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CHAPTER TWO — Vienna and Böhm

JJ Initials

Vienna, 1839

Sub Alis Altissimi

Vienna Landscape


Vienna, ca. 1840

The city needs to be savored like an exquisite supper — slowly, contemplatively, bit by bit; indeed, you need to have become a bit of it yourself before the full wealth of its content and the delights of its surroundings will become your personal property. [ii]

Adalbert Stifter

From far in the distance, the southern tower of St. Stephen’s Cathedral dominates Vienna’s Imperial Baroque magnificence with Gothic solemnity. Aspiring to a giddy height of 350 feet above the nave’s massive, chevron-shingled roof, it soars above the city center, fixing it in vision and locating it the vastness of its surrounding terrain. To Adalbert Stifter, it seemed “the gnomen of a sundial, to which all the streets of the surrounding area converge like the radii of a circle.” “To those who arrive from the plains of Hungary,” he wrote in the early 1840s, “it stands for a long time like a mile-gauge, which gradually grows to a giant stature, as, hour after hour, one travels toward it.” [iii]

St. Stephen's:crop


Rudolf von Alt
St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, ca. 1840

Unlike Pesth, Vienna was a closed and guarded capital. The approach to the city was through the Vorstädte — the suburban districts — each possessing its own particular character, even its own dialect. A line of external defenses, the Linienwall, with its heavy iron-barred wooden gateways, had stood since 1706 to protect these suburbs from attack. An older, more elaborate system of defenses protected the city center. This inner stronghold, with its eleven bastions and dozen gates, was surrounded by the Glacis, an open area that originally served as a military buffer zone and parade ground. By the time of Joseph’s arrival, this area served quite a different purpose. “Like a broad green belt, it runs around the city: once the Glacis of the fortress, now in reality a pleasant garden, covered with green lawns which are intersected from all directions by allées—a beneficial reservoir of air into which, gladly and in copious numbers, the population pours forth to stroll in the cool of the evening and to breathe more freely.” [v] The 50-foot high inner defenses and the Glacis stood until 1857 when they were torn down to make way for the Ringstrasse and its opulent municipal buildings. Of the fortifications, a single bastion remains today, and with it the Pasqualatihaus. There, in an apartment high above the Molkerbastei, Beethoven lived from 1804-1814, composing his great middle-period works.

Outside this “airy, health-bringing garden of the Glacis” Joseph would have encountered Fischer von Erlach’s majestic Karlskirche and marveled at Vienna’s great “garden mansions:” the Palais Dietrichstein, Palais Trautson, Palais Auersperg, Palais Schwarzenberg, the Villa Metternich, and Prince Eugene of Savoy’s elegant Belvedere. Across the Danube canal stood the Imperial and Royal Augartenpalais with its public park leading to the Prater, while to the east of the city lay the Palais Liechtenstein and the rump remains of the once-imposing Rasumovsky Palace, destroyed by fire. Within the inner wall, in the old city, stood the townhouses of other great princely families: among them the Palais Bartolotti-Partenfeld, Batthyány-Schönborn, Caprara-Geymüller, Daun-Kinsky, Esterházy (the present-day casino), Harrach, Lobkowitz, Neupauer-Breuner, Palffy, Pallavincini, Questenberg-Kaunitz, Rottal and Starhemberg.

Center Vienna Map


Vienna, 1833

In the midst of all this worldly grandeur, St. Stephen’s sat like a hen on her nest, surrounded by her many chicks: the ancient (8th Century) Ruprechtskirche, the chaste Gothic Maria am Gestade, Hildebrandt’s Baroque Peterskirche, the Kirche am Hof, the Kirche des deutschen Ordens, the Michaelerkirche, the Augustinerkirche, the Dominikanerkirche, the Franziskanerkirche, the Jesuitenkirche, the Minoritenkirche, the Kapuzinerkirche (noted burial-place of the Habsburg rulers), the Kirche zur heiligen Ursula, the Annakirche and the tiny Malteserkirche. Vienna had a synagogue, too, hidden in the courtyard of the Jewish community house in the Seitenstettengasse, forbidden by law to be visible from the street. This decree of Emperor Joseph II likely saved Joseph Kornhäusel’s elegant, Neoclassical house of worship from the destruction of Jewish sacred places during the Kristallnacht rampages of 1938.

Beneath St. Stephen’s tower stood the great, gloomy mass of the cathedral — narthex, nave, altar and choir, where the young Joseph Haydn once sang until his adolescent voice began to crack. An inveterate prankster, he one day earned an abrupt dismissal from the Imperial and Royal Court Boy Choir by cutting off a fellow chorister’s pigtail, and was thereafter forced to fend for himself, singing for bread in Vienna’s inhospitable streets. When Pepi arrived in 1839 it had been a mere thirty-one years since “Papa” Haydn’s last public appearance in Vienna — at a triumphant performance of his Creation — and only twenty-seven years since another chorister, reaching adolescence, had closed the chapter on his career at St. Stephen’s, writing in one of his scores: “Schubert Franz has crowed for the last time.” Barely a decade had passed since Schubert’s premature and agonizing death, and his descent into blackest obscurity.

Within the shadow of the cathedral’s lofty steeple stood the house in which the peerless creator of The Marriage of Figaro had lived and worked. Mozart had been married in St. Stephen’s, and it was from there that his lifeless body was taken one snowy day to its all-too-brief repose in an unmarked grave.

Most importantly for Joseph, Vienna had been the city of Beethoven. A mere dozen years had passed since Beethoven, sensing that the end was near, had uttered a characteristically acerbic exit line: “Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est.” A week later, a throng of many thousands, one of the largest assemblages in Vienna’s history, accompanied Beethoven’s coffin to the Währing cemetery for burial. Among the torchbearers were Czerny, Grillparzer, Mayseder, Raimund, Schubert, Schuppanzigh — and Joseph’s future violin teacher, Joseph Böhm.

Beethoven was still a living memory in Vienna. In the early years of his sojourn there, Joseph often saw the frail Franz Clement, the famous concertmaster and conductor of the Theater an der Wien, stealing through the inner city streets. It was “par Clemenza pour Clement” that Beethoven had written his violin concerto, the work that more than any other would mark Joachim’s career, and that would forever be associated with his name. Joachim later recalled the deep consternation that the news of Clement’s death in 1842 caused among Vienna’s string-playing community.

Josef Mayseder


Joseph Mayseder, 1838
Lithograph by Kriehuber, Vienna

Joseph marveled at the playing of k. k. Kammervirtuos Joseph Mayseder (1789-1863), the one-time pupil of Anton Wranitzky whom Moser called “perhaps the most prominent prototype of the Viennese violin school in the first half of the 19th century.”[1] As second violinist to Schuppanzigh in Count Rasumovsky’s string quartet, young Mayseder had worked extensively with Beethoven, introducing some of Beethoven’s greatest works. He later developed into a virtuoso who won praise from both Paganini and Spohr. Eduard Hanslick spoke of Mayseder’s “sweet, bell-pure tone, the unsurpassable cleanliness of his technique, the noble grace of his execution.” “In Haydn’s music, Mayseder could be called perfect,” he wrote; “next stood the performance of Mozart’s, Spohr’s and naturally his own numerous quartets. He loved only the early quartets of Beethoven; for the later he lacked love and understanding, and perhaps also greatness and passion.”[viii]

Josephsplatz Crop 


Josephsplatz, Vienna, 1839
Fischer von Erlach’s Imperial and Royal Court Library
with the equestrian statue of Emperor Joseph II 

Austria’s capital expanded rapidly during the interval between the Congress of Vienna and the ubiquitous pan-European insurrections of March, 1848. This was the era known alternately as the “pre-March” — a term that signifies the uneasy reactionary and authoritarian political climate established under Austria’s Prince Metternich — and the “Biedermeier,”[2] denoting the then-prevalent culture of domesticity: bourgeois, conventional, and largely devoted to the pursuit of creature comforts and social pleasures. In the period of restoration that followed the Napoleonic Wars, sovereigns, fearful of revolutionary ideas, marshaled all the repressive powers of the state toward the re-establishment of the status quo ante. Metternich’s argus-eyed police state, its strict censorship enforced by a host of informers, ensured that Viennese intellectual and artistic life would not stray too far beyond the bounds of the politically acceptable.[3] Curiously, as political and intellectual speech grew to be more severely regulated, social life became more uninhibited. Public and private spheres reversed; significant political discourse took place mostly behind closed doors as personal pleasures were increasingly sought in salons, coffee-houses and dance halls, on excursions to the Prater or promenades in Vienna’s other delightful parks.[4]



Advertisement for a Johann Strauss Soirée in the Wiener Zeitung, August 14, 1839

The Biedermeier, as everyone knows, was a time of dancing. In Don Giovanni, Mozart had been able to represent the various classes of society through their characteristic dances: minuet, contredanse and Deutscher. Now, everyone danced the Waltz. “I cannot say that I found the Viennese manner of dancing particularly attractive,” wrote a contemporary German visitor:

It wasn’t a proper waltz, but a real romp through the hall. It was amazing, how the dancing couples flew about in apparent disarray, and how, in the end, everything resolved itself in the most orderly way. Incidentally, it requires a unique passion to continue dancing so incessantly in such a swelter, as many did. The whole thing would have made a strange impression on one who had come from a distant land, and found himself suddenly transported — deaf — into the middle of such a dance floor; he must have thought he was witnessing a company of the possessed. I was struck, by the way, by the great intimacy between the dancers and their partners. Although, to judge by appearances, they belonged to the educated class, they engaged in many a display of tenderness that we would not consider entirely proper. Still, I must say that there was reason enough to excuse the ardent lovers, for I observed a large number of attractive, prosperous figures who displayed an abundance of grace. [xi]

In the concert hall, virtuosi reigned supreme, as the public clambered to hear the newest Paganini, the latest Liszt. At the opera, Rossini was all the rage. “How trivial was public musical life at the end of the thirties and in the early forties!” wrote critic Eduard Hanslick:

Sumptuous and trivial alike, it vacillated between dull sentimentality and scintillant wit. Cut off from all great intellectual interests, the Vienna public abandoned itself to diversion and entertainment. Not only did the theaters flourish; they were the chief subject of conversation and occupied the leading columns of the daily newspapers. Musical life was dominated by Italian opera, virtuosity, and the waltz. Strauss and Lanner were idolized. I would be the last to underestimate the talent of these two men… but it can be readily understood that this sweetly intoxicating three-quarter time, to which heads as well as feet were abandoned, combined with Italian opera and the cult of virtuosity, rendered listeners steadily less capable of intellectual effort. [xii]

“Worthy people!” wrote John Paget. “How satisfied must the old emperor, der gute Franzel, have been with you! When a certain professor once remonstrated with him on the censorship of the press, and represented it as the certain means of checking the genius of his people, he answered: ‘I don’t want learned subjects — I want good subjects.’ As regards the first part of his wish no man had more reason to be contented than the late Emperor of Austria; for a more unintellectual, eating and drinking, dancing and music-loving people do not exist than the good people of Vienna. As long as they can eat gebackene Hendel at the Sperl,[5] or dance in the Augarten, and listen to the immortal Strauss as he stamps and fiddles before the best waltz band in Europe, so long will they willingly close their ears to all such wicked [political] discourses; and, despite the speculations of philosophers or harangues of patriots, nothing will ever induce them to desire a change.”[xiii]

“Vienna is the city of music,” wrote Adalbert Stifter. By this he did not mean the symphonies and quartets of Beethoven; rather, the enchanting variety of sounds that one could experience in the Prater on a given afternoon, from Turkish Janissaries and Gypsy fiddlers to ballad mongers, harmonica players, harpists, guitarists, and organ grinders.[xiv] Beethoven was in eclipse: the grand monumentality, the universal moral sentiment, the inwardness, the willfulness and the intellectual rigor of his music no longer fit the Zeitgeist. The amateur reigned. “…the number of dilettantes is enormous,” wrote a contemporary observer. “There is a dilettante in nearly every family of several members. Fortepianos are never absent in the houses of the well to do, and in neighborhoods where the houses are close together the comical situation often arises that people have to make appointments with their neighbors for practice times. In a single house, one often hears a violin playing on the ground floor, a fortepiano on the first floor, in the second floor a flute, on the third a song with guitar, and over it all a blind man belaboring a clarinet in the courtyard. Whoever does not see a love of art in this has been struck blind.” [xv]

 Graben Vienna

Graben, Vienna, 1839

This is the way the Viennese were portrayed by their contemporaries — the way they portrayed themselves. Was it a love of art, or simply a love of pleasure? Certainly the physical relics of Biedermeier Vienna—the graceful architecture, the simple, yet elegant furniture, the vibrant, gilt and painted porcelain, the opulent fabrics, the stylish clothes and the images of lively couples dancing the Galop at the Elysium — all indicate the sudden awakening of what we would call a modern “lifestyle” among those who could afford to indulge in it.

For all of its apparent frivolity, Biedermeier society was nevertheless deeply rooted in the family and the care of children. Indeed, the Biedermeier was the age that invented the modern concept of childhood as its own special time of life, with unique experiences and unique perceptions — a time of learning and play, of innocence and wonder. We see this new spirit of childhood arising everywhere in post-Napoleonic Europe: in home life and in public institutions, in educational philosophy, in art and in music. In the eighteenth century, children had been portrayed stiffly, as small, solitary, unformed adults. And this was a true picture of how they were treated: corseted and restrained, admonished and disciplined until they could make themselves useful to their parents and their communities. In nineteenth-century art, children suddenly come alive. They are portrayed affectionately, with parents and siblings, or at play with favorite toys or animals. Adults struggle in vain to contain their energies; caregivers seem to take genuine pleasure in children’s company, and their efforts at discipline are ignored. Nineteenth-century children’s music displays a similar change in attitude. The pieces in Bach’s Anna Magdalena notebook are adult forms in miniature; little minuets or short, binary compositions. How different are the child-inspired pieces of Schumann or Mendelssohn, with their scary stories, their poor orphans, their knights and their hobby-horses.

What implications did these newly-percieved freedoms of childhood not hold for the world of adults as well? Imagine the scandal that Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde provoked at the dawn of the 19th century, when he dared to hint at the existence of childhood sexuality: “Now look! Dear little Wilhelmina often finds inexpressible delight in lying on her back and kicking her little legs in the air, unconcerned about her clothes or about the judgment of the world.”



After School
Oil Painting by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Vienna, 1841

Joseph grew up in a new and rapidly evolving era of human self-realization. Nevertheless, for a child who had only a year earlier seen a happy, bustling new city crumble and sink, the luxury and opulence, the freedom and fosterage that now surrounded him may well have shone with an aura of unreality. What could all this fashionable Viennese gaiety, this Imperial splendor — this Biedermeier sentiment or this Catholic probity — have meant to an 8-year-old Jewish boy who had recently bid farewell to his parents and siblings to take up residence with his 70-year-old grandfather? The ninth year is an age when children are intensely occupied with making rational sense of their environment; a time when they are gaining confidence in their skills, forging relationships with their peers, and when, more than ever, they look to adults—parents and teachers—for reassurance, continuity and strength.

Screen shot 2013-07-03 at 5.01.00 PM


Isaac Figdor

Grandfather Figdor, a widower of eight years, was a leader in the Viennese business community, a tolerated Jew of long-standing, and in 1847 one of only 193 Jewish family heads enrolled in Vienna. Figdor lived in Leopoldstadt, the district along the Danube canal that was home to most of Vienna’s Jewish population. In later years, the Mazzesinsel (the Matzoh Island), as it came to be called, would become many an Eastern Jew’s gateway to the West. Today, Leopoldstadt is once again a center of Jewish life, where young twenty-first century orthodox Jewish boys, in long black coats, black hats and curled side-locks, ride their razor scooters, or stop to chat on nearby street corners. Figdor is said to have been traditionally strict about manners and habits — admonishing his young grandson to be moderate in his eating habits, for example — but he was also kindhearted, and gently solicitous of his grandson’s feelings of homesickness during a difficult period that nevertheless left him vulnerable to what he later described as deeply rooted feelings of melancholy, desolation, abandonment and apathy.

19th-century Leopoldstadt was a fashionable destination for many of the city’s residents, and home to many of Vienna’s most popular entertainments: the Sperl Ballroom, where one could dance the night away to the strains of Johann Strauss’s orchestra; the Theater in der Leopoldstadt, popularly known as the Volkstheater, offering performances of Raimund and Nestroy; and, of course, the Prater, the former Imperial hunting ground, then the city’s pleasure park. J. M. Bayrer’s portrayal of the Friedrich’s Bridge, ca. 1842, shows Leopoldstadt as Joseph would have known it, looking across the Danube canal from the Red Tower Bastion in the central district. The Church of the Barmherzigen Brüder, where Haydn sang from 1755 to 1758 can still be seen today from the same perspective. Joseph’s grandfather’s business, Isaac Figdor & Söhne, was headquartered in the large Neo-classical building on the right, An der Donau No. 579.


Leopoldstadt from the Friedrichsbrücke, ca. 1842


Leopoldstadt from the Schwedenbrücke today

© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013.

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[1] Mayseder’s student Heinrich De Ahna (*1835 — †1892) would later play second violin in the Joachim’s Berlin Quartet.

[2] Originally spelled “Biedermaier,” the term stems from the imaginary author of Poems of Gottfried Biedermaier (an artless Philistine), by A. Kussmaul and L. Eichrodt, published from 1855-57 in the weekly humor magazine Fliegende Blätter.

[3] “A more fettered being than an Austrian author surely never existed,” wrote Karl Postl (Charles Sealsfield) in 1828. “A writer in Austria must not offend against any Government; nor against any minister; nor against any hierarchy, if its members be influential; nor against the aristocracy. He must not be liberal—nor philosophical—nor humorous—in short, he must be nothing at all. Under the catalogue of offences, are comprehended not only satires and witticisms; —nay, he must not explain things at all, because they might lead to serious thoughts….” [Branscombe/AUSTRIAN, p. 12.] Among the many works on the censor’s list in 1840 were Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, Ludwig Feuerbach’s Über Philosophie und Christentum, the second volume of Achim von Arnim’s Sämmtliche Werke, George Sand’s Gabriel and the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung No. 45 from 1839. [Verzeichnis der von der k. k. Bücherzensur in Wien mit allerhöchster Genehmigung verbotenen Werke, 1840, Universitätsbibliothek Innsbruck, UBI-HB 100395]. Nevertheless, writes a contemporary observer, the Austrian reader does not “concern himself, in general, about the censorship of the press, and the political index purgatorius, which is well known to be pretty voluminous in the empire; but many a famous book in the register, the censor inserts doubtless with a smile, acting on the great Austrian principle of safety, but knowing all the while very well, that any body who chooses to give himself a little trouble, may have any book he pleases to ask for.” [The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Vol. XII — New Series (Sept. – Dec. 1840), Philadelphia: Littell & Co., 1840, p. 427.]

[4] The Prater (from the Latin pratum, or meadow) is a large public area in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt, an island between the Danube and the Danube canal. Originally an Imperial hunting ground, it was opened to the public by Joseph II in 1766. “Is it a park? ‘No.’ Is it a meadow? ‘No,’” wrote Adalbert Stifter. “Is it a garden? ‘No.’ A forest? ‘No.’ An amusement establishment? ‘No.’ What then? All these taken together.”

[5] Zum Sperlbauer, colloquially known as the Sperl was the popular Gasthaus and dance hall in the Leopoldstadt where Lanner and Strauss played.

[i] Author’s collection.

[ii] Quoted in Waissenberger/VIENNA, p. 51.

[iii] Stifter/WIEN, pp. 9-10. The tower must have been a splendid sight, bright and newly refurbished, when Stifter climbed it to look out over the city. But when Joseph arrived in 1839, the blackened, 400-year-old edifice was crumbling and in need of repair, soon to be concealed behind a wooden scaffold. Its restoration would not be completed for three years.

[iv] Author’s collection.

[v] Stifter/WIEN, pp. 20-21.

[vi] Author’s collection.

[vii] Wikimedia commons.

[viii] Quoted in Moser/VIOLINSPIEL, p. 233.

[ix] Author’s collection.

[xi] Haacke/ERINNERUNGEN, p. 36

[xii] Hanslick/VIENNA, p. 6.

[xiii] Paget/HUNGARY, pp. 2-3.

[xiv] Stifter/WIENER, p. 57.

[xv] Normann/ÖSTERREICH II, pp. 42-43.

[xvii] Available from Wittgenstein website.