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Austria's Music History

It is commonly said that travel broadens the mind. This is especially true of musicians. The works of Mozart, Haydn, Liszt and Mahler would be unimaginable if their composers had not spent much of their lives travelling. In the greatest cities of Europe they not only captivated audiences with their music; they also found inspiration for many pieces.

Franz Liszt Center © Burgenland Tourismus / Ulrich Schwarz
Franz Liszt Center © Burgenland Tourismus / Ulrich Schwarz
Mozart's Birthplace © Österreich Werbung/Diejun
Mozart's Birthplace © Österreich Werbung/Diejun
Concert for Europe, Schönbrunn Palace © Wiener Philharmoniker
Concert for Europe, Schönbrunn Palace © Wiener Philharmoniker

When nearly 150,000 people gather each year to hear the Vienna Philharmonic’s open-air Concert for Europe, the audience is as diverse as Europe itself. The grounds of Schönbrunn Palace become a meeting place where visitors to Vienna, locals and music lovers alike are drawn together to enjoy the tunes of world-famous composers. These luminaries also include Austrians such as Mozart, Haydn, Liszt and Mahler, who undoubtedly would have felt right at home in this ethnic mix. After all, it was through their travels and contact with other cultures that they developed their distinctive musical style.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was only six years old when he and his family embarked on what at the time was truly a “grand tour”. The Mozarts travelled through countless cities in Germany and Belgium on their way to Paris and London, where the child genius delighted listeners with his virtuosity as a pianist. Even if today Mozart’s works give the impression of being completely homogeneous, they in fact represent a conglomerate of influences and ideas from a wide variety of cultural regions. The great influence that Italy, for example, had on Mozart’s work is evident in his adoption of formal elements of Italian opera, as well as in his collaboration with the Venetian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.


Even for a composer so tied to his roots as Joseph Haydn was, travel and European cultural exchange were vital to the continued development of his style. When Haydn, who spent nearly his entire adult life in the service of the Princes Esterházy, received an offer in 1791 to visit England and conduct his new symphonies there, he accepted immediately. His friend Mozart expressed concern that Haydn didn’t even speak English, but the latter replied, “My language is understood all over the world!”


The four years spent in England supplied Haydn with a creative spark. The works he produced there would have been sufficient to fill other composers’ entire careers. The Austrian completed no fewer than 250 compositions in London, among them his opera L’anima del filosofo and the twelve so-called London Symphonies, which include the beloved Drumroll Symphony. It was in these very works composed while abroad that Haydn’s Burgenland roots seem most evident, and some of the harmonies and melodies he used were undoubtedly exotic for British ears. In his London Symphonies, for instance, Haydn quotes Hungarian and Croat folk songs, making use of the so-called “gypsy scale”.


A composer with equally strong ties to his homeland, today’s province of Burgenland, was Franz Liszt, who preferred to call himself Liszt Ferencz. Even as a child he was fascinated by the music he heard in Raiding, his hometown, played by the Hungarian Romani. He was particularly impressed that these musicians had an enormous repertoire of their own melodies as well as pieces by others and were not tied to printed music or rules of composition. Although Liszt left his homeland at the age of twelve, he remained true to his roots in terms of his music. As colourful and diverse as his life was also his music, reflecting the influences of Viennese Classicism, the cultural and political spirit of nineteenth-century Paris, the musical culture of Italy, Russia and Germany, and his distinctly Hungarian heritage. The result was a body of works that even today defies categorization.


No less cosmopolitan was Gustav Mahler, born into a Jewish family in Moravia. At an early age he was influenced by the many kinds of music that surrounded him, from Moravian folk music and the marches of the military bands to the coarse songs he heard at the surrounding taverns. Soon after completing his studies in Vienna he gained a reputation as a talented conductor, and he worked as musical director in Ljubljana, Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest and Hamburg before being named court music director in Vienna.


Today the influence of Austria’s great musicians can still be felt. This country has become a meeting place for music lovers from all over the world who come here to attend festivals and visit the places these famed composers lived and worked in order to better understand their sublime music.