Austria: Music and Mauthausen

Vienna eats, sleeps, and breathes the arts, so it was impossible to resist hopping a quick train from Budapest to Austria. A lifelong pianist and singer, I've studied classical music for as long as I can remember, and it was like visiting musical candyland.

Vienna's iconic cathedral,  Stephansdom , was like a 250-year-long gingerbread house project, with more walls and decoration added with each century's ruler. Musically speaking, Vivaldi had his funeral, and Haydn and Mozart were both married here. Beethoven lived right down the street and loved hearing the bells ... until he realized one day his growing deafness when he noticed birds flying out of the bell tower, startled from the sound, but he heard nothing.

Vienna's iconic cathedral, Stephansdom, was like a 250-year-long gingerbread house project, with more walls and decoration added with each century's ruler. Musically speaking, Vivaldi had his funeral, and Haydn and Mozart were both married here. Beethoven lived right down the street and loved hearing the bells ... until he realized one day his growing deafness when he noticed birds flying out of the bell tower, startled from the sound, but he heard nothing.

I focused my music history odyssey with Vienna's big three: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. All three lived good portions of their lives here, as Vienna was the place to be for influences and sponsors if you were a talented composer/musician.

Tucked away in a maze of little Viennese alleyways, Mozart's apartment is mostly empty of furniture since he was a notorious gambler and died (in his 30's) with significant debt. HIs widow, Celeste, sold everything she could, but the top floor of the apartment comes alive with room after room of his music, exhibits describing his musical influences. Student of Haydn, musical savant, socially irresponsible, but with such a giant heart. In his music you can hear the funny mixture of all his contradictions, and I always have the impulse to both cry and laugh at the same time. He was a Freemason and not afraid of breaking convention; his Enlightenment ideals of equality were integrated into his music, especially in his opera the Magic Flute.

Haydn, inspirational teacher to both Mozart and Beethoven, was a quiet, polite, and generous person, and wrote for his entire life as the court composer for the royal Esterházy family. Although he lived much of the time surrounded by opulence and aristocratic court life, he was quiet, humble, with simple tastes and needs. He composed every day in his Viennese apartment, often taking breaks in the garden with his favorite pet parrot.

Beethoven, on the other hand, was anything but simple and quiet. He had a restless personality, just like some of his music, and this lovely apartment was only one of 40 he occupied. He must have found Vienna richly inspiring since he composed some of his most famous sonatas, symphonies, and chamber music here. The apartment was on the 4th floor of this skinny stone building and filled with windows; there were views of the sky from every room. As I was looking around, the skies started to darken, threatening rain, and then just as suddenly, cleared up again.

He was known for taking brisk, long walks every day and in the neighborhood near his apartment I found colorful patches of gardens and trees - as a nature lover, this must have made him so happy.

I was curious to see where Beethoven wrote his final 9th Symphony, so I took a side trip to Baden, 30 minutes outside of Vienna. Beethoven spent the summers of his later life here when his health began to fail and doctors advised country life away from the city. This building on the corner, today the Beethovenhaus museum, is the small apartment where he lived and worked, entertained friends at dinner parties, and generally did not follow doctor's orders to rest. He was completely deaf by this time, but he was tenacious and his music only got richer and more complexly inventive. In losing one of his senses, he was forced to look deeper for what he was trying to say.

 

Fortified by Beethoven and Baden, I felt ready for the part of my trip, and I took a train 50 years into a future hell: the former Nazi concentration camp, Mauthausen. 

Located at the top of a mile-long hill in the idyllic Austrian countryside, the death camp's location was part of its strategy of cruelty. To anyone looking in, it advertised the Nazi's formidable power. To anyone looking out, beauty was accessible only by glimpses through barbed wire. 

Mauthausen began as "only" a prisoners camp. Nazis forced inmates to work the quarry, using the stone to transform Berlin and other cities into symbols of Third Reich glory. On this particularly treacherous path to the quarry, nicknamed the Stairs of Death, prisoners were forced to carry boulders up a long, steep hill and were often pushed off the cliff at the top for sport or to discard the weaker laborers.

Deep underground, prisoners were taken to be tortured with medical experiments and interrogations, or for mass extermination.

With horrifying efficiency, the gas chamber and incinerator were located side by side in adjacent rooms. By the time of liberation by the US in 1945, over 11,000 people had been exterminated here. The small, green boarded up window would have been the last thing people saw before entering the gas chamber.

With horrifying efficiency, the gas chamber and incinerator were located side by side in adjacent rooms. By the time of liberation by the US in 1945, over 11,000 people had been exterminated here. The small, green boarded up window would have been the last thing people saw before entering the gas chamber.

Inside the prison walls, being alive did not mean living - it just meant you were not (yet) dead.

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Our tour guide showed us a picture of the Nazi guard who operated the gas chamber and crematorium, a man named Martin Roth. I kept staring at this picture, a link back to a person who had it in him somehow to personally exterminate thousands of people day after day. After the war, he went into hiding but after a former prisoner recognized him on the street 20 years later, he confessed.

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Just outside the camp walls, a sculpture park extended out over the hills with memorials from countries all over the world. I was taken with a tall bronze tree from Israel with branches like fingers reaching up, not a comforting memorial, more like a warning that this history will be remembered one way or another.

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It is very tempting after visiting a place like Mauthausen, returning to the US to witness Heather D. Heyer's death in Charlottesville this past weekend, to fall prey to dark thinking. How far from events like the Holocaust have we come when hate crimes persist in America Land of the Free? A Mauthausen exhibit described the town's German citizens as a mixture of sympathetic to the prisoners, and yet either fearful enough of the Nazis or complacent enough of the social order to not fully stand up against it. The threads of racism can run so insidiously deep.

Yesterday, a friend told me about her black cousin's experience of racist bullying at a Massachusetts college that was so severe that she dropped out of school; my neighbor recently told me how he doesn't understand why a parent at our town's school would choose to believe that her child was a girl born a boy, and make everyone at the school uncomfortable with this "bathroom situation."  And I was forced to face the fact that my liberal state, so seemingly and safely Blue, is maybe not so safe for everyone.

But then I switch the TV channel from CNN to ESPN, and American football players pour onto the field as "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's 9th Symphony blare over over the loudspeaker, and the crowd fills the stadium with cheers. An atmosphere of unity, powered in large part by music from a 19th Century German classical composer, anchors my spirits in hope. Even if it is just momentarily at a football game, there are forces of coexistence at work. And maybe Beethoven would never have imagined this particular context, but he was certainly no stranger to politicians playing gods and social upheaval, having lived through Napoleon's occupation of Vienna. He saw it all and, having gone completely deaf, decided to declare a truth he saw anyway and hoped the world would listen. Hear this piece and it is impossible to despair, even - or maybe especially - if you are watching the Dallas Cowboys run victoriously across the field. At the very least, for a few minutes, harmony drowns out the voices trying to divide.

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"Joy, beautiful spark of the gods...Your magic binds again/What convention strictly divides; All people become brothers."  - from "Ode to Joy," 4th movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, based on Friedrich Schiller's poem.