Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Where it all began: Schoenberg's birthplace in Vienna

Composers' birthplaces – the birthplaces of ‘great men’: usually, although not always, men – are strange things; or they often are. Mozart’s in Salzburg has little to show of intrinsic interest, beyond, crucially its location, and yet is treated as a treasure beyond compare. Wagner, by contrast, is made to seem an embarrassment in Leipzig, the house on the Brühl having been demolished in 1886, and the city apparently having proffered as little acknowledgment on the site itself as it can possibly get away with. Having assembled, as research for a forthcoming biography, a list of notable ‘Schoenberg places’ in Vienna – for the most part, I should admit, having had it assembled for me by Therese Muxeneder of the Arnold Schönberg Center – it remained for me to put together a route. I decided that I must begin at the beginning. And so, I consulted my Viennese public transport planner, far more accurate than its London equivalent, a reflection upon, amongst other things, the greater stock Vienna, long 'Red', places upon public transport and, more broadly, the res publica.

Soviet memorial (taken in October)
Schwarzenberg statue (taken in June)

From the Palais Fanto, still under restoration after a summer fire above, I headed towards Karlsplatz. I passed through the Schwarzenbergplatz Scylla of the Soviet war memorial – always an excellent reminder of Austria's and Vienna's partition, and, in a more general sense of Vienna's easterly location, farther east than Prague and indeed two of the former Yugoslav state capitals – and the Charybdis of the statue built at Francis Joseph’s command in honour of Charles Philip, Prince of Schwarzenberg. The prince was the victorious Austrian commander at the 1813 Battle of Leipzig (in whose aftermath, in Leipzig, Wagner had been born); it is after him, rather than his reactionary nephew, who had brought Francis Joseph to the throne and, in an irony that becomes greater with hindsight, had called in the Russians to suppress the revolts of 1848-9, that Schwarzenbergplatz took its name. The southern part of the square, in which the Russian memorial stood was, until 1956, renamed Stalinplatz. I could go on and on; as ever, in Vienna, ghosts haunt, multiply, refused to leave you alone. They are more overt than, say, in Berlin; which are more persistent, I really cannot say.

Passing ‘Johans Klaviersalon’, replete with a picture of Viennese adoptive, Johannes Brahms, ('Leider nicht von...'), Fischer von Erlach's extraordinary Karlskirche, votive church to Charles VI and an intentional compendium of comparative architecture,  and a Karlsplatz Advent Market being assembled before our eyes, I reached Otto Wagner's reassembled Karlsplatz station building, and thereafter took the U4 to Schottenring. The 31 tram would have taken me to the slightly desolate yet somehow also warmly domestic traffic interchange and children's playground that is Gaußplatz (after the mathematician, although until 1868, as the corner pharmacist, Mathilden Apotheke, reminds us, Mathildenplatz), divided between Vienna's second and twentieth districts. It would, had I not been slightly misled by the address I was seeking and alighted too early, at the stop Oberedonaustrasse (actually on Obereaugartenstrasse) No matter: it was a ten-minute walk, the Augarten and Danube Canal on my left, to number five. A good few buildings en route attested to wartime destruction and post-war reconstruction, although not this itself. Did it remain standing? Does it matter now? After all, as how much of any ancient building has not been restored (a word covering a multitude of sins and virtues)?

Oberedonaustr. 5

And then the building itself: quite handsome in an understated way. Little more, perhaps, to say. I walked the few steps to Gaußplatz, looked around, and found a seat, on which I typed, my telephone battery running low, a few, frankly unnecessary notes for what I have written above. Lest I forget. (It was two days after Remembrance Sunday at home, which had provoked a vicious manufactured furore over Jeremy Corbyn’s bow at the Cenotaph.) And then, I went and looked again, noticed at the entrance the entirely unremarkable bells for those living and working there. Did they care who had been born there? (They would have been unobservant indeed not to have noticed at all.) Should they? It was and is ‘just’ a building, really, although its location might yet yield secrets – or lead one down metaphorical blind alleys.

I crossed over the road. Immediately opposite, at no.4 was another memorial plaque, another Jewish reminder of the Leopoldstadt's (since incorporation, the Second District’s) pre-emancipation ghetto history. Leopold Hilsner was the victim of an anti-Semitic accusation of ritual murder, condemned to death in 1900, his sentence commuted by Francis Joseph to life imprisonment; a pardon eventually came in 1918, just before the end of the Great War. Somehow, that seemed to suggest more about Schoenberg than official recognition by an Austrian ministry on the Geburtshaus itself. Vienna, after all, had despised and rejected him: for many reasons, few of them entirely unrelated to his race and religion(s). Having been born there seemed both to mean something and nothing: a thought to revisit, perhaps, at the end. For the moment, it was more a matter of Moses’ O Wort, du Wort das mir fehlt! (‘O word, thou word that I lack!’)
Which thought and which tabletary image, the Mosaic prohibition notwithstanding, would take me in the afternoon to the Zentralfriedhof; but that is more properly a story for another day.


To end, an image, both trite and horrible, from next door to the birthplace:



Vecchio John said...

Interesting, Mark. I'm in Vienna the weekend after next and I will try to follow in your footsteps as I don't know that district well.

Mark Berry said...

Hope to see you! Do let me know if you'd like any advice.