Musikverein Mythos

History beyond the narrative

Musikverein Mythos

The history of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna began under the auspices of mythology. The Musikverein soon became a myth of its own.

Three years before his acclaimed debut with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the Großer Musikvereinssaal, the exceptional Chinese pianist Lang Lang had already visited Vienna. The journey that had brought the pianist to Vienna at the age of 20 was an emotional one, and one moment stood out in particular: “When I turned the corner” Lang Lang recalls, “and saw right in front of me the very purpose for my visit to this elegant city, my eyes filled with tears. Here it was: Vienna’s Musikverein.” 
The special quality of the Musikverein, which sets it apart from all others, is mirrored in his reaction. If the Musikverein were simply a famous concert hall with excellent acoustics, it would hardly have produced tears. If the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna were merely a distinguished institution with a long history, Lang Lang would not have allowed himself to be so overcome. The Musikverein is all this, yet it is also more besides. It is – one might venture to use the word – a myth in itself. 

“When I turned the corner and saw right in front of me the very purpose for my visit to this elegant city, my eyes filled with tears. Here it was: Vienna’s Musikverein.” Lang Lang

The beginning was also the becoming

Myth is narrative, speech and story: a story indeed, from which the historical dimension is extracted, so that the particular becomes the general, the temporary becomes the eternal, and the single instance becomes the perennial example. In myth, history evaporates, as the philosopher Roland Barthes so trenchantly put it, and it disappears silently, like an ideal servant, before the master sits at the table. “One is only required to enjoy it, without asking oneself from where this beautiful object comes. Or even better, it can only come from eternity …” 
The history of the Musikverein begins, at a historically explosive moment, with a myth. And a transition is already present in numerous ways from the very beginning: from history to myth, and from myth back into history.

An explosive moment

1812, the year in which the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna was founded, was one of the most bloody years in world history. Napoleon’s hubristic Russian campaign collapsed in failure. Of the 500,000 soldiers he had sent to the slaughter, only 5,000 returned. Vienna, although geographically far away from the scene of this disaster, was still close to the events themselves. In the course of the Napoleonic wars, the city twice suffered occupation by French troops and the battle near Aspern – which left more than 50,000 dead – had take place only 3 years earlier. The wounds were still open when almost 600 friends of music came together on the 29th of November 1812 in order to hold a benefit concert “for the support of the poorest of those living at the Aspern battleground”. The oratorio that they chose to perform placed a strong martial figure at the centre of the work: a conqueror with ambitions of world domination, Alexander the Great. The parallels with Napoleon would have been obvious to all.

Which power is stronger?

The chosen work provided a clear example of the way in which history is deprived of the historical, in order to transform into myth. Händel’s “Alexander’s Feast” delivers the authentic facts of history – the burning of Persepolis, which Alexander ordered in an act of revenge in 330 B.C. – but the appearance of the singer Timotheus then elevates the story from these details to another, higher level. It is his song, that renders the most powerful man in the world speechless, that softens his hardness and leads him towards mercy. Finally, the sacred enters the musical design. Cecilia floats into the scene and crowns the work with allegory in all its power. Now finally all is clear: Music triumphs over politics, and myth over history.
The counterweight to this is also contained within it. Myth works its power on history and underlines the current historical context. Vienna’s friends of music, who staged the performance of the oratorio in 1812 under the title “Timotheus oder Die Gewalt der Musik" (“Timotheus or the Power of Music”), guaranteed for themselves a power that would transcend time. They devoted energy to dealing with usurpers like Napoleon and in the process, showed themselves to be a powerful counterweight to politics. By the time Metternich pulled tight on the reins of the restoration and even decried the foundation of choral associations in Austria as a “German plague to be suppressed with all force”, the Musikverein had already been founded. The disciples of Timotheus had found their place and had given the “power of music” an enduring and socially relevant form. 

The cardinal rule for the Musikverein

To work its power, myth must and will be spoken. It requires the word – which it received, in 1831, from the renowned Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer. The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna took possession of its first home, and Grillparzer joined the opening celebration with a “song of consecration”. The power of music would be demonstrated, once again as a power capable of working wonders. Grillparzer conjured up the presence of myth and summoned the appearance of the “ancient favourite of the Gods” Amphion, who knew how to play the lyre with such bewitching charm that the stones would move by themselves to participate in the building of Thebes. Grillparzer identifies the message in mythical history thus:

Denn des Wohllauts Band umschlinget / For the melodious sound embraces
Aller Wesen tiefstes Sein, / deepest essence of all being
Was aus vollem Herzen klinget / Music coming from the heart
Trifft ein Herz in jedem Stein. / finds a heart in every stone." 

He understood the distance, speaking of ancient times, and yet – as he made audiences aware – the connection was a current one and of vital significance:

Von der Götter selgem Glücke / From the blessed grace of Gods
Geht zu Menschen noch die Brücke, / stretches bridge to humankind
und als Botin, ewig jung, / and as a herald, ever young
Wandelst du, Begeisterung! / walkest thou, inspired delight!”

In this conclusion is contained the cardinal rule for the Musikverein for all times: it is inspired delight that summons mythology into history.

Mythology on the programme

The Musikverein emerged into secular times in 1812. The existing powers of the old order had withdrawn from the stage at the cusp of the 19th century. Napoleon heralded their demise. The reaction to the great destroyer was not able to close the gaps and fundamental questions remained unanswered: these concerned direction and orientation, values and commonly accepted definitions of these. Thus the Romantic spirit and the ideas contained within it strode forward into the 19th century of the bourgeoisie: Art became (also) religion and the service to art became a form of spiritual confession. 
Myth filled the emptiness and found space. In the second half of the century, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna offered one of the most beautiful and luminous such spaces. In 1870, the society opened its new building to concertgoers, a building that celebrated the power of music within a temple to artistic endeavour. The architect Theophil Hansen, who had already designed buildings in Athens several years earlier, brought authentic ideas to the project. The Caryatids, bearing both structural load and the essence of the design within the Musikverein building, appear to have come directly from the Erechtheion of the Acropolis, and Hansen has interwoven elements of Greek temple architecture throughout the building. Apollo and the Muses watch over activities from the ceiling of the Großer Saal. Pediment mouldings on the main façade clearly demonstrate the schematic use of mythology: These show Orpheus at the height of his artistic powers and thus the power of music in its highest capacity. Even the Gods can be swayed and death be vanquished by its magic. 

“…I find delight in capturing the sounds that were created before me, in order to bring them to those who follow after me. Isn’t that a joy?“ Gidon Kremer

The ruler of Olympus

“Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?” (“Death, where is thy  sting?) This question resounded through the Großer Musikvereinssaal in March 1871. Johannes Brahms conducted his “German Requiem” in the first complete performance of the work under the leadership of the composer. The concert hall, it became clear, had absorbed within itself the realms of holy service. The “last things” and deepest questions of humankind are addressed here, free of liturgy but not of ritual. The service to the Arts aimed for stricter forms, and figures were sought that could function as idols; beings that gave shape to myth. Johannes Brahms was one of these. Although not a role he felt comfortable with, Brahms was not able to hinder the fact that he became something of a godlike figure within the Musikverein. When Brahms, with his flowing beard, sat in his box above the auditorium, he resembled the ruler of Mount Olympus.

The spectrum of human experience 

Other figures played other roles – their stories telling us of rejections and defeats – yet they too belong to the world of myth. These are stories of pain and suffering, yet ones that might still turn out for the best. Anton Bruckner is the figurehead here: with the premiere performance of his Third Symphony in 1877 in the Großer Musikvereinssaal, he suffered one of the blackest days of his life, and an experience that was grievous in the extreme. And yet he too attained the heights of Olympus, and entry to the ensemble of the musical Pantheon. 
Myth is not alien to the human – and neither is the Musikverein’s mythology. It acknowledges love and joy, crisis and death. When Johannes Brahms died in 1897, it was the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, which organised the funeral and celebrated his memorial service. No person can escape death, and even Orpheus fails at the last and must bow to the inevitable. However, the manner of the ending may be chosen and myths provide the inspiration for form and structure. 

Umbilical connection to the Divine

Myth does not leave humanity alone, and this is also true for the Musikverein myth too. It creates connections and builds bridges to all those who have lived and experienced music under its auspices. Violinist Gidon Kremer, paying homage to the Musikverein, wrote that “…I find delight in capturing the sounds that were created before me, in order to bring them to those who follow after me. Isn’t that a joy?“ 
Myth also builds bridges to that which goes beyond the individual and is greater, more powerful and more profound than the singular. “Art”, according to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, “is the umbilical cord that binds us to the Divine.” Harnonourt worked for decades with the Musikverein and communicated this message in many different ways. In 2012, he conducted the celebratory concert to mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. On the programme stood of course the same work with which everything began: “Timotheus oder Die Gewalt der Musik”. 

Joachim Reiber

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