In the early days of my wanderlust, I was always surprised by the amount of living that went on in the cities I visited. I think I sort of expected to rock up to Paris and see the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Musée Pompidou sitting in a neat row across the street from the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Notre Dame. If I’d given it proper thought I could have told you what a ridiculous notion that was, but that’s the thing. I don’t think I’d given it proper thought. Rome to me meant the Colliseum, so what were all these endless apartment buildings, office buildings, and shops doing in the way? With the sheer number of famous sites to see in London, how could there possibly be so many tube stops between them all?
I have yet to see a city organised in such a way that all of its tourist sites are right in a row. (The Vatican doesn’t count.) What I have discovered, though, is that Vienna organises its dead composers that way. Right in the middle of the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), along the main drag, there is a grassy alcove bordered by trees. In that alcove lie Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, and Brahms. Four großen Komponisten, all in a row.
I picture Beethoven as gruff and grim, emotionally-volatile, and similar in appearance to Ebenezer Scrooge. One must remember, though, that he is also the man who brought us the gently flowing melodies of the 6th (Pastoral) Symphony as well as the ferocity and agitation of the Tempest and Waldstein Sonatas (No 17 and 21). What would he think of the spring flowers that adorn his grave?
Schubert was a writer of songs. Lieder, of course, but many of his piano works are very song-like too. Now that I live up the road from his childhood home, I am developing a renewed interest in his music. His grave marker is fitting for the mental image I have for him: elegant white marble, adorned with two swans, cherubs, and a Greek goddess.
Strauss. There are perhaps 5-6 Strausses buried close to one another, including Johann Strauss Vater, who lies just behind his son. He of the Schönen Blauen Donau has the most remarkable statue for a grave marker – like a scene of divinity cast in stone.
When I was beginning practice on Brahms’ Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 1, my teacher asked me what I knew about him. “I dunno,” I said, “ he was buddies with Schumann?” It may have been the only right answer I ever gave her. Brahms walked many miles to visit his friend after Schumann was hospitalised for mental illness. Apparently he was also good friends with Johann Strauss (the younger). It’s nice that they’re buried side-by-side.
In the middle of the alcove is a monument tribute to Mozart, who is actually buried elsewhere in the city. He has flowers too.
Behind me, an elderly lady dressed in her Sunday finest goes to visit her husband. Around the corner, a middle-aged woman in jeans plants flowers for her mother. Up the road, a young couple talk quietly over a baby’s gravestone as their small daughter runs in the grass.
Since the early days of my wanderlust, I have come to appreciate the amount of living that goes on in the cities I visit. Here in Vienna, people and history are living side-by-side.