A little night music. Always an appealing concept but I am listening to it some 7000 feet up atop the Kitzbuheler Alps in Westendorf, Austria, in broad daylight and searing heat. No matter, Mozart’s Nachtmusik can be enjoyed at any time of the day or night. Mountain peaks here surround me, and all in wonderful hues of blues, greens and browns. This could be heaven on earth. The scenery is spectacular and lends itself most ably to my drifting imaginations of life here in the 1770s when Mozart was born here and, presumably, gathered inspiration for his vast collection of compositions. The exquisite sounds of his music flow through my ears and I determine to go to Salzburg to find out more.
It’s a two hour trip, through stunning Alpine scenery, but with headphones tuned in to his flute, harp and clarinet concerto (K622) I can feel myself transported back to his life and times, and can only silently bemoan the fact that this was a tortured man who never fully realised his fame and acclaim, and was to die prematurely and miserably in Vienna at the age of 35.
In Salzburg I meet with Georg – a local tour guide – who is going to inform me of the best places to get a sense of the man, his past and his music here in the city. Salzburg is a beautiful place – full of history and wonderful architectural tributes to the styles of the Baroque, the Classical and the Neo-Classical. Its church spires, campaniles and domed roofs adorning its elevated scenery above the River Salzbach – and, beyond, the sight of soaring mountains somehow providing a sense of safe enclosure. Georg and I take coffee and ice creams in the Mozartplatz (what else?), a large square in the centre of the city. A vast Glockenspiel here plays out the time on the hour while horses and carriages pass through transporting tourists to the major sites. I am reminded of the landau carriages from my readings and it only adds to the atmosphere I am sensing of a courtly and cultured Salzburg.
Georg has arrived impeccably dressed in typically traditional Austrian costume – tan suede lederhosen, braces, hiking boots and a soft felt hat decorated with a feather. Captain von Trapp leanings I wondered and thought, only fleetingly, of becoming his Maria. But, no, I can’t sing or yodel and the thought of a dirndl skirt was not appealing. Besides, Wolfgang was calling me into a further past more suited to my cultural inclinations. I opt for the Mozart flavoured ice cream – one of about 40 on offer – and find that the pistachio is crucial to any tastes and flavours associated with the Mozart name.
The waiter insists on giving me the recipe for the famed Mozart chocolates that are available on every street here. Yes, more pistachios. Georg departs and I can finally sit back and savour the sounds of ‘Die Zauberflote’ while I admire the green, and rusting, statue of Mozart that dominates the square and imagine how court life must have been here, the problems that must have arisen from being a child prodigy from the age of 3, the strained relationship between Mozart and Salieri (another story altogether), the thought of powdered wigs, fine clothes and the pretentiousness that attempted to establish one’s reputation and social standing at the time.
This very pleasant lapse into a past long gone was rudely interrupted by the sound of various songs from ‘The Sound of Music’ emanating from the nearby tourist office. The sound of the hills being alive quickly generated my need to move on. I didn’t want the hills to be alive but, rather, silent and in some sort of stately wonder.
Salzburg trades unashamedly on these musical links – one from 50 years ago and one from 300 years ago. Who can blame them? I find myself wondering if the beauty of the city might still be so attractive without them. Surely, yes, because the city’s chequered past, in a geographical and political sense, is interesting enough. And why does one go anywhere anyway?
From the Mozartplatz I follow narrow and winding cobbled streets towards the Mozart family home. These charming streets have a picturesqueness of their own decorated, as they are, with the many gilt and wrought-iron signs which identified the various guilds of the craftsmen that lived and worked here so long ago. Mozart is everywhere – mostly in the form of life-size cardboard cut-outs enticing one into the shops to buy t-shirts, miniature violins, golf-balls, and, of course, those ubiquitous chocolates, all emblazoned with his image. I decide to pass on the opportunity to buy underwear which, when touched, will play the first few bars of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Next door I feel very sorry to see a poor reminder of Schubert’s talent and influence here in the shape of a Rasten und Geniessen (bistro and bar). How could such a master be reduced to thus?
I soon reach the Caffe Tomaselli – a famed coffee house where Mozart spent much of his time in contemplation, composition and large amounts of grappa. I feel the need to stop here and take in the atmosphere. I can sit here peacefully listening to one of his violin concertos while the grappa burns the back of my throat. Hot stuff indeed!
Finally, I come to No 9 Getreidegasse, a short distance away, Mozart’s birthplace and early home before Vienna beckoned. I have ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ coursing through my ears as I climb up through six floors to see the room in which he was born, his first harpsichord, letters to his wife and friends, an early violin, water-colours and paintings depicting his advance to cultural history, even though it wasn’t known at the time. The house is, sadly, lacking in atmosphere and I get no sense of his presence here, unfortunately. Symptomatic, perhaps, that it is simply run like a museum. I long to take over and tell them that his music should be playing from every room.
Leaving in a somewhat downbeat mood I stroll back through the streets of Salzburg and note the many concerts and festivals arranged around the music of Mozart. Daniel Barenboim will conduct at one venue, piano works will be played in the Romanesque hall of the ancient abbey of St. Peter’s and a summer season of Mozart’s works will be performed in the local festival halls which are named after the charismatic Herbert von Karajan.
Well, I found Mozart. I will never know if I should have left him in my head and not pursued these more tangible aspects of his life. I’m certainly glad to have experienced Salzburg where I have found certain degrees of both reverence and exploitation revolving around the man.
But take me back to the top of mountain, please, where he and I can be alone under these beautiful Austrian skies.
For more information about Salzburg, including details of what to see and do in the city, visit www.salzburg.info.