Hidden from small

Wien, Vienna, Bécs, Videň: a Wonderful Town by Any Name

December 02, 2015

City on the Danube Is Featured in The Philadelphia Orchestra’s January 2016 Festival

From its Celtic and Roman origins to its Baroque feudal riches, Vienna has long been one of Europe’s most fascinating and livable cities. Its perfect storm of cultural and artistic diversity—growing from a proximity to Germanic, Hungarian and Slavic peoples, the enormous economic resources of the European aristocracy, and its position as an intellectual crossroads—made Vienna into a vortex of ideas and artistic ferment. This grand city on the Danube has fostered everything from the Enlightenment principles of Joseph II to the psychoanalytical innovations of Sigmund Freud, from the Secessionist art of Klimt and Schiele to the sharply modernist Jugendstil architecture, which planted the seeds of the Art Nouveau. For music lovers Vienna is the ultimate city, having flourished economically at exactly the time that the core symphonic repertoire was being formed, and it is thus a natural choice for the second of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual festivals focusing on great cities of the world.

The Belvedere Palace in Vienna

Continuing from last year’s focus on St. Petersburg and its contribution to culture, this season Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra present the Music of Vienna Festival (January 13-30), a series of three subscription concerts that juxtapose music from the Classical and Romantic periods with music reflecting more recent trends, in a manner that makes clear both the continuity and the at times fractured diversity of the Viennese tradition. The focus is not just on Viennese composers but on music created in or for Vienna, and music inspired by the centuries of innovations the city has spawned.

One could argue, of course, that much of what a modern orchestra does is already centered on Vienna, but that is precisely why a focus on the city’s multifaceted culture can help us understand the complexity of its influence. “When we think about Vienna, we think about the New Year’s Eve Concerts, about waltzes, the Strauss family, and Joseph Lanner,” says Yannick, who is currently in his fourth season as the Orchestra’s music director. “This is an important part of it, and this is why we have, in this three-week festival, a little bit of this.” But he adds that the Festival also embraces the Classical roots of the First Viennese School of Haydn (the “Drum Roll” Symphony) and Beethoven (the Piano Concerto No. 4, with soloist Jan Lisiecki), “and we’ll also have German composers who made a living out of inhabiting Vienna, working there, studying there.” The Festival also features the Second Symphony of Brahms, who spent much of his career in the city and dedicated that work to the Vienna Philharmonic, and Schumann, whose relationship to the city was lifelong and quite complex.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra performing in the Musikverein on the 2015 Tour of Europe. Photo by Jan Regan

For Yannick and the Orchestra’s artistic team, the challenge of a Vienna Festival is partly in whittling down the vast repertoire that is available from four centuries of orchestral culture—a history that dates back to the Baroque and Johann Joseph Fux, the Austrian-born “father of counterpoint,” whose innovations so greatly impacted the Classical style. The key to building a festival from all this lies in focusing on specific aspects of Vienna’s impact, says Vice President for Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman. “There’s of course the ‘postcard’ landscape of Vienna that everybody has in mind, of the Strauss waltzes, of the regal elegance in the city’s grand heyday.” But just as important, he says, is that the city “became a destination for serious music-making for almost every composer” from the 18th century on. “Music is so much a part of the city’s fabric: It is what they pride themselves on.”

The Johann Strauss, Jr., Monument in Vienna’s Stadtpark

The Vienna Festival traverses the later 19th century (the Fourth Symphony of the Austrian-born Anton Bruckner) and the early 20th (the Viennese-born Anton Webern’s post-Romantic Im Sommerwind, which was given its world premiere by The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1962), and includes music by a living composer as well. Charivari by the Viennese-born HK Gruber was written as a commentary both on the music of Johann Strauss Jr. (the Perpetuum mobile), and some of the darker aspects of Vienna’s history.

Composer HK Gruber

There are of course aspects to Vienna’s history that are less than picture-perfect, Rothman adds. “One of the things that strikes you as you walk around Vienna and admire the beauty of its architecture and its history is that there are those locations and moments that remind you of the Second World War and Austria’s role in the war, and there’s that little bit of twinge to it.” This murky element finds expression in the Festival programming with Charivari, written as a sort of commentary on Vienna’s bourgeois glamour. Gruber’s piece is “his own take on an existing piece by the Strauss family,” says Yannick, who has programmed the piece together with Strauss Jr.’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods” Waltz. Charivari uses a Strauss motif in a way that “alarmingly calls to mind that official mask of Gemütlichkeit,” as Gruber writes, “behind which post-Hapsburg Austria has so often hidden its reactions to even the most drastic changes of fortune, and its complicity with some of them.”

Beethoven's grave in Vienna's Central Cemetery.

But the central vein of Viennese music is a joyous one, and this is heard nowhere more clearly than in works such as Brahms’s Second Symphony, whose sunny disposition so delighted the Viennese audience at its 1877 premiere that the third movement had to be repeated. (It is perhaps of note that Brahms counted Johann Strauss Jr. among his closest friends: He is known to have expressed regret that it was not he who had composed the waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.”) Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, likewise, is one of that composer’s most ebullient and approachable works. And Mahler’s homage to Beethoven, in the form of his orchestration of the composer’s Op. 95 String Quartet, manifests the thrill with which late-Romantic composers embraced their forebears. (In similar fashion, Arnold Schoenberg would later express his admiration for the music of Brahms in his colorful orchestration of that composer’s First Piano Quartet.)

Leif Ove Andsnes, who plays Schumann's Piano Concerto during the Festival (January 28-30). Photo by Özgür Albayrak

A critical factor in Vienna’s history has been the presence of fabulously wealthy noblemen and women, persons of broad culture, sophisticated education, and enlightened artistic tastes. The significance of these patrons, whose intellectual pursuits were so essential to the growth of the arts in Vienna, has seldom been more apparent than in Beethoven’s “middle-period” works, including the revolutionary Fourth Piano Concerto. Before this work’s public premiere in Vienna, it was performed privately at the palace of the Bohemian aristocrat Prince Franz von Lobkowitz, one of several patrons in Vienna at that time who made significant musical careers possible. Indeed, the patronage that supported classical composers is one of Vienna’s enduring legacies, despite being grounded in an archaic feudal socioeconomic system. “Artists and their patrons may have held political beliefs that we do not agree with, are patently offensive, or have been defeated over time,” Rothman says, “but it’s the art that endures for audiences to reflect on and make their own judgment.”  

In a real sense, then, the Vienna Festival traces a continuum through several centuries, while allowing us to reflect on a whole complex of relationships between generations. (Gruber and his contemporaries have been referred to as a “Third Viennese School,” in reference to the Classical style and the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Webern.) “What I am very excited about is that we will, in these three weeks, come to understand that the influence of Vienna is even greater than we think,” Yannick says. “January is a promising time for us to be reminded of this wealth of repertoire.”

Paul Horsley is performing arts editor at the Independent in Kansas City. He was The Philadelphia Orchestra’s program annotator and musicologist (1992-2000) and classical music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star (2000-08). He holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University and teaches at Park University in Kansas City.

Music of Vienna Festival

January 13-15

Yannick Nézet-Séguin Conductor

Jan Lisiecki Piano

J. Strauss Jr. “Tales from the Vienna Woods” Waltz

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4

Beethoven/arr. Mahler String Quartet No. 11

Gruber Charivari


January 21-22

Yannick Nézet-Séguin Conductor

Haydn Symphony No. 103

Bruckner Symphony No. 4


January 28-30

Yannick Nézet-Séguin Conductor

Leif Ove Andsnes Piano

Webern Im Sommerwind

Schumann Piano Concerto

Brahms Symphony No. 2