Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven seem so far removed from our time. In our minds, if we don’t conjure plaster busts immortalizing all three, we certainly carry images of powdered wigs, elegant but stilted costumes, royal entourages, snuff boxes, leisurely-paced discussions of philosophy or political intrigue, delicate ensembles of string instruments...in short, little that seems relevant to our time, and little in common with our hectic and complicated lives embroiled in technological wonders. What could the music of these three composers reflect of our current culture?
Yet it was little more than 200 years ago that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all lived in Vienna, one of the most advanced cities of the world. True, they had to travel on horse-driven carriages and never knew the intricacies of channel-surfing. But forget for a moment about the heady topics of their day—the Enlightenment and political/religious reform—and let’s instead examine something more basic, namely their daily lives. We can discover that the concerns of 18th century Viennese hit surprisingly close to home, and I mean specifically Los Angeles.
To our great fortune, a detailed chronicle of Viennese life was written by a contemporary of Mozart’s named Johann Pezzl. Published from 1786-1790, his Sketches of Vienna form a witty, comprehensive, and heartfelt view of the city that stands up brilliantly to any of our most esteemed travel guides such as Fodor’s.
From almost his first remarks, Johann Pezzl voices a complaint with which we here in Los Angeles are only too familiar—horrible air pollution. Apparently 18th century Vienna was plagued with bad air. Doctors frequently recommended their patients leave the city to let their lungs clear. Can you guess why? No, not smoke like you might imagine. Think…horses. Yes, 10,000 horses. 10,000 horses pulverizing the roads of Vienna into a fine hovering dust over the whole city. Dust so bad that only the wealthy who lived on the top stories of buildings could escape it. That was the Viennese smog.
Another similar problem was rush hour! What with 10,000 horses and a population of 270,000 people all working in a crammed inner city, the streets became virtually uncrossable during the morning and evening commutes. Aggravating rush hour even more was the large number of suburban people traveling to and from the city. As with Los Angeles, cheaper and more comfortable housing was found far away from the city.
Multiculturalism? 18th Century Vienna was the multicultural center of the world, including large numbers of Hungarians, Armenians, Poles, Serbs, Muslims, Greeks, and Jews. Only a generation ago the city had been recaptured from the Ottoman Empire. Under Emperor Joseph’s Edict of Toleration, different religious practices were allowed as long as they were conducted privately.
Fashion? Rivaling the craziness of our fads of body mutilation (the punk trend, the waif trend), the Viennese were for a time caught up in hooped skirts that used an elaborate wooden structure to support a shape that had little to do with the female body. Pezzl despairs that “even the slimmest girl is transformed into a herring-barrel.” For Austrian men there was a fascination for English bowler hats.
Starbucks wasn’t the first! Coffee houses were extremely popular hang-outs in Vienna. Tobacco smoking was beginning to catch on.
Bad water: It was common knowledge that new visitors to Vienna suffered from acute diarrhea. Another huge problem was the waste from 10,000 horses and 25,000 dogs!
And pets! “The worst aspect of all this dog business is the vile, mindless love with which these darlings are treated....The miserable beasts sleep on pillows, are bathed periodically and cleaned; they are fed with chicken broth, chocolate and pheasant; and servants and chambermaids are put to trouble and even mistreated on their account.”
“For a few pieces of gold [a man] can have anything he desires to satisfy his senses, his comfort and his humor. Chocolate made in Milan; pheasant raised in Bohemia; oysters fished in Istria; wine from the cellars of Tokay—all await his command. The horse that grew up by the Thames or in Andalusia; the sable hunted in Siberia; silk woven in Lyons—all these are available any time, to make his life more pleasant. Works of art and music from Italy, France’s fashions, Germany’s books, appear at his purse’s command, as if by rubbing Aladdin’s lamp.”
Seems like most of us would feel at home in many ways in 18th century Vienna. But to the point, perhaps it makes the lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven feel much closer to our own as we become immersed in their music and ideas.