Today marks the twentieth installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.
Our twentieth Center of Progress is Vienna, nicknamed the “City of Music.” From the late eighteenth century through much of the nineteenth century, the city revolutionized music and produced some of the classical and romantic eras’ greatest works. The sponsorship of the then-powerful Habsburg dynasty and the aristocrats at Vienna’s imperial court created a lucrative environment for musicians, attracting the latter to the city. Some of history’s greatest composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, lived and created music in Vienna. Many of history’s most significant symphonies, concertos, and operas thus originated in Vienna. Even today, pieces composed during Vienna’s golden age continue to dominate orchestral music performances worldwide.
Today, Vienna is the capital and most populous city in Austria, with nearly two million residents. The city is famous for its cultural icons, including multiple historic palaces and museums, as well as its coffeehouses, upscale shops, and high quality of life. The historical city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city still bills itself as the “world capital of music,” hosting numerous concerts. In addition to its historical role in revolutionizing music, Vienna has continued to inspire musicians in more recent times. Vienna’s official tourism website notes that the city is the subject of more than three thousand songs, including two by former Beatles and the eponymous Billy Joel hit.
The site next to the Danube river where Vienna now stands has been inhabited since at least 500 BCE when evidence suggests that ancient Celts lived in the area. Around 15 BCE, the site became home to a Roman fort. Vienna’s location along the Danube made it a natural trading hub. Coins from the Byzantine Empire made their way to Vienna by the 6th century CE, indicating that the city engaged in far-reaching trade. By 1155 Vienna became the capital of the Margraviate of Austria, which was upgraded to a dukedom the following year. Throughout the centuries, the area continued to grow in wealth and political importance. In the mid-15th century, Vienna became the Habsburg dynasty’s headquarters and the de facto capital of the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburgs were once among the most influential royal families in Europe. Albeit with greatly diminished power, the family remains active in politics to this day. (As an interesting bit of trivia, the current head of the Habsburg family was the first royal person to contract COVID-19).
As an increasingly prominent center of trade and culture, the city became a target for military attacks and vulnerable to foreign diseases. Vienna weathered Hungarian occupation in the 15th century, attempted Ottoman invasions in the 16th and 17th centuries, and a devastating epidemic (likely bubonic plague) in 1679 that killed a third of the city’s inhabitants. To this day, an ornate sculpture-covered column celebrating the epidemic’s end can be viewed in the city center. In 1804, as the Napoleonic Wars raged, Vienna became the new Austrian Empire’s capital. Despite its encounters with war and disease, Vienna’s status as a site of high culture only grew.
The Habsburg family and the imperial court sought to increase their prestige by funding the arts, particularly music. With strong ties to Italy and the Catholic Church, as early as the seventeenth century, the Habsburgs brought over a hundred Italian musicians to Vienna and introduced cutting-edge Italian musical innovations such as opera and ballet to the city, as well as increasingly extravagant productions of sacred music. As part of the counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church promoted grand musical and artistic projects.
In 1622, the head of the Habsburg family, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II (1578–1637), married a music-loving Eleonora, the princess of Mantua (1598–1655). Empress Eleonora’s artistic patronage is credited with making the Viennese court a center of baroque music and fledgling theatrical forms such as opera. As the Habsburgs financed increasingly lavish musical performances to celebrate family occasions like birthdays and grandiose religious music performances, the monetary incentive drew more and more musicians to the city from across Europe. By the 1760s, music was so embedded in Vienna’s culture that members of not only the nobility but also the prosperous middle class began to act as music patrons.
The Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), often called the “father of the symphony” and the “father of the string quartet,” rose from humble origins as the son of a wheelwright and a cook to become Europe’s most celebrated composer for a time. Haydn did his early work as a court musician for a rich family in a remote estate but was eventually drawn to Vienna, where he was lavished with funding and treated as a celebrity. Haydn’s magnum opus, The Creation, an oratorio celebrating the Biblical Book of Genesis, first premiered in a private performance for a society of Vienna’s music-loving noblemen. The Creation publicly debuted in Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1799 and sold out long before the performance. While in Vienna, Haydn became a mentor to Mozart (1756–1791) and tutored Beethoven (1770–1827).
The son of a Salzburg music instructor, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart first performed in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace when he was just six years old, alongside his ten-year-old sister. The Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780) paid the siblings 100 gold ducats and gave them expensive garments in thanks. Mozart is widely considered to be one of the greatest composers of all time. He enjoyed the most financially successful part of his career while in Vienna. There, he and his wife rented an elegant apartment, bought expensive furniture, had multiple servants, sent their son Karl to a prestigious school (in Prague), and lived a luxurious lifestyle in general. Maria Theresa’s son and successor, Joseph II (1741–1790), appointed Mozart to the position of court chamber music composer, giving the latter a salary on top of his earnings from his concerts and other patrons.
However, in his later years, Mozart suffered financially. As the Austro-Turkish War (1788–1791) raged and reduced the prosperity of Vienna and its aristocrats, funding for musicians became harder to secure. Even as his earnings declined, Mozart’s expenses remained high, and he fell into debt. He had begun to recover financially by finding new patrons outside of Vienna when, at the age of 35, he died of a sudden illness that may have been influenza or a streptococcal infection. (Or, some believe, poison). One of his greatest masterpieces, Requiem, remained unfinished. Adding to the piece’s mystique, Mozart’s widow famously claimed that a mysterious stranger had commissioned Requiem and that Mozart felt he was composing the mass for his own death.
Beethoven, also among the most beloved composers in history, moved from Bonn to Vienna at age 21. He quickly gained a positive reputation as a pianist and became a favorite at the imperial court. Among his most prominent patrons was Archduke Rudolf (1788–1831), a cardinal in the Catholic Church and a member of the Habsburg family. Beethoven’s most profitable concerts were repeat performances of his work celebrating the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon (Op. 91) and his Seventh Symphony (Op. 92), which was also inspired by the Napoleonic Wars. Beethoven’s achievements were all the more impressive after he became mostly deaf in his later years, but continued to compose innovative music. Beethoven’s greatest work was his Ninth Symphony (Op. 125), which premiered in Vienna in 1824. It remains one of the most-performed musical pieces the world over.
Schubert (1797–1828), a Vienna native, produced an acclaimed body of work within his short life thanks to the patronage of the city’s aristocracy. His greatest work, Winterreise (“winter journey”), took its lyrics from a series of poems by Wilhelm Müller and explored themes of loneliness and suffering. He died at age 31, probably of typhoid fever or perhaps syphilis. Brahms (1833–1897), born in Hamburg, also worked for most of his professional life in Vienna. His Fourth Symphony is often listed among his best works. Brahms believed in “absolute music,” or music that is not “about” anything in particular and does not explicitly reference any specific scene or narrative. However, some scholars believe that the Fourth Symphony may have been inspired by Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra.
After the classical and romantic music eras, Vienna continued to serve as a major cultural innovator. Vienna was at the center of an art nouveau movement in the 20th century and produced famous artists such as the Vienna-born Gustav Klimt (1862–1918). But Vienna remains best-known for its musical accomplishments in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Music has enlivened human existence since prehistory. Carbon dating suggests that flutes excavated in Germany, and carved of mammoth ivory, are between 42,000 and 43,000 years old. The oldest surviving written melody, preserved on a clay cuneiform tablet, is an ode to an ancient goddess of orchards, first composed around the 14th century BCE. The oldest fully-intact and translated surviving musical composition with both lyrics and a melody may date as far back as 200 BCE and is written in ancient Greek. It is engraved on a marble column marking the grave of a woman named Euterpe (literally, “rejoicing well”). She was, appropriately, named after the Muse of music. The lyrics of the song, thought to be written by Euterpe’s widower, read in translation: “While you live, shine / Have no grief at all / Life exists only for a short while / And Time demands its toll.” The tune is joyful, a celebration of Euterpe’s life. You can hear a Greek performance of it here.
Centuries later in Vienna, Beethoven too sought to convey the feeling of joy in perhaps history’s best-loved and most-performed symphony movement, the Ode to Joy within the Ninth Symphony. As a powerful means of expressing and stirring emotions, music has always played an important role in human lives, uplifting spirits throughout the generations. Humanity has continuously created new musical techniques and styles. But Vienna’s cultural achievement was significant. By producing so many musical compositions that revolutionized the field and continue to resonate with audiences centuries later, Vienna earned its moniker, “the City of Music.”
The musical legacy of Vienna has enriched humanity. The city also demonstrated the role of prosperity in funding great works of art. Vienna dramatically changed how music is performed, gave the world more groundbreaking composers than any other city, and was the birthplace of compositions that many believe represent the pinnacle of musical achievement. Vienna has therefore earned its place as our twentieth Center of Progress.