Category Archives: Europe 2009

Golden City of a Hundred Spires, Part II

The next stop was St Nicholas Church in Lesser Town, you can see the green top behind us.

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

Yes, but did you have cake?

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

We did, we did, we had honey cake! It’s called Medovník, and it has layers of honey-filled pastry, cream and nuts. Like this!

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

Back to the story and St Nicholas Church in Lesser Town, we went there for an oboe and organ recital (Jan Thuri oboe, Josef Kšica organ). Our two favourite instruments!

St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague
St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague

The Baroque organ in the church has over 4,000 pipes up to six metres in length and was played by Mozart in 1787! Mozart’s spectacular masterpiece, Mass in C, was first performed in the Church of Saint Nicholas on his first visit to Prague, when he came to conduct Le nozze di Figaro. On 19th January 1787 he gave the first performance of the Symphony No. 38 in D major which has been called the Prague Symphony since then.

Main organ at St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague
Great organ at St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague
Main organ at St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague
Great organ at St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague

Above the organ is a fresco of Saint Cecilia, patroness of music.

The church originally had three organs, with only two surviving. The Great Organ is in the main gallery and the smaller organ is in the side gallery.

Small organ at St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague
Small organ at St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague

The Baroque architecture of St Nicholas Church in Lesser Town is uniquely impressive even among the imposing churches of Prague. Both of the Dientzenhofers, father and son, shared the building of this unique structure, in 1703-11 and 1737-52, along with Anselmo Lurago, who was responsible for the high bell tower (1750-56). In the nave of the church, one can admire paintings and statues representative of the High Baroque.

Interior of St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague
Interior of St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague

The ceiling fresco above the nave, celebrating St Nicholas, is one of the largest in Europe, at 1500 metre square, painted by Jan Lukáš Kracker, and depicts some of the famous deeds of St Nicholas. The fresco in the dome, devoted to the Holy Trinity is by František Xaver Palko. The four massive statues of the Church Teachers are by the sculptor František Ignác Platzer.

Dome of St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague
Dome of St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague
Statue in St Nicholas Church Lesser Town, Prague
Statue in St Nicholas Church Lesser Town, Prague

299 steps will take you 65m up to the gallery of the bell tower, which offers great panoramic views.

 View from Tower of St Nicholas Church Lesser Town, Prague
View from Tower of St Nicholas Church Lesser Town, Prague
View from Tower of St Nicholas Church Lesser Town, Prague
View from Tower of St Nicholas Church Lesser Town, Prague
National Theatre seen from Tower of St Nicholas Church Lesser Town, Prague
National Theatre seen from Tower of St Nicholas Church Lesser Town, Prague

The National Theatre has a great story. Over a number of years, during a period of growing nationalism, a public collection was taken up to build a theatre. No sooner did it opened, that the National Theatre burned down. But civic pride wasn’t about to go up in smoke and people opened their pockets once more and the building was finally reopened in 1883. The festive and patriotic opera Libuše by Bedřich Smetana was performed for the occasion. Smetana was the first Czech composer to draw his cultural heritage for his work, folk melodies, rhythms, the actual history and language of his country. Smetana is considered by many to be the father of Czech music. He set the great river Vltava to music. Smetana’s work speaks with a proud Bohemian accent.  (end of Vltava) In 1848, while scraping together a living as a pianist and a teacher, Smetana opened a music school in Prague, on the corner of the old Town Square. It was during this time that he began composing. Eight years later he moved to Sweden in order to advance his musical career. In 1861 he returned to Bohemia, hoping to take up the post of conductor at the provisional theatre, but he didn’t finally get the node until five years later.

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra appeared for the first time in 1894, as the orchestra of the Prague National Theatre.

National Theatre, Prague
National Theatre, Prague
National Theatre, Prague
National Theatre, Prague

Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer was also the architect of the church of the same name in Old Town Square. Here we went to a soprano and organ concert (Jana Jonášová soprano, Bohumir Rabas organ) playing Bach, Mozart and Dvořák.

St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague
St Nicholas Church, Old Town Square, Prague

The Church of St Nicholas in Old Town Square is mentioned for the first time in connection with a flood on the Vltava in 1273. The beautiful new church was completed in 1735. The interior was inspired by the chapel of St. Louis-des-invalides in Paris. In the interior of the church are paintings in the dome on motives from the lives of St Nicholas and St Benedict and from the Old Testament by Cosmas Damian Asam, from 1735-36. The delicate stucco decoration was executed by Bernardo Spinetti, and the frescos by Peter Adam the Elder. The sculptures are by Antonín Braun.

Interior of St Nicholas Church, Old Town Square, Prague
Interior of St Nicholas Church, Old Town Square, Prague

In 1781 the decoration inside St. Nicholas was removed after emperor Josef II ordered the closure of all monasteries without a social function. The church was restored during the second World War, when Czech army units stationed at St. Nicholas worked alongside professional artists to restore the interior decoration. Much of what we see today is thanks to their meticulous efforts.

It wasn’t until 1901, when the Krenn House in front of it was demolished, that St. Nicholas’s stunning façade became visible to the rest of the Old Town Square.

Very tasty…

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

Then we went to a concert in the splendid Chapel of Mirrors at the Klementinum.

The Chapel of Mirrors, Klementinum, Prague
The Chapel of Mirrors, Klementinum, Prague
The Chapel of Mirrors, Klementinum, Prague
The Chapel of Mirrors, Klementinum, Prague

It was erected after 1720 by architect František Maxmilián Kaňka. In the rich plaster decorations of the walls are set mirrors, which give the chapel its name. Its premises are utilised for concerts by chamber music ensembles.

The complex of the Klementinum, spread out in the space between Marian Squares, Charles Street, Knights of the Cross Square, and the streets of Křižovnická and Platnéřská, was built in the mid 16th century by the Jesuits. After dissolution of the Jesuit Order in 1773, the Klementinum was acquired by the Charles-Ferdinand University and established as an observatory, library, and university by the Empress Maria Theresa.

Klementinum, Prague
Klementinum, Prague

The whole complex boasts precious artistic works. Perhaps the best known is the University Library. It is currently in use as the National Library of the Czech Republic. The guided tour of the Klementinum covers the Baroque library hall, Meridian hall and the Astronomical tower.

University Library, Klementinum, Prague
University Library, Klementinum, Prague

The interioir of the baroque library has remained intact since the 18th century. The hall is decorated with ceiling frescoes by Jan Hiebl depicting allegorical motifs of education, and portraits of Jesuit saints, patrons of the university and prominent representatives of this order. At the head of the hall is a portrait of Emperor Joseph II, who arranged for the books from abolished monastic libraries to be sent to Klementinum. Also remarkable is the collection of geografical and astronomical globes in the center of the library. These are mainly works of the Jesuits. Among the globes are also astronomical clocks, constructed mainly by Jan Klein.

University Library, Klementinum, Prague
University Library, Klementinum, Prague

The Astronomical Tower was built in 1722 to a height of 68 meters. At the top stands a statue of Atlas carrying the celestial sphere by Matthias Bernard Braun. Construction of the tower was related to the development of astronomical studies in the country. At the time of the construction of Klementinum, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Thadeus Hájek worked in Prague. Astronomy was part of the university curriculum since its inception, but the observatory was founded in Klementinum at the instigation of Joseph Stepling, its first director, in the years 1751-1752. Astronomical instruments were installed in the tower and it became the main spot for astronomical measurements.

Astronomical Tower, Klementinum, Prague
Astronomical Tower, Klementinum, Prague
View of Prague from the Astronomical Tower, Klementinum, Prague
View of Prague from the Astronomical Tower, Klementinum, Prague

The most impressive landmarks in Prague seems to collect along the banks of the river Vltava. The most impressive is the Dvořák Hall, or Rudolfinum.

Dvořák Hall, Prague
Dvořák Hall, Prague
Dvořák Hall, Prague
Dvořák Hall, Prague
Dvořák Hall, Prague
Dvořák Hall, Prague

Antonin Leopold Dvořák, through his music, shared that Czech heart with the world. Dvořák learned the folk fiddle as a child and eventually became accomplished on the viola, playing in dance bands from the age of 18. After nine years as a member of the orchestra at the Prague provisional theatre, Dvořák became the organist at St Adalbert’s Church. He’d been composing steadily, in obscurity, all the while. By his early 30s, this works and manuscripts included symphonies and chamber music. And then, in 1874,  Dvořák received his first real break. He entered a number of works in a competition for struggling young artists. One of the judges was Johannes Brahms, who was so impressed with Dvořák, that he awarded him first prize and from that time on, he took a deep personal interest in his career. Brahms introduced Dvořák to his own publisher, who commissioned the Czech to write some Slavonic Dances for piano duet. Playing exotic dances side by side with a close friend on the piano stool was a popular musical past time in the 1870s. Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances made him instantly popular in drawing rooms in Paris and London and all the way across the Atlantic. He toured and conducted extensively, but in 1892 he set sail with his family for New York where he became director of the National Conservatory of Music.

Statue of Antonín Dvořák, Jan Palach Square, Dvořák Hall
Statue of Antonín Dvořák, Jan Palach Square, Dvořák Hall

Antonin Dvořák was the most persuasive of all Czech musical ambassadors. The world fell in love with his music immediately. Cambridge University in Britain gave him an honorary degree in 1891. In America, he was asked to teach at the National Conservatory in New York. Some of his paychecks bounced but that didn’t stop him from writing one of the most famous piece of American music, the New World symphony, that can sit alongside Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Dvořák’s music was not the music of the immigrants, it was the music of the slaves, of the native americans, and it is notable for its power and its dignity.

Dvořák returned to Prague for good after three years in the United States and conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the Rudolfinum, in the hall that now bears his name. He was hailed by the people as their greatest living composer.

Look. everybody gets one piece of cake!

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

Golden City of a Hundred Spires

What are we watching?

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

A musical journey through Prague. We visited Prague! And we had our own musical journey. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra with its principal conductor Jiří Bělohlávek at Dvořák Hall, a concert at St Nicholas Church in the Old Town Square, a concert at Lobkowics Palace in Prague Castle, a concert at the Klementinum and another concert at St Nicholas Church in Lesser Town. One can never have too many churches dedicated to St Nicholas. He brings presents! 🙂

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

Prague is known as the Golden City of A Hundred Spires, based on a count by 19th century mathematician Bernard Bolzano. Today’s count is estimated by Prague Information Service at 500. The river Vltava, the Czech national river, cruises through Prague on its journey to the Elba and eventually into the North Sea. In Prague, it is crossed by 18 bridges.

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

The flow of the river is captured by Smetana in his symphonic poem, Vltava. A devoutly patriotic work, Vltava captures in music Smetana’s love of his homeland. Completed in 1874 and first performed the following year, the piece constitutes the second movement of a six-movement suite, Má vlast (My Country), which premiered in its entirety in Prague on November 5, 1882.

Prague has been here for a while and has a rich history. On of the early kings of Prague was Wenceslas, born in 907 CE, the very same Wenceslas as in the Christmas carol (Good King Wenceslas).

In the middle ages, during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, Prague flourished, it was bigger than either Paris or London. The Town Square is still flourishing because so much of the city retains its baroque appeal it’s a booming tourist destination. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to tumble into the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale, just step into Prague’s Old Town Square. In this pedestrian-packed medieval market place, ornate frontages rise up on all sides like pieces of gingerbread and heels click on cobbles that have seen nearly a millennium of footfalls. As the setting for Prague’s famous astronomical clock, the square is visited by almost everyone, but that doesn’t diminish its sense of timeless wonder.

Old Town Square, Prague
Old Town Square, Prague

Charles the IV was a king who loved learning and the arts. He established many institutions in Prague, including the first university in Central Europe, called Charles University today.

Charles University, Prague
Charles University, Prague

Despite many wars and fires, Prague Castle has grown from its 9th century origins into a unique complex, the largest of its kind in Europe.

Looming above the Vltava’s left bank, its serried ranks of spires, towers and palaces dominate the city centre like a fairy-tale fortress. Within its walls lies a varied and fascinating collection of historic buildings, museums and galleries that are home to some of the Czech Republic’s greatest artistic and cultural treasures.

Prague Castle
Prague Castle

The castle has always been the seat of Czech monarchs as well as the official residence of the head of state. Its history begins in the 9th century, when Prince Bořivoj founded a fortified settlement here. It grew haphazardly as rulers made their own additions – there have been four major reconstructions, from that of Prince Soběslav in the 12th century to a classical facelift under Empress Maria Theresa, creating an eclectic mixture of architectural styles.

St Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle
Cathedral of St Vitus, Prague Castle

This eclectic collection of styles is on evidence in St Vitus Cathedral, the city’s most distinctive landmark within the massive grounds of Prague Castle. St Vitus was a young Sicilian martyr who was thrown to the lions during the roman persecution. A relic of a piece of one of his arms was sent to King Wenceslaus as a gesture of good will from a neighboring king, Henri I. The cathedral houses a most eclectic collection of artworks and structures stretching from the Renaissance through to the 20th century: the graphic depiction of the murder of the Good King Wenceslaus, a neo-Gothic altar, a royal box for church, the tombs of kings and queens, including the final resting place for Wenceslaus. You will also find the bronze ring that king Wenceslaus held on to as he was murdered by his brother.

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

During the 16th century, the Austrian Habsburgs invaded Prague and assumed power. Rudolf II, eldest son of Maximilian I and his successor, was the third Habsburg king of Bohemia in the 16th century. He was described in his day as the greatest art patron in the world and turned the city into one of Europe’s leading centre for the arts and sciences.
Astronomy in Rudolfine Prague

Rudolph II used Prague Castle as his main residence. He founded the northern wing of the palace, with the Spanish Hall, where his precious art collections were exhibited.

Spanish Hall, Prague Castle
Spanish Hall, Prague Castle

Rudolf had a grand view of the red-tiled roofs of the splendid mansions of the Mala Strana (Lesser Town) under the castle walls and then across wide River Vltava he would have seen the spires and steeples of the Old Town.

Lesser Town, view from Prague Castle
Lesser Town, view from Prague Castle

The great meandering River Vltava divided the Old Town, the New Town and the Jewish Town from the Lesser Town and the Castle which rose up on a steep hill to the north and dominated the city. Clearly visible below was the solid stone bridge built by his illustrious ancestor Charles IV and founded on 9 July 1357 at 5.31am, a time chosen carefully for its propitious astrological and numerical associations. At that very moment, a conjunction of the Sun with Saturn occurred, with the great luminary of the sky overpowering the gloomy influence of the malefic planet.

The castle and Charles Bridge, Prague
The castle and Charles Bridge, Prague

Rudolf was fascinated by its sacred numerology: the date and time of its foundation consisted of favourable odd primary numbers which ascended and descended palindromically: 1 / 3 / 5 / 7 / 9 / 7 / 5 / 3 / 1. In addition, the setting sun on the summer solstice lined up Charles Bridge with an architrave of the Castle’s cathedral.

What wasn’t yet visible in Lesser Town was St Nicholas Church, which was founded in 1704. It is the most significant baroque structure in the city. The history of the church gives you an idea of just how much Mozart was loved in Prague. He played the organ here during his visits in 1787. Shortly after he died in 1791, the whole city paid tribute to him through a number of performances of his Requiem by the Prague Theatre Orchestra at St Nicholas.

St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague
St Nicholas Church, Lesser Town, Prague

Rudolf, who loved moving mechanical objects, would also have appreciated the large astronomical clock, made in 1410, on the front of the Town Hall in the main square. It indicated the time of day in Babylonian time and Old Bohemian time. The clock, which still exists, also depicted Ptolemy’s model of the universe with the Earth at its centre and charted the movements of the sun and moon through the signs of the zodiac. Moving figures were added in 1490. On the hour, the twelve Apostles appeared in windows before disappearing back inside the clock. Perched on pinnacles at four corners were figures representing what was considered to be the chief threats to Bohemia at the time: the lender with his money bags; Death, depicted as a skeleton carrying an hourglass and tolling a bell; a Turk shaking his turbaned head; and Vanity admiring his reflection in a mirror. Four other immovable figures symbolised Philosophy, Religion, Astronomy and History. Rudolf shared his ancestor’s vision of Prague as the centre of the empire but went one step further: he saw it as the hub of the universe. As a result, Prague became the most cosmopolitan city in Europe.

Astronomical Clock, Old Town Square, Prague
Astronomical Clock, Old Town Square, Prague

But after Rudolf’s death in 1612, the nation declined until the 18th century and the reign of Empress Maria Theresa when many of the buildings we still see today were established. The city had to be rebuilt following the destruction it suffered during the Seven Years War.

No day at Prague Castle is complete without attending a classical music concert performed in the beautifully decorated 17th century baroque Concert Hall of the Lobkowicz Palace.

Concert at Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle
Concert at Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle, Thu 7 May – Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Donizetti, Smetana, Suk, Dvorak

The Lobkowicz Palace is the only privately owned building in the Prague Castle complex and home to the highly acclaimed Lobkowicz Collections and Museum. Highlights from the Museum include works by masters such as Antonio Canaletto, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Diego Velázquez; an impressive display of family and royal portraits; fine porcelain, ceramics and rare decorative arts dating from the 16th to 19th centuries.

It also includes the finest private library in Central Europe, as well as an unparalleled collection of musical instruments, original scores and autograph manuscripts by many of the greatest composers of the 18th and early 19th centuries, including manuscripts by Beethoven and Mozart, such as Beethoven’s 3rd (Eroica), 4th and 5th symphonies, as well as Mozart’s hand written re-orchestration of Handel’s Messiah.

Beethoven Score
Beethoven’s score for his third symphony

After the lunchtime concert, it was time for a little lunch at Lobkowicz Palace Café – burger, chips and Czech beer. Just like this!

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

The Golden City of A Hundred Spires

Suitably fortified, it was time for visit St Vitus Cathedral.

Cathedral of St Vitus, Prague
Cathedral of St Vitus, Prague Castle

Prague became an archbishopric in 1344. Construction of the Cathedral of St Vitus on the grounds of Prague Castle began almost immediately, and Matthias von Arras was commissioned as master mason. Before his death in 1352, he managed to complete the choir gallery and main choir arcade in the southern French Gothic style. Arras was succeeded by Peter Parler, who had previously worked on the Church of the Holy Cross in Schwäbisch-Gmünd. Parler introduced significant technical innovations that subtly increased the dynamics of the interior. For example, he dispensed with the transverse arches separating the bays in the nave, thereby creating a new kind of visually continuous type of vault from west to east that spans the bays with decorative, interlacing diagonal ribs.

Cathedral of St Vitus
Cathedral of St Vitus, Interior

Parler’s second ground-breaking innovation was in the triforium, whose window-filled back wall joined with the panes in the clerestory to create a single, light-flooded membrane of glass. In breaking away from the traditional methods, Peter Parler brought a playful lightness and originality to sacred architecture. The famous triforium busts in Prague Cathedral are a testament to Parler’s awareness of this fact: along with the family of Emperor Charles IV and the archbishop of Prague, the two master builders of the cathedral are also portrayed.

Cathedral of St Vitus, detail of a wall segment with triforium busts
Cathedral of St Vitus, detail of a wall segment with triforium busts
Cathedral of St Vitus, Bust of Peter Parler in the triforium
Cathedral of St Vitus, Bust of Peter Parler in the triforium

That was a full day! Time for a little rest in the gardens…

Palace gardens below Prague Castle
Palace gardens below Prague Castle

The Hills Are Alive With The Sound of Music

Look Honey, Mozartkugeln!

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

Hmm, they are not blue and round like the Mozartkugeln we had in Salzburg… With early season cherries…

Cherries and Chocolate in Salzburg
Cherries and Chocolate in May in Salzburg

We can only get the Fürst Mozartkugeln in Salzburg. Paul Fürst, the Salzburg confectioner, created Salzburger Mozartkugel in 1890. It’s said he was awarded a gold medal for his product, which had already become famous, at the Paris Exhibition of 1905. These are the Reber Mozart-Kugeln, which have a flat side, like all the other industrially produced Mozartkugeln. Only the Mirabell Mozartkugeln are allowed to be round, like the Fürst Mozartkugeln, because they are made in Grödig, near Salzburg. Even the EC Commissioner had to get involved in the dispute on the Original Austria Mozartkugeln! Only Fürst’s products may be called Original Salzburg Mozartkugeln.

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

In Salzburg, we visited the Mirabell Palace and Gardens, where some of the scenes in The Sound of Music were filmed. Earlier this year, The Sound of Music celebrated its 50th birthday. It was thanks to this Hollywood movie that Salzburg City, home to so many of the most famous shooting locations, became truly world-famous.

The Sound of Music Scene in Salzburg
The Sound of Music Scene in Salzburg

Maria and the children sing ‘Do-Re-Mi’ while dancing around the fountain and using the steps as a musical scale.

The Sound of Music Scene in Mirabell Gardens
The Sound of Music Scene in Mirabell Gardens
The Sound of Music scene in Mirabell Gardens
The Sound of Music scene in Mirabell Gardens

Maria’s hat in the Sound of Music was a bit plain…

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

But check out the cherries on Mary Poppins’ hat!

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins
Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins
Mirabell Garden and Palace
Mirabell Garden and Palace

The Mirabell palace was commissioned in 1606 by Prince Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau for his mistress Salome Alt. He called the palace Altenau, and had it built outside the city walls. Altenau Palace was intended to be a fitting residence for Salome and their children and Wolf Dietrich hoped it would go some way to making up for the fact that they were excluded from many social events because he was a cleric and could not marry his beloved Salome, and their children were treated as illegitimate.

Mirabell Palace, Marble Hall
Mirabell Palace, Marble Hall

The Marble Hall and the Grand Staircase have been left unscathed by the fire that swept through the city in 1818 and destroyed much of the palace. The Marble Hall, once the ceremonial hall of the prince archbishops, is now one of the most beautiful wedding halls in the world. Leopold Mozart, and his children Wolfgang and Nannerl, performed here, although they would have played to accompany festive dinners rather than weddings. The Marble Hall is also an imposing venue for conferences, ceremonies, and atmospheric concerts such as the Salzburg Palace Concerts. We were lucky enough to attend a Mozart and Haydn concert in the Marble Hall. The gilded stucco work and the splendid marble make the hall one of the most beautiful halls in the world.

Mirabell Palace, Marble Hall
Mirabell Palace, Marble Hall

The masterly staircase by Lukas von Hildebrandt is among the palace’s greatest artistic treasures. Charming cherubs decorate the marble balustrade and the whole staircase has a playful charm. The sculptures in the niches are the work of the famous Georg Raphael Donner and among the finest products of the European baroque.

Mirabell Palace, Grand Staircase
Mirabell Palace, Grand Staircase

We went to Salzburg looking for the sound of Mozart. After all, the delicious pistachio marzipan and nougat covered dark chocolates are called Mozartkugeln not The Sound of Music Kugeln!

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

For Mozart, music just wasn’t difficult. He learned to understand music as he learned to understand speech. Music was part of him and he needed it like we need food. He started playing little pieces on the piano at the age of four, he started to compose at the age of five and shortly after that he became a brilliant organist, an excellent violinist and an able singer. At the age of 12 he composed his first opera and was by then already a fine conductor.

Mozart was obviously such a genius that Papa Leopold (a violinist, composer and music teacher) decided that what the world really needed was to hear Wolfgang along with his pianist / harpsichordist sister Maria Anna (known as Nannerl) play. So waving farewell to their native Salzburg, the Mozart family embarked upon a series of tours to the great cities of Europe. This is great for us, as Leopold started to write long letters to his friends back in Salzburg, boasting of Wolfgang and Nannerl’s triumphs. These letters, and later ones between the family, give us a huge amount of information about Mozart’s life – all of which is today studied, analysed, dissected, held upside-down and read back-to-front by “Mozart scholars” the world over.

Mozart toured, or rather was toured, relentlessly. This must have been hard on him as it would be on any youngster, but it gave him an invaluable insight into all manner of different composers and their musical styles. The combination of his unique talent and what Papa Leopold did to it, produced one of the greatest musical minds ever to have graced the planet.

One of the benefits of this incessant touring is that Mozart touched, at first hand, all manner of musical threads and wove them into his own one-off tapestry. His youthful works show him assimilating, copying and mimicking the music and techniques he came across on tour. Gradually, these became absorbed and he began to produce his own statements, works that could only be “fingerprint” Mozart pieces.

The great artistic heroes often make sacrifices during their pursuit of excellence and in Mozart’s case, his success came with its own set of strings attached.

The concerts were great and the audiences just worshipped him but Mozart was not having a normal childhood and his health suffered from all the travelling. Being away from other children and almost always on his own, save for Nannerl, must have taken its toll on the young boy. He would wake up in the night, crying for Salzburg and the people he knew. He would frequently ask people he had only recently met if they loved him. He appeared to have a number of issues when it came to loving and being loved. These traits of high self-esteem, or even arrogance, coupled with bouts of self-doubt and intense need to be loved are common among many high-achieving artistic performers.

At the age of 25, Mozart finally exchanged the small-minded gossip of Salzburg for the small-minded gossip of Vienna, but at least in Vienna there were lots more people to gossip with. Mozart didn’t take too long to become famous in Vienna, giving masses of concerts, in which he played his own piano music with joyous brilliance and conducted his stunning orchestral works; he also wrote more operas and chamber music and was acknowledged by many as the greatest musician alive.

Although he was earning a lot, at least at one stage, Mozart could never save money. He gave too many parties, bought too many flashy and expensive clothes. He simply lived beyond his means. All the work and the worry about money were taking their toll on Mozart’s health. What he really wanted (and needed) was a major post at the Emperor’s court in Vienna, but he couldn’t get one, partly it seems because of the behind-the-scenes plotting of Salieri who had a finely paid appointment at the court and didn’t want it threatened. Finally though, Mozart’s career took a turn for the better. In 1791, the year of his death, he was commissioned to write two operas. One was the Magic Flute, written for a people’s theatre in Vienna, where the tickets were actually affordable; it was an instant hit. The other was called La Clemenza di Tito, composed for the Czech capital, Prague, where Mozart’s music was adored. He practically wrote the whole opera in 18 days.

Mozart died at the young age of 35, a pretty horrible death. He had a miserable funeral and his body was laid in a common grave outside Vienna, his remains lost to us forever. He deserved better in death, just as he had deserved better in life. Imagine what he might have composed if he had lived another 35 years!

The real miracle about Mozart was that his music became greater and greater as he got older. Someone once asked Mozart how he managed to write such perfect music. “I don’t know any other way to compose” was the answer. But although every note he wrote was beautiful, he could express within that beauty any number of emotions or moods, including tragic or even terrifying ones. His music was everything.

Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos, mostly for his own concerts. One of the reasons for this was that Vienna was piano country. This is what Mozart wrote to his father in 1781, noting that in the salons of Vienna, the piano was king. In all the 25 years of his life prior to the move to Vienna, he had composed a respectable 10 piano concertos, but in the next 10 years, up to his death in 1791, he would compose a further 17.

Mozart’s piano concertos, more than any other type of work he wrote, highlight his development as a composer. They are often said to form the backbone of his output: he wrote his first when he was 17 and continued composing new one right up to the year he died. Generally, his piano concertos were written for him to perform himself and the early ones, while displaying flashes of genius, reveal someone very keen to show off his keyboard skills. By the time we reach the later concertos, Mozart’s musical thinking is on a whole new level.

Listening to them, especially the later ones, you can feel what an amazing player he must have been – and how much he must have enjoyed dazzling people with his brilliance. If he felt that someone was really appreciating him, he’d be happy to play for them for hours. But you also hear how unbearably sad he must have been at times and it’s often that feeling that stays with you the longest. Like Piano Concerto no 23. The three movements are completely different from each other, yet somehow make up one satisfying story. The first movement is so elegant, it’s as if we have been transported to a perfect world; in the third it seems as though we can hear people laughing and dancing. It’s the second movement though, the slow movement, that is the heart of the work; it is so sad that we feel we’re looking into a river with no end to its depths. Its beauty is truly magical. His last public performance was of his Piano Concerto no 27.

In Mozart’s piano concertos there are passages where the hand stumbles, even after patient rehearsal. It is not a matter of their being badly written for the piano, because they aren’t. Indeed the composer himself was a virtuoso performer, who played all these works and adjusted anything which he found awkward. There seems to be something challenging about Mozart which demands constant alertness, even years after learning the music. Performing his music one feels both very happy and very exposed. There is nowhere to hide, because he is one of those rare composers who writes no more than he means to say.

Mozart’s symphonies 39, 40 and 41 were all written in less than two months, which is an outstanding achievement. The last symphony, Jupiter, is a feast of golden brilliance. The music has an imperial feeling to it – just as you would expect the king of the gods to sound. Symphony no 40 has a sadness about it, but despite that feeling of melancholy, it has steadfastly remained the most popular of all his symphonies.

The Requiem is totally glorious and tragic. It is one of the greatest requiems ever written. Mozart didn’t manage to finish this piece. In fact, it was still being rehearsed by his bedside the night before he died. It was as if the great man were writing his own tribute to himself.

Mozart’s pianist / composer son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, who was only five months old when his father died, was very talented – but the shadow of his great father loomed so large in his life that he never really dared to make the most of his talents; he was always worried about letting down the family name. It’s sad that so many people connected with Mozart suffered from being close to him – perhaps they got burned because they got too close to the sun! We’re luckier; today we can just bask in his glorious rays. And three cities – Salzburg, which he tried to ignore, Vienna, which tried to ignore him and Prague, the one place where he was truly appreciated in his own lifetime – all make a fortune today from the tourists who flock to any historic building associated with Mozart.

On January 27, 2006, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, all 35 churches of Salzburg rang their bells a little after 8pm (local time) to celebrate the occasion. Major celebrations took place throughout the year. Apparently not all the exhibitions and celebrations were successful and Salzburg made a mess of a few of them. Oh well, the proverbial happens. In another 250 years it will all be forgotten. It might take longer however to forget the ridiculous rivalry between Vienna and Salzburg. In Vienna there were signs proclaiming “Don’t go to Salzburg – Mozart hated Salzburg!” while in Salzburg there were signs proclaiming “Don’t go to Vienna, they killed him!”

You’ll get a double dose of Mozart in Salzburg, the Mozart Birthplace and the Mozart Residence. The house where Mozart was born is also where he composed most of his boy-genius works. Today it’s the most popular Mozart sight in town. You can peruse three floors of rooms with exhibits displaying paintings, letters, personal items, and lots of facsimiles, all attempting to bring life to the Mozart story.

Mozart Birthplace, Salzburg
Mozart Birthplace, Salzburg

The Mozart Residence, the home where his family moved when he was 17, is less interesting than the house where he was born, but it’s also roomier, less crowded, and holds a piano that Mozart actually owned. It also comes with an informative audioguide and a 30-minute narrated slideshow.

Mozart Residence, Salzburg
Mozart Residence, Salzburg
Mozart Birthplace, Salzburg
Mozart’s piano in the Mozart Residence, Salzburg

Mozart’s family is buried in a small church graveyard in the old town at St Sebastian’s Church.

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

Nannerl, his sister, is not buried with the family, as Constanze is. She asked to be buried at St Peter’s, the thought of spending eternity with Constanze (Mozart’s wife) being too much for her.

We know where Mozart’s coffin was last seen, there is a plaque at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna marking the place, but it is presumed buried in a mass grave. For the 2006 celebrations, scientists tried to identify Mozart’s bones using DNA analysis, but were not successful.

While in Salzburg, we went to a performance of the opera Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, or The Abduction from the Seraglio, as we know it. Mozart completed the opera in 1782 and it premiered on 16 July 1782, at the Burgtheater in Vienna, to enormous acclaim. By then, a hundred years after the Turks ceased to be a clear and present danger to the Austrian Empire, the Turkish motif had become extremely fashionable, and the opera was inspired by a contemporary interest in the perceived “exotic” culture of the Ottoman Empire. The work was soon being performed “throughout German-speaking Europe”, and fully established Mozart’s reputation as a composer.

A production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, not the one in Salzburg
A production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, not the one in Salzburg

The music includes some of the composer’s most spectacular and difficult arias. Osmin’s Act III aria “O, wie will ich triumphieren” includes characteristic 18th century coloratura passage work, and twice goes down to a low D, one of the lowest notes demanded of any voice in opera. Perhaps the most famous aria in the opera is the long and elaborate “Martern aller Arten” (“Tortures of all kinds”) for Konstanze, an outstanding challenge for sopranos, as it requires the ability for a natural E. Konstanze sings in a kind of sinfonia concertante with four solo players from the orchestra; the strikingly long orchestral introduction (64 bars), to give the soprano time to recover from the previous aria, without stage action, also poses problems for stage directors.

The virtuosity of these roles is perhaps attributable to the fact that when he took up the task of composing the opera, Mozart already knew the outstanding reputations of the singers for whom he was writing, and he tailored the arias to their strengths, as was the custom in the 18th century. The first Osmin was Ludwig Fisher, a bass noted for his wide range and skill in leaping over large intervals with ease. Similarly, Mozart wrote of the first Konstanze, Caterina Cavalieri, “I have sacrificed Konstanze’s aria a little to the flexible throat of Mlle. Cavalieri”, to give her the opportunity to display her vocal virtuosity.

Caterina Cavalieri
Caterina Cavalieri

Fischer could sing from a low D to a high A, and he controlled this extraordinary range with unusual lightness, purity, and precision. It was said of his voice that it displayed “the depth of a cello and the natural height of a tenor.” Cavalieri made her debut in 1775 and was one of the finest singers of her day, especially in German opera. She was renowned for her fioratura abilities. Mozart wrote memorable music for her. Apart the role of Constanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio, she also sang Donna Elvira in the premiére of Don Giovanni in 1788.

The opera is a Singspiel, which is a bit like a mocha, neither one thing nor the other 🙂 a play with music – everyone stops for a song, then carries on. Some characters don’t sing at all. The work is light-hearted and frequently comic with little deep character exploration or the darker feelings found in Mozart’s later operas. The action is carried forward by spoken dialogue and the Salzburg production used narrators which was a novel approach. They also looked absolutely gorgeous and were perfect eye candy 🙂 I didn’t understand a thing they were saying as there were no subtitles, surtitles or any other titles, but the cheekiness came through and the only way I can describe the production and the performance is adorable.

There is a well-known tale about the opera. The Emperor Joseph II commissioned the opera, but when he heard it, he complained to Mozart, “That is too fine for my ears — there are too many notes.” Mozart replied, “There are just as many notes as there should be.”

Mozart produced operas in each of the prevailing styles. The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte are opera buffa. The libretto for all three was written by Lorenzo da Ponte. Opera buffa is more of a cappuccino: frothy, light and with lots of sweetness sprinkled on top. The term was at first used as an informal description of Italian comic operas. It is especially associated with developments in Naples in the first half of the 18th century, from there its popularity spread to Rome and northern Italy. Mozart composed increasingly more complex operas, and the delay of the premiere of Don Giovanni in Prague was also due to the fact that the singers found it more difficult to perform and memorize their roles and preparations took longer.

He also composed opera seria, one example being La clemenza di Tito, the last opera he composed, for Prague, barely three months before his death. Opera seria is like an espresso – a serious, strong opera.

By and large, composers tend to be a rather fickle bunch and never miss an opportunity to stab one another in the back. However, many of the greatest composers through classical music history have been completely united in their praise for Mozart’s music.

One such composer is Haydn. Mozart met Joseph Haydn in Vienna, and the two composers became friends. When Haydn visited Vienna, they sometimes played together in an impromptu string quartet. Mozart’s six string quartets (K. 387, K. 421, K. 428, K. 458, K. 464, and K. 465) date from the period 1782 to 1785, and amount to a carefully considered response to Haydn’s Opus 33 set from 1781. He stood in awe of Mozart, whose sister recorded that in 1781 Haydn told the visiting Leopold: “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.”

The Deep End

Last Friday afternoon, Classic FM played the Rienzi Overture by Wagner from a 1956 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. I had to laugh at a statement apparently made by Beecham on Wagner’s music: “We’ve been rehearsing for two hours – and we’re still playing the same bloody tune!”

Anna Russell says it differently. She says that if you know the note E flat, you know the prelude to the Ring of the Nibelung 🙂

Six years on, I am fully recovered from the experience of attending the Ring of the Niebelung in Vienna, a cycle of four epic music dramas by Richard Wagner. Spending one week in Vienna for Wagner’s Ring cycle, when I am not a Wagner fan, was not one of my brightest ideas. Difficult to believe, but I had no idea what that meant. I was thinking about Sacher Torte, apfelstrudel and candied violets from Demel! What can I say, ignorance is bliss until it isn’t any more.

Demel Kohlmarkt 14 A-1010 Vienna http://www.demel.at/en
Demel
Kohlmarkt 14
A-1010 Vienna
http://www.demel.at/en

The k.u.k. Hofzuckerbäckerei Demel, the Imperial and Royal Court Confectionary Bakery, is located at Kohlmarkt 14, right before the Michaelerplatz. This bakery is where Empress Elisabeth ordered sweets to accompany her morning coffee, for court festivities, imperial birthdays and the annual Kaiserball. Her favorite dessert was a sorbet made out of violet blossom extract, spun sugar and a few drops of champagne. The violet sorbet is still served at Demel today. Emperor Franz Joseph I on the other hand only ever wanted to eat the carnival doughnuts from Demel.

Demel Interior
Demel Interior

The apfelstrudel is the best!

The Deep End

And the candied violets are irresistible!

The Deep End

As I was discussing the Ring cycle with a friend before the trip, he asked me only to make sure I wasn’t going to walk out on Die Walküre. After realising I paid €800 for the ticket to the cycle, I wasn’t going to walk out on any of it! I was going to suffer financially and mentally!

The music in the last act of Die Walküre is the most recognisable. After surviving the first two music dramas, it occurred to me that I can only say that I survived the cycle if I actually sat through all four dramas. The thought of missing out on one act and having to sit through the whole lot again at some point in the future was more than I could bear 🙂 so I prepared myself mentally for the endurance test. I enjoyed Siegfried and even more so Götterdämmerung. Of course, by then I could see the light at the end of the tunnel! By the fourth music drama I had resolved to stop reading the English subtitles and just enjoy the music. Wagner did not take into account that anyone else other than German-speaking audiences will ever hear the cycle. It is not possible to watch the performance, read the subtitles and pay attention to the music over the duration of the cycle. And over 5 or 6 hours it is remarkably difficult to maintain focus on just one of these aspects.

The music in Götterdämmerung was simply glorious, especially in the last act when the conductor had the orchestra at full volume. So much so that I was thinking I wouldn’t mind hearing it again! Just the last act, not the full cycle 🙂 It also showed that the acoustics at Vienna State Opera are really good. The theatre did not get overloaded with sound. No sound system could ever deliver the same experience.

Still, I have to agree with Rossini that Wagner has some wonderful moments and some dreadful quarters of an hour. People have been known to use the experience of the cycle as punishment! It’s perfect for diplomatic circles 🙂 More than one ambassador has punished diplomats from other countries by making them sit through the Ring cycle. Seriously!

The cycle is a work of extraordinary scale. Perhaps the most outstanding aspect is its sheer length: a full performance of the cycle takes place over four nights, with a total playing time of about 15-16 hours, depending on the conductor’s pacing. The first and shortest drama, Das Rheingold, typically lasts two and a half hours, while the final and longest, Götterdämmerung, takes up to five hours, excluding intervals! The cycle is modelled after ancient Greek dramas that were presented as three tragedies and one satyr play. The Ring proper begins with Die Walküre and ends with Götterdämmerung, with Rheingold as a prelude. (Now read again Anna Russell’s comment!) Wagner called Das Rheingold a Vorabend or “Preliminary Evening”, and Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were subtitled First Day, Second Day and Third Day, respectively, of the trilogy proper.

The scale and scope of the story is epic. It follows the struggles of gods, heroes, and several mythical creatures over the eponymous magic ring that grants domination over the entire world. The drama and intrigue continue through three generations of protagonists, until the final cataclysm at the end of Götterdämmerung.

The music of the cycle is thick and richly textured, and grows in complexity as the cycle proceeds. Wagner wrote for an orchestra of gargantuan proportions, including a greatly enlarged brass section with new instruments such as the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet and contrabass trombone. Remarkably, he uses a chorus only relatively briefly, in acts 2 and 3 of Götterdämmerung, and then mostly of men with just a few women. He eventually had a purpose-built theatre constructed, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, in which to perform this work. The theatre has a special stage that blends the huge orchestra with the singers’ voices, allowing them to sing at a natural volume. The result was that the singers did not have to strain themselves vocally during the long performances.

Vienna State Opera
Vienna State Opera
Vienna State Opera, Main Staircase
Vienna State Opera, Main Staircase
Vienna State Opera, Interior
Vienna State Opera, Interior

The 2009 Ring cycle at Vienna State Opera was a legacy from the departing directors, Ioan Hollender and Seiji Ozawa, and perhaps even more so, an introductory offering for the incoming Musical Director Franz Welser-Möst, who was also the conductor of this performance and emerged as the hero of it. It helped that he is Austrian. Although that didn’t prevent a turmoil at the Vienna State Opera last September when just days after the new season began Franz Welser-Möst abruptly resigned and withdrew from all his scheduled performances there, citing “irreconcilable differences of opinion regarding the company’s artistic planning and profile”.

Franz Welser-Möst
Franz Welser-Möst

Franz Welser-Möst produced a reading of the Ring that emphasized the beautiful lyricism of music. The State Opera Orchestra for the Ring was hand-picked by Welser-Möst from the 160+ members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. They played specialised instruments, unique to this orchestra, from a shallow pit – the sound was huge, immediate and in your face, which only the big voices could cut through. Sometimes the singers were drowned by the orchestra.

Vienna State Opera Hall
Vienna State Opera Hall

The sets were restrained, as were the costumes, and with few exceptions they supported rather than interfered; they did not attempt to dominate the production. This allowed a clear vision of the human problems of the characters. Frederick Zorn for Rheingold, and Fettfilm for the rest of the cycle, turned illumination into an art form with the imaginative use of video that did away with the clutter of sets and special effects.

Das Rheingold, Vienna, 2009
Das Rheingold, Vienna, 2009

In Rheingold, the action men are Alberich (Tomasz Konieczny) and Loge (Adrian Erod). Strong, confident voices; rapid, purposeful movements – perfect harmony between pit and stage. Wotan thinks he has won but the real winner is Alberich and his curse. In Die Walküre the great God, Wotan, fails not only with his wife but also with his favourite, Brünnhilde. And he fails to look like a God. Juha Uusitalo as Wotan effectively betrayed his increasing insecurity. The audience buzz was that he was seriously ill the year before and had two bouts of surgery for a “head tumour”. His delivery was static and he was often drowned by the orchestra. Audience reaction confirmed this at the end when Alberich and Loge were hailed loud and long, Wotan less so.

The staging of Die Walküre, however, took a bit of getting used to. Hunding’s tree-house seemed to be growing in the middle of a great room. The third act opening was wonderful, though. A bare stage with nine horses, presumably in the paddock outside Valhalla, before the Walküre appeared, not as nine models off a ramp, but as an extremely dangerous gang of blood-stained harpies, who looked perfectly at ease in combat, with cowering figures fleeing before them. However the horses remained in situ until Loge’s fire engulfed the mountain top in magnificent flames that moved in time with the music. Then it looked as if the poor steeds were being immolated too, and that was upsetting.

There is a similar distraction in Siegfried, when the back wall of Mime’s great workshop, complete with ventilator fans, remained as a backdrop to Brünnhilde’s mountain top. In Götterdämmerung, Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s love nest looks like a white plastic tarpaulin laid in the middle of a car park with chevron stripes marking the parking bays. Later when the Rhinemaidens reappear, dancing in the river wearing swim hats, the thought of a synchronised swimming team is hard to avoid.

However, it must be said that interpretation of abstract sets is fleeting and they quickly give way to focussing on the characters on stage. Musically, one of the highlights is Siegfried’s funeral march. It is quite long, so a funeral procession has to move back and forth across the stage until it is over, unless… Yes, that’s it! Play it to a black stage, let all the drama lie in the music, let the orchestra perform a virtuoso piece, like Leonore III as an intermezzo in Fidelio… And it was wonderful. Conductor and orchestra seized their moment to enthralling effect.

At 10:30pm on May 21, after some 16 hours, it was all over. The relief was palpable! And the only production of the Ring I plan on seeing from now on is the Bugs Bunny one!

For an analysis of the Ring cycle, you can’t go past Anna Russell’s. It is hilarious!

Wagner was big on mythology. He based the four epic music dramas (as they are correctly referred to, as opposed to operas) on Norse mythology. He worked his butt off reading and interpreting the source material. He absolutely incensed the scholars of the day because he reinterpreted the material, simplified it, and reshuffled the names amongst the characters he used as he saw fit. If you think the story in the music dramas is complicated, it is child’s play compared to the source books he used.

Richard Wagner in 1871
Richard Wagner in 1871

Wagner wrote the epic text and composed the music over the course of about twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874. He did have a 12 year break during that time. Even he got sick of the Ring! The four music dramas that constitute the Ring cycle are, in the order of the imagined events they portray:
Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold)
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
Siegfried
Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)

Although individual dramas are performed as works in their own right, a full understanding of the story of the Ring cycle requires attendance at all four dramas, which was the intention and expectation of the composer.

For the Ring, Wagner decided to adopt a through-composed style, whereby each act of each drama would be a continuous piece of music with no breaks whatsoever. In the essay Opera and Drama (1852), Wagner describes the way in which poetry, music and the visual arts should combine to form what he called The Artwork of the Future. He called these artworks “music-dramas”, and thereafter very rarely referred to his works as operas.

Wagner started with the text, in 1848, and the text for all four dramas was completed in December 1852. In November 1853, Wagner began the composition draft of Das Rheingold. Unlike the verses, which were written as it were in reverse order (4 to 1), the music was composed in the same order as the narrative flowed (1 to 4). Composition proceeded until 1857, when the final score up to the end of Act II of Siegfried was completed. Wagner then laid the work aside for twelve years, during which he wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger of Nurnberg. By 1869, Wagner was living at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne, sponsored by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. He returned to Siegfried, and, remarkably, was able to pick up where he left off. In November 1874, the score of the Ring was finally completed. In 1875 they started the preliminary rehearsals for the Ring and in 1876 they staged the first Bayreuth Festival. They made a loss at the first festival, so the second was not held until 1882.

Wagner was a genius, no question about it. In his lifetime, and for some years after, Wagner inspired fanatical devotion. He still does. There are people spending their life attending one Ring cycle after another. His compositions, in particular Tristan und Isolde, broke important new musical ground. The twentieth century harmonic revolutions of Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg (tonal and atonal modernism, respectively) have often been traced back to Tristan und Isolde. The Italian form of operatic realism known as verismo owes much to Wagnerian reconstruction of musical form. Wagner made a major contribution to the principles and practice of conducting. His essay On conducting (1869) advanced the earlier work of Hector Berlioz and proposed that conducting was a means by which a musical work could be re-interpreted, rather than simply a mechanism for achieving orchestral unison. Wagner also made significant changes to the conditions under which operas were performed. It was Wagner who first demanded that the lights be dimmed during dramatic performances, and it was his theatre at Bayreuth which first made use of the sunken orchestra pit, which at Bayreuth entirely conceals the orchestra from the audience.

Wagner’s influence on literature and philosophy is also significant. He was a prolific writer. Friedrich Nietzsche was part of Wagner’s inner circle during the early 1870s. They fell out after the first Bayreuth Festival. In the twentieth century, W.H. Auden once called Wagner “perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived”, while Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust were heavily influenced by him and discussed Wagner in their novels. Many of the ideas his music brought up, such as the association between love and death in Tristan und Isolde, predated their investigation by Sigmund Freud.

Not everyone was quite so ecstatic. Wagner’s operas, writings, his politics, beliefs and unorthodox lifestyle made him a controversial figure during his lifetime. In September 1876 Karl Marx complained in a letter to his daughter Jenny: “Wherever one goes these days one is pestered with the question: what do you think of Wagner?” I sympathise. Over the week spent in Vienna I came to hate this question. I had someone in the tour group call me names for not professing eternal love for Wagner and the Ring! A Wagner tragic I think. Following Wagner’s death, the debate about his ideas and their interpretation, particularly in Germany during the 20th century, continued to make him politically and socially controversial in a way that other great composers are not. Much heat is generated by Wagner’s comments on Jews, which continue to influence the way that his works are regarded, and by the essays he wrote on the nature of race from 1850 onwards, and their putative influence on the anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler.

Hitler was an admirer of Wagner’s music and anti-Jewish sentiments and saw in Wagner’s operas an embodiment of his own vision of the German nation. There continues to be debate about the extent to which Wagner’s views might have influenced Nazi thinking. As with the works of Nietzsche, the Nazis used those parts of Wagner’s thought that were useful for propaganda and ignored or suppressed the rest. Hitler is still responsible for what he did, but his anti-Semitic views were not original. Indeed those views are still present and strong in Austria.

Actor Stephen Fry explores his passion for history’s most controversial composer, Richard Wagner, in the BBC documentary “Wagner and Me”. He attempts to wrest the composer from the Nazi stigma, without dismissing the stench of anti-Semitism around a man who wrote an essay in 1850 denouncing the Jewish influence in music, and describing his “involuntary repellence” at their “nature and personality”.

Wagner’s pamphlet is enough to close many ears in the modern world to his music, but Fry cannot believe that the man who wrote the Ring cycle, Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal could have been a racist creep. I can. The problem is that Fry is also Jewish. He lost relatives in Auschwitz and he feels a certain guilt that the greatest love of his artistic life is a small, ugly, Jew-hating German composer who was also Hitler’s favourite.

“Wagner and Me” is an absorbing and elegantly produced film, in which Fry is always a likeable host, even when he gushes. He is a self-declared Wagner tragic! His engagement is infectious and genuinely serious. He makes you want to dive into the 15 hours of The Ring, if not perhaps to line up and wait seven years for a ticket to Bayreuth. But I know better now!

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Finally, up, up and away!

Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival

The Canberra Balloon Spectacular is one of the longest running hot air ballooning events in the world. More than 30 giant hot air balloons have travelled to Canberra for the annual event, some coming from as far away as the United States and Belgium to participate.

It was totally worth the effort of waking up at 4am. There are not many places in the world where you can take off from the middle of city. And the sunrise was spectacular!

Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival

And the bears had an awesome time…

Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival

We flew with bear friendly Balloons Aloft 🙂

http://www.canberraballoons.com.au/

Cool balloons…

Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival
Canberra Balloon Festival

We’ve had a previous balloon spectacular experience in Cappadocia, Turkey in April 2009. It was another magical experience and totally worth the effort of waking up at 4am.

Cappadocia Balloon Spectacular
Cappadocia Balloon Spectacular

We got to watch the sunrise and the fact that it was cloudy made it an even better experience. The rays of sunshine coming through the clouds created an illumination that created an almost mystical experience.

Cappadocia Balloon Spectacular
Cappadocia Balloon Spectacular

There were over 30 hot air balloons in the air, an incredible sight. Hot air balloons peak hour traffic! There are several companies that operate hot air balloons in the town. If you should find yourself this way and in need for some hot air, Kapadokya Balloons have professional pilots, licensed in the UK and other places where they have actual regulations and standards and their pilots follow those safety standards, even though they operate in Turkey.

http://www.kapadokyaballoons.com

Cappadocia Balloon Spectacular
Cappadocia Balloon Spectacular

The pilot we had was really good. And funny! We flew really low in the valley to begin with, looking at the landscape shaped by volcanic activity, erosion and hand of man into incredible shapes, and then went up really high to get a view of the whole valley.

Cappadocia Balloon Spectacular
Cappadocia Balloon Spectacular

The brochure claimed: Magnificent fairy chimneys, picturesque cavernous hillsides and historical rock churches on an unforgettable adventurous journey. It was all that and more.

Cappadocia Balloon Spectacular
Cappadocia Balloon Spectacular

Hot air ballooning on Jupiter next!

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