Sunday, July 16, 2017
Emperors and Bohemians
We went to Prague, and what a trip that was. I am quite sure there is no place like that Czech city on earth; Praha is a totally unique city--a surreal blend of medieval architecture and modern chutzpah.
One reason that ancient metropolis retains so much Old World ambience is that during the big war back in the '40's, Prague did not suffer major bombing damage. So there are parts of the city, particularly near the Castle, in which your wandering really does take on the feeling of a stroll through the Old Europe of medieval times, except for all the tourists waving their devices around.
Such as us.
We were right there, in with all that crowd of world-travelers snapping pics, gazing quizzily at our phones, searching for signs of meaning in the domiciles of Kafka and Havel.
Although I strive to write here with some profundity, I must admit that my few days there--although thoroughly edifying and significant--qualify me for nothing more that the status of being a tourist who was in awe of the place. I truly got the feeling that no, you're not in Kansas anymore.
So now, today, as we roll along toward Budapest, I reflect on our time in Prague, but my mind also wanders back to our all-too-brief sojourn through Vienna, which came before Prague. My analytical, touristic mind wants to make a comparison. So here it is, in all its dubious oversimplification.
Prague is bizarre, proletarian, and cutting edge.
Vienna is presumptuous, regal and Establishment.
Great cities do have, you know, an identity. Think of the difference between, say San Francisco and Washington DC. What's going on here in central Europe is somewhat like that. Think of, say, a bunch of hippies in 1968 showing up in Washington DC.
A century and a half ago, when the Vienna-based Hapsburgs were ruling their Austro-Hungarian empire, their noblesse oblige sensibilities must have been seriously ruffled when they would encounter, from time to time, the sight of wild-eyed Bohemians who had just rolled in from the Czech outback. On the back of a turnip cart, perhaps, these unrefined immigrants from the hinterlands rolled into staid Vienna with rocking chairs on the back of their carts like Granny Clampett, while their uncouth cousins probably strutted along, coaxing untamed gypsy melodies from their fiddles like there was no tomorrow.
Of course, when the First Big War finally ground down to a halt back in 1918, there was, in fact, no tomorrow for the Hapsburg royals. The jig was up for them and for their obsequious entourage of noblesse oblige courtesans who had populated the royal courts of Vienna for half a millennium.
But the difference between these two great cities of Europe is retained in the feeling you get while visiting each one.
Vienna, as a major tourist destination, still capitalizes upon and cultivates that royal legacy with which they were born. You can feel it, you can see it plainly in what they emphasize in their presentation to us visitors.
Here are two pics from our Vienna hotel:
You get the picture?
This morning in Hungary, I was recalling a statement that our Vienna tour guide had made when we were there last week. She was telling us about the financial patronage through which the Hapsburgs supported orchestral Music in Vienna during the Classical Age, which was during a period from about 1760 to 1810 or so.
Our guide spent a good while talking about the Emperor's favored composers, Mozart and Haydn. The music of these two composers embodies the dignified, perfectly structured character of Classical Music as it was appreciated and financed by powerful, order-cultivating imperial benefactors. Our guide Iva also mentioned that, toward the end of the Classical period, Beethoven became a recipient who benefited from those Hapsburg pursestrings. But Beethoven's status as a recipient of their order-cultivating, imperial patronage was somewhat questionable. His musical identity--his struggle to surpass the courtly bonds of Mozart/Haydn conventionality-- was always on the edge of something terribly new and disruptive. Ludwig stood, in fact, on the dizzying precipice of a new 19th-century eruption in music. And he knew it. His opus would not turn out to be a kind of music that proceeds from the calm waters of courtly, post baroque, Classical concerts.
Ludwig's music turned out to be expressive, emotional, even explosive. His orchestral movements were a harbinger of a newly-forming revolutionary age, a disruptive century to come. His booming symphonies resonated more with those Czech Bohemians than with his courtesan mentors Mozart and Haydn. Ludwig was a German from somewhere over there in the cauldron of the Rhine/Ruhr, an upstart. And even though he was able to obtain support from the imperial coffers, he was never the comfortable courtesan composer like Mozart and Haydn had been.
Our Vienna guide, Iva, mentioned this. She explained that the the imperial support for that unpredictable young German was of a different nature. The times they were a-changing. Ludvig von Beethoven wasn't the mere conveyor of those raucous new symphonic strains; he was an (if not the) originator of the new romanticism in music. When Iva concluded her spiel on the great music that had come out of imperial Vienna, I felt that there was something she had left out.
(Excuse me) "What about Strauss?" I asked.
Her answer surprised me.
She said that the Strauss music--the waltzes, the Blue Danube, et al which came later in the 19th-century--were considered by the Vienna Establishment to be "pop music." They were equivalent to the "Dirty Dancing" of that time.
Strauss waltzes, the "Dirty dancing!" ?? of that day?
She said that Strauss went to Chicago and did a concert for a hundred thousand people.
But that did not impress the Establishment in Vienna. As far as they were concerned, Johann Strauss Jr and his thumping waltzes were in the same league with . . . dirty dancing.
I suppose the royals and their courtesans always preferred their little, intimate venues like this one in Vienna, a space where, as our Vienna guide explained, Mozart had done one of his last concerts.
I will never get a handle on how all this human art and music plays out.