Death Becomes Her
Vienna reeks of death.
It may be a subtle reek, but it’s an old, lingering one.
Taking in the first hints of this morbid trait is, ironically, best done at a most revered Viennese institution, the Staatsoper, renowned for its glorious sights and sounds. So on my first evening in the city, I entered the majestic foyer of the Vienna State Opera to take in a Wagner classic: The Flying Dutchman. The German opera about a ship’s captain condemned to sail the seas forever (before Disney’s flippant Pirates of the Caribbean) has a (surprise, surprise) dreary tone. Still, it was more than the lamenting cries of the baritone captain that spoke of loneliness and that ultimate worldly certainty, death. The walls spoke of them too.
Before the completion of the opera house in 1869, the grand theatre was already a resounding disappointment. It was not what people were expecting. A decade earlier, Emperor Franz Joseph had ordered the rejuvenation of the inner city. He called for the development of the Ringstrasse, a wide, circular boulevard lined with trees, pedestrian walkways and new institutions. A place was quickly carved out for the new home of opera, and two architects, August von Sicardsburg and Eduard van der Nüll, were chosen for the design. As the building came up, the public criticised the cheap stone used and laughed when the road in front of the neo-Renaissance building was raised, making the opera house look like a “sunken box.”
But one would think that the king’s opinion mattered most. Unfortunately, rumour has it that he likened it to a railway station. Eduard van der Nüll committed suicide. Sicardsburg died weeks later from a stroke or a heart attack, depending on the source. Neither man lived to see the opening of their creation.
Just as the Staatsoper houses the demise of its architects, around every corner there is a hidden story of death, or some reminder of it. So the reek is not literal. Still, walking through the city, it becomes clear that death is alive and well in Vienna.
In the centre of town, in a busy market area stands one of the more charming and quirky of Vienna’s sights: the Ankeruhr. The large, early-1900s clock is famous for its daily noon-time show when the 12 historical figures it houses parade in front of the clock to music. The clock is also unique for another reason: the time is represented on a linear scale instead of a circular clock face. It offers a subtle reminder of our impermanence and constant decay. On the top left corner of the elaborate stone, oxidised brass and gold-painted clock is a sculpture of a baby, directly above the clock is a blazing sun and perched on the top right corner is a skull. The latter is possible to overlook. But once it is noticed, the message is unmistakable. Death is inextricably linked with time: with the daily rising and setting of the sun, we all move a bit closer to death. It’s as if the clock, when it’s not entertaining onlookers, whispers to those who linger a bit longer than to just read the time: “You’ve been dying since the day you were born.”
This preoccupation with death has been part of Vienna for centuries. In Austria, daily thoughts on life, death, heaven and hell were surely ubiquitous as the ruling Habsburg family that produced a string of monarchs held the title of Holy Roman Emperor, protector of the Catholic Church, for nearly 350 years up until the early 1800s.
During this period, in the late 1600s, death came knocking on Vienna’s door, and the emperor, in turn, called on the Lord. A reminder of this event stands a few minutes away from the Anker Clock, in the centre of the main pedestrian plaza and shopping district in the inner city. It’s called the Pestsäule, or Plague Column. As dark and gruesome as it sounds, the sculpture actually manages to be neither. Envisioned as a testament to God’s mercy by Emperor Leopold I when praying for the end of the bubonic plague in 1679, it stands as a tower of marble and gold, rising from the ground with men and crosses, clouds and angels. This tribute to divine mercy is so huge and filled with such busy glory that even if it portrayed anything representing the pain and destruction of Vienna’s great plague, it would be impossible to notice.
But some of Vienna’s tributes to God are ominous.
“These churches always frighten me,” said Richard, my old university roommate, as we stood staring up at the mammoth blackened cathedral in front of us. Houses of God, like Vienna’s Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), are not supposed to invite these feelings. But it is more than disillusionment that made Richard, a self-described “bitter Catholic,” feel spooked rather than inspired. St. Stephen’s is known as “Austria’s most eminent Gothic edifice,” and eeriness is a defining characteristic of Gothic architecture. Not only is St. Stephen’s gargantuan, but there is a darkness – helped by centuries of soot that have cloaked the white stone – and jaggedness to it. It causes the structure to loom more than uplift, leaving Vienna’s most recognised landmark to remind us all of our mortality.
This hasn’t stopped the Viennese from immortalising their own. It’s impossible to go more than a few feet in any direction before coming across a statue of a dead hero. Some are remembered playfully, though.
On the eastern edge of the inner city lies Stadtpark, a lovely landscaped garden where meandering paths weave together tranquil ponds, patches of tulips and stone tributes of home-grown artists. But one composer is commemorated with the most shameless joy. A svelte Johann Strauss, the waltz king, stands in golden glory under a stone archway of admirers writhing in musical ecstasy, their wispy clothes melting off their skin under the delirious spell of his violin.
Most other monuments, however, are more earnest in their triumphalism. The best place to be dwarfed by them is in Heldenplatz, or Heroes Square. Here, adjacent to the Imperial Palace, Austria celebrates it war heroes. Two equestrian statues of Prince Eugène of Savoy (who fought off the Turks in the dying years of the 17th century) and Archduke Charles of Austria (who foiled a Napoleonic surge to take Vienna in late 18th century) celebrate the country’s past with this implied but familiar European sentiment: we’re the winners of history.
Seventy years ago, however, a shadow fell over this square that has not yet lifted. Hitler used this iconic venue for his 1938 announcement of the annexation of Austria. This was death to the Austrians’ freedom – and death to thousands of Austrian Jews. Austria wouldn’t regain full sovereignty until 1955.
So while Archduke Charles once reigned in the grand square, holding sway over the environs marked by the palace, city hall, parliament and architecturally glorious twin museums, he is now overshadowed by a heavy hanging cloud. And this cloud is lined with guilt. For on that day in March 1938, tens of thousands of Viennese greeted the Austrian-born Hitler with cheers. The city is still debating its role in history: victim or accomplice?
The number of ways in which death pervades Vienna is endless. There are the crypts below the Capuchin Monastery. These Imperial Vaults have been the final resting place of the Habsburg family for nearly 400 years – and the mortal remains of 146 royals are on show. There is the centuries-worth of God-fearing, church-commissioned (many Crucifixion-related) art hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts, including Luca Giordano’s elegant 17th century canvas of Archangel Michael throwing the fallen angels. There is also the legacy of the city’s favourite psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. Freud, who spent most of his life in Vienna, may be best known for giving us the Oedipus complex, defence mechanisms and dream symbolism, but he is also famous for promoting the idea of the “death drive.” Organisms, according to Freud, were not just destined but driven to return to an inanimate state. Thus, human beings have a distinct innate desire that counters their desire for pleasure: one for repetition, aggression and self-destruction.
But in the history of Vienna, one personality seems to have been more deeply affected by death than anyone else: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Death whirled around the composer like an ominous theme in the soundtrack of his life. As a child, Mozart fell repeatedly sick, plagued by rheumatic fever, smallpox and intestinal typhus, the latter almost taking his older sister, Nannerl. And when death finally came knocking on the Mozart family door, it hit the composer hard. “Grieve with me my friend,” wrote a 22-year-old Mozart in a letter to a friend on the day of his mother’s death. “This was the saddest day of my life.” A decade later, his father’s death deepened the darkness framing Mozart’s greatest opera, Don Giovanni. From a murder in the first scene, three wronged women out for bloody vengeance, a cemetery scene in which a statue of the murdered man warns his killer he won’t see another sunrise and the overwhelming finale in which that same statue drags the title character, an unrepentant killer and libertine, down into hellfire, the opera was a triumph of the dark colours and extravagance in the composer’s own life.
The world premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787 wasn’t in Vienna, it was in Prague. But when the opening night for Vienna’s new opera house came around in 1869, Mozart’s dark masterpiece was fittingly chosen to usher in a new era of Viennese opera.
When death finally caught up with Mozart in 1791, he neither received a grand burial nor an ornate underground tomb. After a service at the Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, he was laid to rest at an unmarked grave in Vienna. Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg eventually erected an impressive statue, named a square after him and opened museums to immortalise their native son. Vienna, on the other hand, has only added a couple of small monuments in the cemetery, one made from parts of other tombstones. Otherwise, the Viennese have chosen to immortalise the world’s greatest composer by copying a different Salzburg memorial: Mozart Balls, marzipan and praline-filled chocolate balls wrapped in red and gold foil decorated with his likeness.
That’s probably the best tribute. Now his name and face are in every chocolate shop, in every tourist shop. Walking five minutes in the city without being reminded of Austria’s greatest cultural export is impossible. Today, Mozart pervades Vienna, even more than death itself.
Click on any photo to begin the slide show:
Photography: Talib Qizilbash
This article was originally published in the June 2008 issue of Newsline.
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