I recently visited Vienna, a city which I fell in love with on my first visit in 2015. At the risk of sounding incredibly bossy, if you are a musician you have to visit Vienna. It is the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg and more. It boasts two fine concert halls with world-class resident orchestras, two opera houses, and beautiful churches where music is performed regularly. The place positively oozes culture from every pore: its galleries and museums contain some of the finest collections of art I have ever seen, and its imperial buildings (from the time of the Hapsburgs) are beautifully maintained. You can visit the homes of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schoenberg….. and pay your personal homage to the great composers at the main cemetery.
During my visit I overdosed on Secessionist art, walked the elegant boulevards in glorious and unexpectedly warm early spring sunshine, ate wurst from a stand behind the opera house, drank beer in a bierkeller, visited the (alleged) birthplace of Schubert (a tiny two-room museum with a touching display of mementos including his little round glasses), rode round the Ringstrasse on a retro tram, drank more beer, ate more wurst, attended a Sunday morning concert at the Konzerthaus, saw Dürer’s exquisite drawing of the hare, drank coffee with a colleague from HelloStage at a proper Viennese coffee house, toured Mozart’s house in the old city, and vowed I would return in the winter.
When I returned to London, replete with Weissbier, Mozartkugeln and kasekrainer, I felt that for the five days of my stay in Vienna I had steeped myself in its culture. When I practised music by Schubert I recalled the trip to his birthplace, a short tram ride from Schottenring to an area which was probably countryside in his day. My practising was coloured by recollections of the sounds and sights of Vienna – the noise of people (most obviously around St Stephen’s cathedral), the steady clop of horses’ hooves (you can take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the old city), the rattle and chime of the trams, the timbre and rhythm of conversations in cafes and bars. I’m a romantic at heart and it meant a lot to me to be able to walk the streets that Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert may have walked before me. When I returned to my piano and my practising, I felt I had a better handle on the music of these great Austrian composers, my understanding of their cultural background and their music deepened by my visit to their city.
Cutting oneself off from normal life by spending hours and hours in the practise room is not healthy. Aside from the law of diminishing returns (after about 3 hours you stop taking in information and are simply “typing” the music), it is important to remember that the composers whose music we love and revere were normal people too – and we can connect better to them and their music if we go out and live life, just as they did. As as student of mine remarked recently on the prospect of attending a specialist music school, “I’m not sure I could hack it, with all that practising. I’d want a social life too!”. And she’s right, because having a social life, meeting friends, going out together, eating and drinking, going to the theatre, the cinema, art exhibitions, reading trashy novels, falling in love, falling out of love, all feeds into our cultural and creative landscape to nourish and inform our music-making.
By the same token, placing the composers on high pedestals and turning them into demi-gods sets up expectations which we can never hope to fulfil, because we will never feel we can “do justice” to their music. Instead, treat them as ordinary people – they too had love affairs, went out drinking with mates, and enjoyed a good meal with friends and colleagues – but respect what they give us in their scores and show fidelity to the wonderful literature they have left us.