Austria Delights Music Lovers

By Rick Steves
On a summer evening in Vienna, people drink, munch, and mingle before the outdoor opera begins. (photo: Brooke Burdick)

Music lovers find special delights in Austria. In Salzburg at my favorite hotel, I lay in bed a hundred meters from Mozart's Dad. He's just outside my window in the graveyard of the St. Sebastian church. When in town, I like sleeping within easy earshot of its bells. The bells of Salzburg ring with a joyful exuberance. They wouldn't if its citizens didn't like it that way.

And by scheduling a Sunday in Salzburg, I enjoy a music-filled Mass in the first great Baroque church north of the Alps. And this is not just any church music. The 10:00 Mass often comes with both a choir and an orchestra. They pack the loft turning the church's back wall into a wall of sound. On my last visit I snared a dizzying perch high on the side, to enjoy a bird's-eye view of the musical action. Far below me a thousand people faced the altar. I faced the loft where, for two years of Sundays, Mozart served as organist. I imagined Mozart on that keyboard surrounded by the same Baroque scrolls, Italianesque frescoes, and dancing cupids. The conductor's furious baton churning out today's Mass completed the image.

As I walked home afterwards, a woman biked by me, artfully towing a tiny wagon under the spires. On it was a tall triangular black leather case. I said, "Wow, only in Salzburg...a bike towing a harp." She looked at me and said, "A Celtic harp." At the ATM a few minutes later, I met a woman from a Sweet Adelaide choir. She said, "We traveled all the way from Virginia to sing here in Salzburg...the people love us here."

Austria seems filled with visiting bands and choral groups. They come in droves hoping to simply make music in places where so many have made beautiful music over the generations. (A set of bleachers sits ignored behind the cathedral. It's a backup for any visiting group that failed to arrange for an indoor venue.) To have any kind of audience is a bonus.

Even in Austria's tiny towns, you feel a special passion for music. Later on that same trip, in a humble village church, I lingered but it felt lifeless. Suddenly the dozen or so tourists loitering around me burst into a rich Slavic hymn — invigorating the church. They were a folk group from Slovakia who, they explained "couldn't be in a church without singing."

While Salzburgers don't like to admit it, Vienna has been for centuries, and still is, the musical big time. I nearly got in a fight with my favorite Salzburg guide as I wanted to write "by age 25, Mozart was ready for the big time and moved from Salzburg to Vienna." She insisted that was, at best, a lateral move for an up-and-coming musician.

Of course Vienna has the Opera, its magnificent Philharmonic Orchestra, and the much-loved Boys' Choir. But all of these are generally nowhere to be heard in the summer. They, like so many tourists who want to attend a performance, are on vacation or on the road. And when they are in town and performing, tickets can be tough to get. But in Vienna, there are always plenty of ways to enjoy great music...on any budget.

Perhaps the liveliest Viennese musical experience is absolutely free. At twilight (nightly through the summer) the park in front of the City Hall is filled with thousands of people enjoying a food circus of 24 colorful stalls.

A 60-foot-wide TV screen up against the Neo-Gothic facade of the City Hall is blank, but as the sun sets, people start settling into the 3,000 folding chairs. Then, darkness falls, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra strikes up, and a filmed performance of the Vienna State Opera begins.

Since 1991, the city has paid for this event for 60 summer nights each year (offering 60 different performances). Why? To promote culture. Last year the original live performance of tonight's film was sold out...much of the audience consists of people who couldn't get tickets. Officials know the City Hall Music Festival is mostly a "meat market" where young people come to hook up. But they believe that many of these people will develop a little appreciation of classical music and Austria's love of the high culture on the side.

In Austria, classical music seems to weather the storms of modernity very well. It wouldn't if the citizens didn't like it that way.