Vienna, a City Steeped in Historic Musical Culture, May Be The World’s Most Musical

The greatest Western classical musicians have lived and worked in the Austrian capital and became part of the city’s musical legend.

By Inge Kjemtrup | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Which city in the world is the most musical? You’d be hard pressed to choose a city other than Vienna. The greatest Western classical musicians have lived and worked there, from Mozart and Beethoven to Mahler and Schoenberg, and became part of the city’s musical legend. 

As a visitor to Vienna, you find yourself caught up in the city’s swirling dance of culture. It’s impossible to resist because Vienna celebrates its musical heritage. Sometimes it does so in the gaudiest manner, other times with a seriousness that befits a city that was the center of the world’s cultural scene for so long.

Music lovers all over the world tune in to hear the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert, performed at the illustrious Musikverein concert hall and broadcast to millions, with the sumptuous waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr. front and center. The Waltz King’s 200th birthday is in 2025, and Vienna will mark the occasion with plenty of special concerts and events. 

Vienna Strauss Philharmonic Orchestra
Vienna Strauss Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: Muzdom/Wikimedia

For a warmup, you can visit the new House of Strauss (Döblinger Hauptstraße 76), located at the Casino Zögernitz. It sounds a bit over the top, but a conversation with an Austrian friend, Wolfgang Dibiasi, persuaded me otherwise. Wolfgang has lived and worked in Vienna for many years, and he assures me that the House of Strauss is the real deal. Johann Strauss Jr. himself played on the casino stage. If you’re looking for something really flashy connected to Strauss, seek out the very Instagrammable golden statue in the Stadtpark. Alas, not all that glitters is actual gold (it’s bronze). 

Of the composers born in the city or nearby, Franz Schubert seems the most Viennese. As a boy, he took lessons in violin, piano, and organ, quickly surpassing the abilities of his teachers. His musical talent was recognized by the musical supremo of the day, Antonio Salieri, who took the young man under his wing and gave him private musical instruction. Schubert was a prolific composer; his works include songs and song cycles, symphonies, string quartets, and the matchless cello quintet. Such richness. Yet he was little known to the wider world when he died, all too early, at the age of 31.

You can visit an excellent museum at Schubert’s birth house (Nußdorfer Straße 54, in the ninth district). There are many artifacts to examine, but, like many visitors, I was especially moved by the contents of one display case: a pair of Schubert’s glasses. The small, rounded metal frames may have a crack in one lens, but I still got a catch in my throat seeing the glasses so often depicted in illustrations of him.


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Heiligenstadt Beethoven Museum
Heiligenstadt Beethoven Museum. Photo: C. Stadler Bwag/Wikimedia.

Take a stroll on Kärntner Straße or any of the pedestrian areas in the city center, and you will likely encounter people dressed in period costume trying to sell you concert tickets. Once I saw a hawker promoting a concert of Schubert’s music, who smiled when asked, “Richard or Johann?” The hawkers might well be trying to entice you into one of the many “lighter” concerts in the city’s churches. But don’t turn up your nose. You might be in for a fine performance of Schubert, Mozart, or maybe Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (a lesser-known fact: Vivaldi died in Vienna). There’s a feast for the eyes in these concerts too: the gorgeous Baroque church, Peterskirche (St. Peter’s Church), for example.

For more “serious” fare, look at the concert listings at the Musikverein or the Konzerthaus. There are several smaller halls associated with both venues. Advanced booking is strongly recommended, as it is for performances at the Staatsoper (State Opera), where the works of Richard Strauss are more likely to be heard than at the Volksoper, which generally presents lighter fare, sung in German. There’s also the Theater an der Wien, where Beethoven’s Fidelio received its premiere and where the composer even lived for a period.

Ringstraße
Ringstraße. Photo: Gugerell/Wikimedia.

If you can’t get a ticket to a popular concert, you can take your chances on the day and buy an inexpensive “Stehplatz”—a standing spot. It’s cheap, but you’d better have good core strength, as you won’t necessarily have a railing to rest on. When I was a student in Vienna, I saw some extraordinary performances from the Stehplatz seats.

But concerts can be found all over the city. Wolfgang, an amateur pianist, highlights the concert series at two of Vienna’s best-known piano makers, Bösendorfer (Bösendorfer Salon, Canovagasse 4) and Bechstein (Ehrbarsaal, Mühlgasse 30). The MDW (the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna) has almost daily concerts.

Stadtpark Strauss statue
Stadtpark Strauss statue. Photo: Pxhere.com.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music is a mainstay in Vienna, and, unsurprisingly, there are many places you can visit to pay homage to this composer. Mozart may have been buried in a common grave (not unusual during the time), but he is feted wildly today, not least in the excellent Mozarthaus (Domgasse 5) in the center of the city. Plus, no matter where you go, you will see Mozartkugelen—small ball-shaped chocolates with the composer’s face on the wrapper.

Pity the landlords who rented to Beethoven. He destroyed keyboards, frustrated by their limitations, and consequently moved often (you can buy a book with a guide to his various residencies). There’s a fine Beethoven museum in Heiligenstadt, a small spa town north of Vienna where he spent his summers to escape the city’s heat. It was here that he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament, a document in which he acknowledges his increasing deafness and sets out his musical manifesto. The Beethoven Museum has drawings, scores, Beethoven’s death mask, and even a hair or two, clipped off the dying man’s head, a usual practice in those days.


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Mozartkugelen window display
Mozartkugelen window display. Photo: Herzi Pinki/Wikimedia.

Heiligenstadt is also a good place to visit Heuriger taverns, large restaurants that feature the local wine and traditional Austrian fare, such as Wiener Schnitzel, sausages, and red cabbage.

Should you wish to pay tribute to several great composers at all once, bring along an armful of flowers to the central cemetery or Zentralfriedhof. There you’ll find the graves of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Johann Strauss Jr., and a monument to Mozart. 

Wolfgang has sent his music-loving visitors to the Haus der Musik (House of Music; Seilerstätte 30 in the first district). This museum is vast, interactive, and comprehensive, and one can easily spend hours there looking at memorabilia from composers and performers. “You can try to be a conductor, and, with artificial intelligence, conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and find out if you’re brilliant or quite the opposite of it,” says Wolfgang.

Peterskirche
Peterskirche. Photo: C. Stadler-Bwag/Wikimedia.

Vienna’s culture embraces more than music, of course. The city was the seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire from 1867 to 1918, and for centuries before that was ruled by the powerful Hapsburg dynasty, so it is rich in architectural and art treasures of centuries. 


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When I’m in Vienna, I always make a pilgrimage to the enormous Kunsthistorisches Museum to see paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (the museum also boasts a fine musical instrument collection). Another favorite destination is the neo-Classical Belvedere Palace, which boasts several Gustav Klimt paintings, including The Kiss, and an excellent art collection of earlier eras. It’s also worth making time for Schönbrunn, a breathtaking Hapsburg residence that is rich in the florid Baroque-era taste of the Empress Maria Theresa, who ruled from 1740 to 1780.

Heuriger
Heuriger. Photo: Gerd Eichmann/Wikimedia.

At some point in your Vienna visit, you’ll find yourself needing a rest from your spaziergang (stroll). This affords the unmissable opportunity to stop in at a café—such as the famous Café Central or Café Sacher, or even a local Konditorei—to order a pastry (a Sachertorte, perhaps) and a kleiner Braun, one of several coffee drinks particular to Austria.

It will be delivered to you with a small glass of water, so you can linger. Lingering is the point. Imagine that time has stood still, and you are in the early 20th century, when fin de siecle Vienna was a fascinating blend of cultures, personalities, and ideas. Then allow yourself to gently reemerge into the present, surrounded by all that modern Vienna has to offer its many musical visitors.