales from the Vienna Woods Waltz").

Among the Pasqualati's many Beethoveniana are the piano on which he composed his 5th Symphony, a lock of his leonine tresses, and ear trumpets to help him hear despite deafness. That forced one of the finest pianists of his era to become one of the greatest composers ever.

"Beethoven can write music, thank God. But he can do nothing else on earth," Ludwig said about himself. (However, Martin Luther maintained that "music is no invention of ours. It is a gift of God.")

The house where Haydn lived during his final 12 years, when he was Europe's most famous composer, was restored completely in 2009 for the 200th anniversary of his birth. Here, he composed numerous works including two of his greatest oratorios, "The Creation" and "The Seasons". No surprise, star attractions are his pianoforte and clavichord. In the years before Haydn's death at age 77, even as his health waned, he had said, "My imagination plays on me as if I were a piano."

Two of his greatest admirers were Johannes Brahms -- one room is a memorial for him as well -- and Napoleon. When his troops occupied Vienna, Napoleon posted an honorary guard at the home of the dying composer in 1809.

Too bad that the original grave at Haydn Park had not been guarded. His skull was stolen by another admirer a few days after Haydn's burial. The skull was reburied finally in 1954, at the master's final resting place in a white marble tomb in Eisenstadt, Austria. Haydn had served as music director to the royal Esterházy family there for more than 40 years. This year's annual Haydn Festival is Sept. 4-14 in Eisenstadt. "I will not die entirely," reads the Latin inscription on the original grave marker at Haydn Park.

Schubert once said, "I have been put into this world for nothing except composing." He composed 960 works -- including more than 600 songs (lieder). His art song-cycles, certainly "Die Winterreis" (The Winter Journey) to 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, are among the world's most popular.

His other best-known works are the "Ave Maria", the "Trout Quintet" and the "Unfinished Symphony", his 8th Symphony. He had left it unfinished long before his death. Dying at age 31 left this great composer's life certainly unfinished.

  • Johann Strauss House Museum (Johann Strauss Wohnung), is where Johann Strauss II composed "The Blue Danube", Austria's unofficial national anthem. It was anything but an immediate success. Only when Strauss the younger toured America in 1872, did that waltz gain phenomenal success. The house museum has his Bösendorfer grand piano, violin, writing desk, and other personal items that illustrate his work as a composer, musician, and conductor. (Pianos that belonged to Brahms, who composed his major works in Vienna; to Robert and Clara Schumann, who had given the piano to Brahms; and Mahler are in the Musical Instruments Collection of the Neue Burg Museum along the Hofburg Palace's semicircular wing.)

The Strauss museum does not focus on Johann II's dizzying personal life. Like father, like son, the Johann Strausses shared a love of affairs. Their love lives might be compared with the younger's operetta "Die Fledermaus" (The Flying Bat).

Johann Strauss II was engaged 13 times, and married three times. His first wife, retired mezzo-soprano Henrietta (Jetty) Chalupetzky, who was about a decade older than he was, brought five illegitimate children to the marriage. A few weeks after her death, the widower married an actress about half his age. The young wife ran off with another man, and soon the composer took up with another woman half his age. Life imitates operetta.

(Richard Strauss, the renowned composer of "Der Rosenkavalier", "Salome", and "Elektra" and other operas, is no relation. Born 150 years ago in Germany, anniversary celebrations are being held throughout Germany, and also in Salzburg, Austria.)

Other Vienna sites for music lovers include the following: (For walks following the footsteps of composers, click here).

  • House of Music (Haus der Musik), a high-tech interactive museum in the early 19th-century palace of Archduke Charles has separate rooms honoring the greatest Vienna-associated composers, with samples of their music and manuscripts. You can "conduct" the Vienna Philharmonic via a baton connected to the (computer-simulated) orchestra. It's located strategically and conveniently between the Vienna State Opera and St. Stephen's Cathedral. The House of Music offers free concerts on Sundays through Aug. 31 celebrate Mozart, the Strausses, and Beethoven.
  • Central Cemetery is Vienna's version of Paris' Père-Lachaise, with the graves of greats including Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Johann Strauss father and son, Hugo Wolf, and Arnold Schoenberg (who fled Nazism in 1933, settled in Los Angeles, but was buried in his native Vienna).

Vienna abounds with musical life, and a vibrant way to experience this is through the Viking River Cruises' 'Romantic Danube' trip.

It was especially romantic while dancing the Viennese waltz, or polka, or disco, played by Otto, the resident musician of the Viking Freya, and when listening to three fine, very animated performers during "Song of Austria", one night's shipboard entertainment.

The Austrian hills and valleys were alive and enlivened by other music-related activities on the Viking Freya. Talks by program director Cornelia Svatek included "Mozart and Vienna Coffee Houses". And a "Music Trivia Quiz" had intriguing, fun questions about the four B's: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms -- and the Beatles.

Guess that makes eight B's. I know there's no better way to be on the blue Danube than the eight-day Viking River Cruise.

For more info: The city of Vienna (Wien), Vienna Museums, Its eight house museums of composers. Viking River Cruises,, 800-706-1483.

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