Published November 20, 2022
An article from Human Progress.
Our twentieth Progress Center is Vienna, nicknamed the “City of Music”. From the late 18th century through most of the 19th century, the city revolutionized music and produced some of the greatest works of the Classical and Romantic eras. Sponsorship by the then powerful Habsburg dynasty and the aristocrats of the imperial court in Vienna created a lucrative environment for musicians, attracting them to the city. Some of history’s greatest composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, have lived and created music in Vienna. Many of history’s most important symphonies, concerts and operas thus originated in Vienna. Even today, pieces composed during Vienna’s Golden Age continue to dominate orchestral music performances around the world.
Today Vienna is the capital and most populous city of Austria, with almost two million inhabitants. The city is famous for its cultural icons, including its many historic buildings and museums, as well as its cafes, luxury shops and high quality of life. The historic center of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is still referred to as the “Music Capital of the World” and hosts many concerts. In addition to its historic role in revolutionizing music, Vienna has continued to inspire musicians in more recent times. Vienna’s official tourism website claims that the city has been the subject of more than three thousand songs, including two by the old Beatles and Billy Joel’s hit of the same name.
The site near the Danube where Vienna stands today has been inhabited since at least 500 BC, when evidence suggests that ancient Celts lived in the area. Around 15 BC, the site housed a Roman fort. Vienna’s location along the Danube made it a natural center for trade. Coins from the Byzantine Empire arrived in Vienna in the 6th century AD, indicating that the city was engaged in extensive trade. In 1155 Vienna became the capital of the margraviate of Austria, elevated to a duchy the following year. Over the centuries, the wealth and political importance of the region has grown steadily. In the mid-15th century, Vienna became the seat of the Habsburg dynasty and the de facto capital of the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburgs were once among the most influential royal families in Europe. Although his power has significantly declined, the family remains active in politics to this day (for the record, the current head of the Habsburg family was the first person in the royal family to contract covid).
As an increasingly important commercial and cultural centre, the city became a target of military attack and vulnerable to foreign disease. Vienna suffered from Hungarian occupation in the 15th century, attempted Ottoman invasions in the 16th and 17th centuries, and a devastating epidemic (probably bubonic plague) in 1679 which killed a third of its inhabitants. Even today in the city center you can see a column adorned with sculptures celebrating the end of the epidemic. In 1804, as the Napoleonic Wars raged, Vienna became the capital of the new Austrian Empire. Despite wars and disease, Vienna’s status as a cultural hotspot only grew.
The Habsburg family and the imperial court sought to increase their prestige by funding the arts, particularly music. Thanks to their close ties to Italy and the Catholic Church, the Habsburgs brought more than a hundred Italian musicians to Vienna as early as the 17th century and introduced cutting-edge Italian musical innovations such as opera and ballet as well as increasingly extravagant productions of Holy music. As part of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church encouraged important musical and artistic projects.
In 1622, the head of the Habsburg family, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II (1578-1637), married a music lover, Eleonora, Princess of Mantua (1598-1655). Empress Eleanor’s artistic patronage is credited with making the Vienna court a center of Baroque music and nascent theatrical forms such as opera. As the Habsburgs financed ever more lavish musical entertainment to mark family occasions such as birthdays and large religious music performances, the financial incentive attracted more and more musicians from all over Europe to the city. By the 1760s, music was so ingrained in Viennese culture that members of the nobility but also the wealthy middle class began acting as patrons.
Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), often referred to as the “father of the symphony” and the “father of the string quartet”, rose from humble beginnings, the son of a wheelwright and a cook, to become the most famous composer of Europe for some time. He cut his teeth as a court musician for a wealthy family on a remote estate, but was eventually drawn to Vienna where he received numerous scholarships and was treated like a celebrity. L’magnum opus by Haydn, Creationan oratorio celebrating the biblical book of Genesis, premiered in a private performance for a society of noble Viennese music lovers. Creation it was presented to the public at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1799 and sold out well before the performance. While in Vienna, Haydn became a mentor to Mozart (1756-1791) and tutor to Beethoven (1770-1827).
The son of a music teacher from Salzburg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart first performed at Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace when he was only six years old, together with his ten-year-old sister. The Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) paid her brother and sister 100 gold ducats and thanked them with expensive clothes. Mozart is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time. It was in Vienna that he experienced the greatest financial success of his career. There he and his wife rented an elegant apartment, bought expensive furniture, had several servants, sent their son Karl to a prestigious school (in Prague), and led a luxurious lifestyle. Maria Theresa’s son and successor, Joseph II (1741-1790), appointed Mozart composer of court chamber music, giving him a stipend in addition to the income he derived from his concerts and other patrons.
However, Mozart suffered financially during his final years. As the Austro-Turkish War (1788-1791) raged on and reduced the prosperity of Vienna and its aristocrats, it became more difficult to secure funds for musicians. Even as his income declines, his expenses remain high and he gets into debt. He had begun to recover financially by finding new patrons outside Vienna when he died suddenly at the age of 35 from an illness that could have been the flu or a streptococcus infection (some say poison). One of his greatest masterpieces, the Requiem, left unfinished. To add to the work’s mystical character, his widow claimed that a mysterious stranger had commissioned it and that Mozart felt as though he was composing the mass for his own death.
Beethoven is also one of the most beloved composers in history. He left Bonn for Vienna at the age of 21. He quickly acquired a good reputation as a pianist and became a favorite of the imperial court. Archduke Rudolph (1788-1831), cardinal of the Catholic Church and member of the Habsburg family, is one of its most eminent patrons. Beethoven’s most fruitful concerts are the revivals of his work commemorating the defeat of Napoleon by the Duke of Wellington (opera 91) and his Seventh Symphony (opus 92), also inspired by the Napoleonic wars. Beethoven’s achievements are all the more impressive as he became virtually deaf at the end of his life, yet he continued to compose innovative music. The greatest of him is his Ninth Symphony (opus 125), premiered in Vienna in 1824. It remains one of the most frequently performed pieces of music in the world.
Schubert (1797-1828), a native of Vienna, produced a body of acclaimed work in his short life thanks to the patronage of the city’s aristocracy. His work is greater than himself, Winter (Winter Journey), whose lyrics are taken from a series of poems by Wilhelm Müller, explores the themes of loneliness and suffering. He died at age 31, probably of typhoid fever or possibly syphilis.
Brahms (1833-1897), born in Hamburg, also worked most of his working life in Vienna. His Fourth Symphony it is often cited among his best works. Brahms believed in “absolute music”, meaning music that does not “speak” about anything in particular and does not explicitly refer to a specific scene or story. However, some specialists believe that the Fourth Symphony may have been inspired by Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra.
After the classical music and romantic music eras, Vienna has continued to play an important role in cultural innovation. It was at the center of the Art Nouveau movement in the 20th century and produced famous artists such as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who was born in Vienna. But Vienna remains best known for its musical successes in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Music has animated human existence since prehistoric times
Carbon dating suggests that the flutes excavated in Germany and carved from mammoth ivory are between 42,000 and 43,000 years old. The oldest written melody, preserved on a clay cuneiform tablet, is an ode to an ancient orchard goddess, first composed around the 14th century BC The oldest fully intact and translated musical composition, with lyrics and melody , could date back to 200 BC and is written in ancient Greek. It is inscribed on a marble pillar marking the grave of a woman named Euterpe (literally, “rejoice well”). She bore as it should be the name of the Muse of music. The song’s lyrics, believed to have been written by Euterpe’s widower, read:
“As long as you live, you shine
have no pain
Life exists only for a short time
And time takes its toll.
The melody is joyous, a celebration of Euterpe’s life. You can hear a Greek version of this tune here.
Centuries later, in Vienna, Beethoven also tried to convey the feeling of joy in the most loved and performed symphonic movement in history, theOde to joy of the Ninth Symphony. As a powerful medium for expressing and arousing emotion, music has always played an important role in people’s lives, uplifting spirits across the generations. Humanity has never stopped creating new techniques and new musical styles. But Vienna’s cultural success is considerable. Producing so many musical compositions that revolutionized the field and continue to resonate with audiences centuries later, Vienna has earned the nickname “City of Music.”
Vienna’s musical heritage has enriched humanity. The city has also demonstrated the role of prosperity in funding great works of art. Vienna has fundamentally changed the way music is performed, as the world has more innovative composers than any other city, and has been the birthplace of compositions that for many represent the pinnacle of musical achievement. Vienna has therefore earned its place as the twentieth Center of Progress.