Sunday, July 12, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour, Day Twenty-eight

Monday, 2 January, 1989

WIEN-- Got up for the Kaiser rolls and jam. I asked for my tee "ohne Milch" but apparently my accent is really lousy-- the waitress brought the pitcher anyway.

Caught the streetcar that heads southeast from the central part of the city, to the Zentral Friedhof. It goes along the Simmeringer Hauptstraße. I don’t know why, but it felt very homely, in a good sort of way, to see this other part of Vienna, as well as the touristed places. The buildings and shops reminded me of places in Kansas City, like along Troost (though not so rundown) or up at 63rd and Brookside. One thinks of all these people going about their lives here, where Vienna isn’t important because it’s a world-famous city, but because it’s where they live.

The object of the morning was another musical pilgrimage . . . Not as easy to accomplish as at the
Cimetiere au Montmartre. The Zentral Friedhof seems pretty orderly, in that there’s a monumental avenue leading from the entrance, to a great green-domed church. But as for finding anything . . . I asked a uniformed attendant, in my best fractured German, where Beethoven’s grave was located. He said, or at least I think he did, that it was along the first (or was it the second?) avenue "links" past where a white car was parked. All this in German, of course, so I wasn’t sure if I’d understood correctly.

The whole thing became moot, though, when the white car’s owner drove it away and I lost my point of reference before I got close enough to ascertain where it had been.

Went up and inspected the outside of the church and its flanking wings. There’s a kind of gallery along there, with memorial tablets along the wall. I wonder how one rates that, since I didn’t recognise any famous names.

One interesting feature near there is a plot set off for the graves of Red Army soldiers. It looked, from the dates, that these men hadn’t died in the war but rather were stationed here afterwards (as an army of occupation? Oops!) and it hadn’t been possible to ship their bodies back to Russia. The really sad thing was the near-certainty that most if not all of these men would’ve died as atheists. What a terrible thing, to have no hope!

I knew Beethoven’s grave was supposed to be east of the church, so I tried again to ask someone. Seems they should have section numbers or something. And I think they do, except my German isn’t anywhere close to being able to understand numbers (except for "zwanzig"-- 20-- on the streetcars when they call out the stops. I’ve gotten really good at that). And I could not make the man understand my request to write the number of the row and section down. So I was in for another hour or so of blind wandering.

Found Arnold Schönberg’s grave, though. It’s kind of a Cubist marble monument, very apt. And I came across
Josef Hoffmann’s. He and his wife Karoline have a plain tall shaft with their names and dates inscribed in tall gothic lettering.

Finally, after more blundering about, I found what I was looking for. They have a kind of musicians’ Poets’ Corner there, with Brahms, a Strauss or two, little Franz Schubert, and Beethoven all interred in kind of a horseshoe arrangement, with a monument to poor Mozart in the center. Von Suppe had sneaked into the formation, too, though how I don’t know.

I’d been wondering if I should’ve brought Beethoven some flowers but I saw that plenty of other people had adequately supplied the gesture. And it really wasn’t the same as it was at Montmartre. Here, with Beethoven, I was paying my respects to a great man who lived a long time ago. But there, with Hector, it was like visiting the tomb of a dear and sorely-missed friend.

A gaggle of Japanese tourists were marshalled through as I stood in the little clearing. They disturbed my contemplations to a degree, but not to the extent they would’ve with Hector in Paris.

I sang "An die Musik" for Franz. But other than that, I hadn’t much time to tarry. Though I’d arrived at the Friedhof around 10:00 AM it was nearly 12:30 by now, and my Wien transport pass had expired at 12:00. And I still hadn’t figured out how or to whom pay paid your streetcar fare if you were using money.

So feeling rather guilty about it, I bootlegged the streetcar ride back to the Ring. Wasn’t made any more comfortable by the stickers in the windows that said, in German I could understand, that the transport inspectors would be around checking passes today and that yours had better be in order. I suppose I could’ve put some money in the little box, but I didn’t have the correct change and was feeling too straitened to overpay.

So I sat tight, deciding that those stickers probably are on the streetcar windows all the time-- I can’t see them sticking them on and scraping them all off just for one day’s worth of warning.

However it is, as soon as I got back to the Schwarzenberg Platz I walked down to the Stadtpark station and bought a fresh two-day transit pass. And the fact that I’ll only be able to use one day of it should amply make up for my contraband trip of the past half hour.

Went back to shoot a picture of the Konzert Haus where I heard the Beethoven last night, but returned to the Stadtpark U-Bahn station to catch the train for Heiligenstadt. One might suppose I was going to see the house where Beethoven wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, and someday perhaps I shall. But the afternoon was to be devoted to Architecture, specifically Hoffmann’s Sonja Knips house.

Heiligenstadt is the end of the line. I made myself a satisfying and highly nutritious lunch of pastries there in the station, then set out to find Nußwaldgasse.

Very near the station is a housing project which interested me for a number of reasons, most all connected with its name. It’s called the Karl Marx-Hof (!) and has all these heroic Soviet-Realism-style statues over the major entrances. The amusing thing is that these figures are still enchained. The other irony was that, in the wide front garden of this memorial to the progenitor of Communism, two small boys, on this second day of January, were playing the good old American game of baseball. It was great.

To get to the
Sonja Knips house you have a good long pull up the Barawitzka street before Nußwaldgasse veers off to the left. One can’t go into the house, of course, it being a private residence. But the gray exterior is all studded with a regular pattern of diamond-shaped castings, which look as if they should be structural, like the star-shaped tie rod heads on houses in Lawrence. Probably aren’t, though. These are set off by the diagonal mullions in the windows and the diamond coursing of the slates on the roof and the three chimneys. It’s deceptively simple but rife with subtle details like the scooped-in embrasures of the windows.

I managed to catch a bus back down to the station but had no intention of getting the train back just yet. Something important to do first. Made my way down the very warehousey-looking Mooslacken street to the Nußdorfer Lande, which runs along the Donau Kanal.

But canals don’t make it. I wanted the real river. And after awhile of getting mucked up in a small spaghetti-bowl of an interchange I found myself on the Nordbrücke, crossing the actual
schöne blaue Donau.

There’s a lovely view of the church on the Kahlenberg from there. And I’ll have you know that in this afternoon’s bright sunny weather the Danube really was blue, if with a slight grayish tinge to it.

The river there splits into two parallel streams, with a long narrow island or something between. There’s a way down to it from the bridge, so you can stroll along the paths as many others were. It was so nice to see the people out enjoying their river on this bright January day: This taking, in the case of some young boys, the form of skateboarding (on their tails) down the smooth pavement.

I walked along the river awhile myself, admiring the fishing boats and the ducks and the views of the city far away to the south. I sometimes wonder what sort of travelling companion I’d be: I’m such a fiend for rivers and tops of towers and hills and things. Would anyone else understand? But it seems to me that if you’ve got a town on a famous river, you haven’t been there properly until you’ve visited the river as well.

Left there around 4:30 and caught the train back to the city. Changed at Schwedenplatz and ended up once more at the Stephensdom. You should see the absurdity that Hans Holler is putting up opposite it on the Platz. It’s called the Haas Haus (Rabbit Hotel?) and looks like a series of cans with their lids half off. Took a picture for Myron Davidman’s* [architectural employer back in the States] benefit.

Near there is a shop that sells some Wienerwerkstätte type things; I bought a deck of cards in that style as a Christmas present for Lynne* [my elder sister].

I saw a coffee mug at a shop along my route to Beethoven’s flat on the Mölkier Bastei the other day, one I thought might be fun to get for Daddy. Went back now but that shop was closed. But as long as I was along there, I stopped at one bakery-deli for something to do for supper, then went to Julius Meinl’s to stock up on bread and cheese and other provisions for the long train ride tomorrow. Stuck it on my Visa and probably spent a fortune.

Though I was cutting it close I tarried in the Opernpassage trying to find the shop where I saw those needlepoint-topped pill boxes. I thought it’d be a nice gift for Janie* [friend who was subleasing my Kansas City apartment]. But I couldn’t find the place again. Gave it up and dashed back to the hotel to change for the opera.

Wiener Volksoper is the Viennese equivalent of Kansas City’s Lyric, meaning the works are done in the local vernacular; in this case, Deutsch. German, Italian-- in the case of Don Giovanni, it made no difference to me, especially as I’ve heard it in English at the Lyric and basically know the plot.

As I approached the theatre along with many others, I heard a boy of eight or nine a little way ahead of me notice the posters and cry out to his parents something like, "Oh, gut! Ist Don Giovanni!" I couldn’t tell if he was glad it was that opera in particular or if he was simply relieved to see the play was going on as advertised. Either way, it was charming to see the child’s enthusiasm.

I had been told day before yesterday that I’d been sold the last seat in the house. And now I could see why. It was a little stool in the corner of one of the stage right boxes. To see anything at all I had to balance on the very edge of my stool and crane my neck around the lefthand frame of the box. The other people there had real chairs.

But I noticed that there were plenty of empty seats in the balcony center and resolved to employ a little of my
Folly Theatre ushering chutzpah during intermission and move.

It’s really hard not to compare this performance with the one I saw at the Lyric in ’79, so why try? In that one, Stanley Wexler played the Don as an overwhelmingly attractive cuss, the kind of man who wouldn’t need to seduce women, he’d have them lining up in the street of their own volition. The Giovanni tonight, a Boje Skovhus, played the role as a dark-minded cynic. You got the idea he seduced women not for the physical pleasure of it but for the vile sake of dehumanising them and messing up their lives. A valid approach, and I don’t think it was to blame for the fact that the performance of the ensemble as a whole never did catch fire. It all seemed rather secondhand.

There were some interesting pieces of business, though-- e.g., Giovanni and Leporello escaped from the avengers at the party by lowering a ladder into the orchestra pit, scrambling over the musicians, and out the other side. And they came back the same way, ladder and all, at the start of Act II. The backlit scene at the graveyard was very effective (and yes, I could see it decently since I did move between the acts). And Giovanni slid into Hell on his own supper table, which went into the depths with him.

I noticed that, as with last night, people were taking pictures all over. So I ventured to follow suit, not using a flash, of course, and waiting for loud portions of the music to cover the shutter noise.

Afterwards, it was truly a strange sensation, standing at the streetcar stop, waiting there at the Währinger Gurtel for the #40 streetcar to take me back to the U-Bahn at Schottentor . . . and over the street one could see signs directing drivers to the highways for Budapest, Prague (Praha), and Brno . . . my God, those cities are all in Warsaw Pact countries! Am I really that far east?† It seemed very mysterious and exotic, as if I were brushing shoulders with something I hadn’t quite believed in up to now. But those cities certainly exist and could be announced by something as straightforward and prosaic as blue and white highway signs!

Back at the hotel, the idea was to get packed up and in bed as soon as possible. 8:00 AM train out of the West Bahnhof tomorrow.
†Yes, I'm aware now that my geography was shaky and that Czechoslovakia (as it was called then) is just to the north of Austria. But the point is the same.


whiskers said...

Did you ever get to Pere Lachaise while in Paris? If not, I truly recommend it.


St. Blogwen said...

No, I never did. The cemetery in Montmartre was my only object in that line. But I hear that Pere Lachaise is fascinating, for the sculpture as much as for who's buried there.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, itty bitty gothic architecture! And it's still an active cemetery, so some of the graves are still tended...though I liked the decaying ones better.