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Vienna, city of paradox

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Vienna, 1912. It is autumn, and the city’s fin-de-siècle extravagance is approaching its peak. On the stage of the city’s pre-eminent concert house, the Musikverein, the mute and melancholy clown Pierrot, the star of Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal melodrama Pierrot Lunaire, is drinking moonlight – the stuff of intoxicating artistic inspiration – with his eyes. The moon-drunk aesthete soon becomes disillusioned: stigmatised and abused by an intolerant society (a part played unwittingly by the audience at the Musikverien), Pierrot retreats from the world, floating home in a boat, following the trail of an ancient scent back to his dreamy, distant home in Bergamo. Featuring a small chamber ensemble and a spoken-sung part for a reciter, Pierrot Lunaire is a grotesque parody of the cabaret style. It is also allegorical and autobiographical: Pierrot, moon-drunk and doomed from the start to be misunderstood and unappreciated, is the epitome of the modern artist at the turn of the century.

In this incarnation, Schoenberg’s Pierrot – as the artist desperately seeking new means of expression in the modern world, while at the same time vilified by that world – neatly encapsulates the feverish and often contradictory spirit of Vienna in the early decades of the 20th century. A much-romanticised era for the city, these years are commonly celebrated as a period of explosive artistic, literary, intellectual and especially musical modernisation in which resolutely iconoclastic geniuses such as Schoenberg, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt and Alfred Schnitzler broke with the past in order to lay the groundwork for the future. In this narrative, Vienna’s musical revolution was especially radical: Schoenberg’s Pierrot was later characterised by Igor Stravinsky as ‘the solar-plexus of modern music’ – the culmination of a shift away from tonality and hundreds of years of classical music, in favour of a new music for a new century. But how did this happen? How did Europe’s ‘city of music’ – the home of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms – become the birthplace of an explosive musical modernism that threatened to destroy the very tradition to which it belonged?

The history of Viennese music and culture is knotty because it has been interwoven with clichés about a singular ‘Viennese way,’ namely ‘Gay Vienna’: a city of charm, sentimentality and light-hearted nihilism. It is an enduring and popular characterisation of the city’s cultural history. It is also a fantasy. ‘Gay Vienna’ might provide a comforting suturing-up of historical complexities, but, as the musicologist Seth Brodsky at the University of Chicago might argue, such fantasies themselves must be un-sutured in order to restore a portrait of a time and place that is much messier, but also closer to the truth.

Fin-de-siècle Vienna, or ‘Vienna 1900’ – the period spanning roughly 1890-1913, including the emergence of the Wiener Moderne – has become a kind of fantasy space, problematic but also fascinating. Scholars began taking a serious interest in Vienna 1900 only in the 1960s. Since then, some have elected to paint a portrait of turn-of-the-century Viennese culture – which includes the advent of modernism and expressionism in the visual arts, literature and music, under the intoxicating influence of psychoanalysis and its insights – as having emerged out of a utopian melting pot of different aesthetics, ethnicities and ideologies, somehow blending together to emerge as something ‘new’. For others, Vienna 1900 is an era of radical fragmentation and dissolution, in which sociopolitical, psychological and aesthetic notions – of social hierarchies, the self, the painted world, the tonal realm – are pulled apart in a cyclone of radical innovation.

A better explanation brings these two contradictory views together: Vienna is a city of paradoxes, its culture catalysed at crucial moments by crisis, tense mutual influence, and a fundamental if unresolvable agon – between individuals and institutions, between past and present, between tradition and modernity. Led by Schoenberg and his acolytes, the emergence and flowering of modern music in Vienna – the dissonance and expressive extremes of which remain relentlessly ‘modern’ and still largely unpalatable more than a century later – is emblematic of the tensions that fuelled the cultural flourishing of the city from the turn of the century to the start of the First World War.

Vienna’s musical and cultural supremacy is often correlated to its status as an imperial city, especially during the twilight period of the Habsburg dynasty from Emperor Joseph II in the late-18th century to the long reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I from the mid-19th century until the First World War. This is an important part of the story, if something of a catch-all explanation. A recent profile in The Economist proclaimed Vienna ‘the city of the century’ and asserted that its distinct ‘intellectual tang’, especially in the fin-de-siècle period, derived from its imperial pedigree. In this account, artists and intellectuals were drawn to the city by the magnet of empire: once there, they simply blended like hot milk and coffee in a traditional Wiener Melange, their different origins, ideas and identities dissolving to produce ‘something fresh’. This coffee analogy, while tempting, fails to take into account the factionalism of Vienna’s artistic and intellectual strata – not to mention its territorial Kaffeehaus culture – and the fetishising of priority by its denizens, many of whom were much more interested in protecting their originality than blending with others. It also ignores the fact that the city has not always been a cultural powerhouse, despite an imperial legacy that far predates the turn of the century.

Vienna’s imperial lineage – its association with empire, at least – can be traced back to the city’s founding. Then known as Vindobona, it was a Celtic settlement before it was incorporated into the Roman Empire in the 1st century CE. Vindobona became a large military base with a substantial civilian settlement, and served as a key component of the empire’s northernmost frontier along the Danube until the 5th century. Following a period of several centuries of decline and relative obscurity after the fall of the Roman Empire, Vienna re-emerged as an important site for trade. Falling under Habsburg rule in the 13th century, it quickly rose to prominence, becoming a university city, a bishopric and ultimately the capital of the Holy Roman Empire in just 200 years. Vienna served more or less continuously as the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor from the 15th to the early 19th century, when it became the seat of the........

© Aeon