Friday, February 05, 2010

Beethoven was here. It’s a sign I almost expected to see the first time I toured the 19th district of Vienna, Heiligenstadt, which used to be a distant suburb from that great the walled city. Once upon a time if you wanted to make it big in music, you had to come to Vienna, the way today you probably want to live in New York or LA in the U.S. Vienna was home to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Johann Strauss (the waltz king), Mahler, Bruckner, and others. Many of them are buried in a cul-de-sac in the city’s central cemetery. For those of you who love trivia, it’s the same cemetery where they shot the burial of Harry Lime in The Third Man.

The suburb of Heiligenstadt is a train and then bus ride from the center of Vienna. Heiligenstadt’s most celebrated individual is Beethoven. This was his country get-away 200 years ago, when he got sick of all the annoying counts, archdukes and princes making demands on him. (“Can’t you simplify this violin part? It’s unplayable!”) In one of the houses, which today is a museum, the 31-year-old composer penned a famous document, appropriately called the Heiligenstadt Testament, wherein he discussed his deafness, which many people close to him still didn’t know about. He considered taking his life. But in the end he decided against it, and instead plunged himself into his art with a renewed vigor. Shortly afterwards, his style became grander, more heroic, more defiant, and masterpiece after masterpiece poured forth. Though the document was addressed to his two brothers, Beethoven never actually showed the Heiligenstadt Testament to anyone, and it wasn’t discovered until after his death.

The trip to the house where this document was written can be boring (because you’re basically looking at rooms of furniture, a piano or two, and facsimiles of letters) or deeply moving (because you’re standing at ground zero where music essentially changed, becoming more personal, more triumphant, more Romantic than ever before). I was one of the latter and after paying my respects to the man I consider the greatest composer ever, period, I wanted to get something to eat. Something hearty.

That’s the second reason I was in Heiligenstadt.

There are several lovely, breezy wine gardens located in the town. My favorite is Mayer am Pfarrplatz, and not just because Beethoven officially stayed here and dined here on some of his trips. The food is terrific—and cheap. It’s typical Austrian/German fare—smoked meats, potatoes, schnitzel, bread and lots of vegetables—washed down with a Heurige, which means “this year’s (white) wine” as well as the tavern or wine garden where it’s served. (Vienna produces lots of wine—there are more than 1,700 acres of vineyards within the city limits.) And there must be a law that says every wine garden needs an old man who sits off to the side and plays the accordion. It’s not Beethoven, but it made the evening feel that much more authentic.

The style is buffet. You sit outside. To get your food, you go inside. Portions are generous so make sure you eat lightly that day prior to your arrival, or you’ll find you have to turn down the scrumptious desserts—strudel with lots of whipped cream, and chocolate éclairs to die for, and some very tasty cookies. I felt guilty for not walking, or jogging, back to the center of town.

I love Heiligenstadt for a number of reasons. The wine bars are chief among them. The atmosphere is just what you’d imagine when you think tranquil food and drink in the beautiful Viennese outdoors. The prices are great. And everywhere you step, there is history, especially musical history.

In a nearby park there’s a statue of Beethoven. I really like this monument. Unlike many of the statues of Mozart which dot Vienna (and Salzburg) and which portray him as almost an Olympian bon vivant, tall and graceful (which he was not), this shows its subject in a characteristic pose, walking, hunched over in thought, carrying a small notebook behind his back. This is how Beethoven looked as he strolled through the village, planning masterpieces in his head. He even wrote a whole symphony that describes, in music, the flight from the city to the beautiful countryside for some peace and tranquility—his Symphony No. 6, the Pastorale. Today Heiligenstadt is not the quiet getaway it was 200 years ago—cars are everywhere, there’s more noise pollution than there ought to be, and I feel they really ought to make the area pedestrians-only. Still, for a beautiful evening with great food, you can’t beat this place.

John Grabowski