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This article is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

Vienna Marius Kociejowski
A green Tyrolean hat with a feather tucked in its side was the reason I swore never to go back to Vienna. Also there had been the man at the cash till in the shop of the Kunsthistorisches Museum who, when I bought some postcards, took each one and slowly bent it, not so much that it would cause a crease but enough to indicate his opinion of me while at the same time putting himself just beyond the reach of accusation. Pettiness is the functionary’s most finely honed weapon and against it there is very little by way of defence except, perhaps, pretending not to notice. I rack my brain for a likeness of him, a single detail, a broken button or an unruly eyelash, anything to give him a voice, a presence, but it was all such a long time ago and, if my calculations are correct, the silly fool is in his grave. Why, though, this ridiculous exercise of power? Did he not, as I do, have to bow down to tie his shoelaces? Are we not, by this act alone, made humble?

Another reason for my intense dislike of Vienna was that not a single B&B would give us a bed for the night, every enquiry we made met with a sharp nein even when rooms were advertised as available. It was almost as if there were some network of spies, warning people in advance of a suspicious, roving couple. It would be the same story, a day later, in Salzburg where finally we got a room in a small hotel owned by an Italian couple. These are the only times in my life I’ve been refused a room. Admittedly, I cut a somewhat barbaric figure in 1974 Vienna, still one of the most conservative cities in Europe. I had long hair and wore a black leather jacket, and, maybe the most incongruous detail in an already doubtful profile, I travelled with a portable typewriter. Surely I was up to no good. I was. My verses were execrable. At about midnight, with nowhere to stay, we were rescued by a couple of students from London who let us sleep on their floor. One day in Vienna was enough for me.     

I did like the ancien régime cafés.

Something I’d learned earlier that day seemed to epitomise the city and its people for me. One of the two architects of the Wiener Staatsoper, whose name I now discover was Eduard van der Nüll, committed suicide in 1868 when, unbeknownst to him, revised plans for the Ringstrasse saw to it that the boulevard in front of the opera house was elevated by a metre, thereby cancelling out the front ramp going up to the main entrance. It was a classic case of like minds not sitting at the same table. Among the jibes the architects had to endure was that the opera house was now, in addition to being insufficiently grand, a ‘sunken chest’ or, worse still, ‘the Königgrätz of Construction’, Königgrätz being the town closest to where the Austrian army was routed by a much smaller Prussian army a couple of years earlier. Among the mockers was the emperor himself, Franz Joseph I, who I picture twirling his friendly mutton chops. Should the unfortunate Eduard van der Nüll be made to stand in for the Viennese? I was not yet of an age to be able to distinguish between the fool and the man of honour or to appreciate the fact they are often one and the same. Quite simply, I took him for a stiff neck, which was how many of the older Viennese struck me. Something else I now discover, which ought not to make a difference but maybe it does, is that architects Eduard van der Nüll and August Sicard von Sicardsburg as well as being business partners were also a couple. So how did that wash with the more starched elements of Viennese society? Was it not enough that the emperor’s younger brother, Archduke Ludwig Viktor, ‘Luziwuzi’ as he was known by friends and foes alike, had his marsupial features slapped after he made an inopportune advance towards an officer in the city’s famous bathhouse? Might it be that the scorn poured over Eduard van der Nüll and August Sicard von Sicardsburg was silently augmented with prejudice? We will probably never know for sure because in deeply conservative circles a veil tends to fall over the unspeakable. What we do know is that Franz Joseph felt badly about Eduard van der Nüll’s suicide and never again slung mud at anyone. From then on, each new enterprise was greeted with the formulaic sentence: ‘Es war sehr schön, es hat mich sehr gefreut.’ (‘It was very nice,’ he’d say, ‘I was very pleased.’) A polite though ultimately meaningless remark, it is the one by which he is best remembered and it’s even the title of a book about him. I had little time for the emperor or his empire, the jaunty militarism and the cheery Militärmusik that accompanied it, but when years later I read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March with its unforgettable portrait of the emperor in his dotage I realised there was more to him and more to the Austro-Hungarian Empire than a callow youth could understand. And who cannot at the very least pause and consider what Roth, an author I revere, loved? As for the architectonic couple it is not unreasonable to suppose the death of one hastened the death of the other. August Sicard von Sicardsburg died six weeks later, from tuberculosis according to the death certificate, but surely it was more than that. Surely heartbreak came into it. If things are often more complex than the words used to describe them, it’s because the greater part of love belongs to silence.    

The tipping point for me came when we took the train from Vienna to Salzburg. A man in his seventies wearing a green Tyrolean hat and a moss-green coat of loden cloth with a long pleat down the back stepped into our compartment and although he had nothing with him motioned to me to clear a space on the luggage rack above him. Our bags were bulky and there was my typewriter too. The man studied my labours with a beady eye before insisting I had not yet allowed him his equal share of space. After I made further adjustments, the man, satisfied that justice had been done, very slowly removed his green Tyrolean hat with the side feather and placed it on the middle of the rack. When he got off at the next stop, I swore then never to go back to Vienna.

Forty-five years later, I returned, bearing the sword of vengeance, ready to lay waste to its populace or at least those wearing green Tyrolean hats and moss-green coats of loden cloth, the uniform, so it seemed to me, of men old enough to have been alive during the war and who were still suffering from a deep sense of victimhood as if the Anschluss, the union of Austria and Nazi Germany, had nothing to do with them. Vienna in 1974 was a city of the old and now, in 2019, it was a city of the young, although in truth it was I who’d aged and those who were old then are old no more. They’ve become death’s spring chickens. I was to be frustrated in my murderous scheme. Almost immediately, I was disarmed by several instances of charm and grace.


My reason for going back was to attend the American composer Michael Hersch’s epic three-part cycle Sew Me into a Shroud of Leaves. It was scheduled to begin at five in the morning. Yes, I too had to read that several times. Could this be a first in the history of musical performance? The concert, including intervals, was to cover a period of fifteen hours, twelve of them dedicated to some of the most absolute music of our time. I was determined to stick it out from beginning to end, bring to it my own sense of the absolute. My wife, though willing, was not prepared to lose sleep and would join me later. Wanting to be sure I’d be able to get to where I believed the concert would be, the Wiener Konzerthaus, and how I would get there from where we were staying, I went into tourist information and there spoke to a woman who resembled a willow tree. (There are such women, women who are like willow trees, a rare quality, but instantly recognisable.) Brigitte Nemeth gave me directions to the Wien Konzerthaus and when she expressed surprise at the early start I told her about Michael Hersch and offered the information that the composition of the third and lengthiest part of the work I had come to hear was based on his reading of my poetry. I suggested she join us, but she said she had to work. When I said that maybe modern classical music was not to her liking she spoke of how when listening to it at home it remains remote but that when hearing it live, the physical fact of being there helps to resolve one’s difficulties with it. She confirmed for me what I already knew; the major difference between recorded and live music is that with the first we listen to it primarily with our minds, the second with our whole bodies. If cities can be said to have a resident muse, she was it.

The next morning, at 4.45 – it was raining – I found myself hammering on the darkened entrance of the Wiener Konzerthaus on Lothringerstraße. When nobody stirred inside, I walked around the building looking for a rear entrance. There was nobody about at that hour, and so, with there being nothing more I could do, I walked to a nearby hotel where I was treated to another instance of Viennese hospitality. The night porter checked his computer for information and, finding the concert was not at the Konzerthaus but at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, put me in a cab there. The driver remarked laconically that he didn’t think it was open yet and I just as laconically said I understood it was. I was half an hour late. At the marble entrance I could hear familiar violent chords being struck in the distance. When the first interval arrived an excited woman came up to me, saying that Brigitte Nemeth had contacted her to say she had given me directions to the wrong place and that both she and her colleague, Ingrid Woelfl, had searched the whole of Vienna for me, phoning hotels and B&Bs. They even got in touch with the artistic director of Wien Modern, asking him to get in touch with Michael Hersch who might know of our whereabouts. We had domiciled ourselves beneath the radar, a rather bleak room in the working-class Meidling district which has its own dialect and a museum, the only one in Europe devoted to heating systems.

Sew Me into a Shroud of Leaves comprises The Vanishing Pavilions, a piano sonata in fifty movements, which the composer based on his reading of the poetry of our mutual friend Christopher Middleton; Last Autumn, a fairly rare combination of French horn and cello, which draws on W. G. Sebald’s ‘prose poem’ After Nature; and, as previously mentioned, the première of one day may become menace, a massive work of sixty-two movements for piano, spanning six hours. There is no greater tribute for a poet than for a composer to take from his work something for his own purpose. The others can keep their gaudy prizes. I have written elsewhere on Hersch’s music, and so, to briefly summarise, the composer takes his cue not from entire poems but from fragments – single lines or even phrases from lines and, just occasionally, short passages – which in themselves may have little meaning for the casual reader but which for him are the ignition points for his most inventive musical passages, the poetic fragment as delectable to him as are church ruins to believers and unbelievers alike.

Almost the entirety of Hersch’s musical output is a depiction of annihilation and putrescence. I remember Christopher Middleton saying to me once, ‘I can’t work out what goes on in that young man’s head.’ So why did Christopher, who normally preferred the efflorescence of the ‘Les Six’, so admire him? And why do I, when so much new music leaves me cold? The answer in both instances, Christopher’s and mine, is that in Hersch’s music there is a struggle between the lyrical and a world in which the lyrical is no longer possible or even allowable. The music builds and demolishes, it builds and demolishes. Countless are the times when several notes in a row threaten to become hummable and then, just in time, there comes a cascade of aural violence. Small wonder one of his early pieces is called the wreckage of flowers, its title a perfect illustration of what he does. This struggle makes him one of the most compelling voices in the present musical landscape, but it is a form of genius that resides in a particular dark groove and I wonder if there is anything on earth that will make him shift to a position more celebratory of life. The danger in doing so is that it might become pastiche, an empty expression of reassurance.

The closest parallel I’ve found in the visual arts is in the devastated landscapes of Anselm Kiefer. What I admire in the one, I find in the other. They are two artists of our time with whom a reckoning will have to be made. Certainly, both are poetry-driven and both have a fascination with fragments or remnants, worlds on the cusp of disappearance. I have looked at Kiefer’s work and heard it; I have listened to Hersch and seen it. I would say Hersch’s vision is the bleaker of the two. When he was close to completing one day may become menace he wrote to me, asking whether I’d be prepared to write several lines on the theme of bodily putrefaction, upon which he might conclude his work. I refused. My poetry may be dark and it may be deeply pessimistic in nature, but never does it subscribe to the luxury of intellectual despair. I am not suggesting Hersch luxuriates, far from it, but I wonder if dissolution has become a bit of a habit with him, which sooner or later he’ll have to break if he’s to move forward. This aside, I don’t question his integrity for a minute.

The artistic director of the Wien Modern, Bernhard Günther, who with his ponytail looked as though he just stepped out of Così Fan Tutte, when faced with the problem of how to accommodate the enormous canvas of Hersch’s cycle and how an audience could be expected to sit through twelve hours of music, spent several months searching for a solution and finally settled on the Prunksaal, the State Hall of the Austrian National Library (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek). A jewel of the Baroque, its domed ceiling covered with frescos, and at the centre of its marbled floor Antonio Corradini’s marble statue of the library’s founder, Emperor Charles VI got up as Hercules of the Muses, it was, he realised, the ideal place. A library, Günther told me, is one of the few places where people behave with utmost consideration, and the Prunksaal is so designed that it would allow for people to come and go as they like without too much distraction. A perfectionist, he arranged even for the distribution of blankets and mattresses. At the same time he managed to bring a potentially distant and highly challenging work into an intimate sphere. The musicians were placed directly beneath the high dome, which had the visual and aural effect of isolating them in a huge space. As much a metaphysician as he is an organiser, Günther harnessed the heavens. The music began in darkness and, in keeping with the progression of the music, moved from artificial to natural light and finally, with the concert ending at eight in the evening, darkness again. Stephanie Fleischmann, the librettist for Hersch’s opera Poppaea, said of the Prunksaal that it was ‘the perfect stage design for a piece about a perished culture’. She put into words precisely what first drew me to his music, a sense of it being the surviving remnants of some lost civilisation.   

A total work of art, or what in German is called Gesamtkunstwerk, the baroque splendour of the Prunksaal is, as with so much else in Vienna, tainted by recent history. After the Anschluss its librarian, Josef Bick, was imprisoned and replaced with Paul Heigl, a fervent member of the Schutzstaffel, better known as the SS, who pursued a policy of seizing the libraries of prominent Jewish individuals, which included the magnificent collection of Alphonse Mayer von Rothschild. A good Nazi to the end, Heigl, together with his wife, took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1945. Bick was reinstated. The problem he and his successors had to face was what to do with the 50,000 volumes that had been confiscated from Jewish families, a process of reparation that is still underway. Would it be stating the obvious to suggest that the presence of Michael Hersch’s music in this of all places was a form of justice?

And so what did I make of one day may become menace? And was it illustrative of my work? The answer to the first question is that I was too curious to be able to judge of it. That would come later and, as with so many of Hersch’s works, it would slowly ripen in my affections. I had been dropped into a sonic landscape with neither map nor compass, and without any musical language to describe it. What I can say is that from beginning to end I was taken by it, swept from movement to movement as if by a strong undertow. One could easily drown in its complexities. As to whether it was illustrative it hardly matters because, after all, the illustrative is merely illustrative. I wasn’t looking for, or expecting, echoes of my own voice. What mattered was whether whatever the composer took from me was fully realised on his own terms because only then would it be a truly creative response. It was. And as such it was all I could have wished for. This is not to say I was not presented with difficulties. There is no getting round the fact that Hersch’s music is not easy listening, but even so I found myself in a dreamlike state. I did not fidget, I did not yawn. I was alert even in my somnambulism, maybe even more so. I was curious as to how such a massive work could be resolved. I was to be greatly surprised. The concluding movement, which is a recapitulation of various themes scattered throughout the work, takes its cue from ‘The Polar Bear’, a poem that has been noted for its tenderness, which I accept, but what is rarely remarked is its underlying sense of menace. A father observes his infant daughter asleep in her cradle. The world outside is full of turbulence. It shakes the bedroom window in its embrasure. It is a poem as much about terror as it is about love. ‘I listen to your small breathing. / My daughter, I seek a connection / Between all this: these are distances / The stammering mind cannot hold.’ And it was there in the music. Michael Hersch ‘got’ it. What he’d earlier sought from me was inapplicable.

While I may be serious in wishing to take a work of music wholly on its own terms, I’m not immune to interference, the intrusion of things quite outside what the music expresses. I can’t listen to the beginning of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 5 without seeing a couple of Central Asian horsemen galloping over a vast plain, a mauve band of mountains in the distance. The pianist Jacob Rhodebeck seemed to be possessed of ... supernatural powers, as fresh five hours into the performance as he was at the beginning of it, and when he performed one of the more explosive movements, which draws on the lines in my poem ‘Shrubland’ (‘A hieroglyph of broken twigs, / The skeletons of small animals, / The sticking burr of thistle’), suddenly, quite unbidden, there came to me a memory of the composer from the year before.

22 June 2018. We were at Aldeburgh where the evening before we had attended the première of Hersch’s work for two soprano voices and chamber ensemble, I hope we get a chance to visit soon, a musical elegy for two women, the poet Rebecca Elson and the other a close friend of his, Mary Harris O’Reilly, both of whom died of cancer. Step by step the physical decline of both women is rendered in their own words, often in the most excruciating detail. Normally, I can swallow darkness whole, but this was too much for me. Later, I argued with Hersch, saying that the purpose of music, if not in fact all art, is to rise above the condition of our corruptible bodies. I cited Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor. Michael, from his side, declared it was the duty of an artist to tell the truth, however unpalatable it may be. Our failure to meet on this issue was, and continues to be, counterbalanced by mutual respect and profound friendship. Whether he gets a small or sizable audience is of virtually no consequence for him, any contemplation of whether the response is positive or negative borders on bad taste, and, if presented with an opportunity to win an audience, as was the case in Aldeburgh, it is just as likely that he will go at it with a battering ram, not because he seeks shock and awe but because, again, what has to be has to be. It makes him at once one of the most admirable and exasperating of composers.

The following morning, Hersch, the soprano Ah Young Hong, my wife and I went for a walk along the seemingly endless shingle beach, which, together with the fish and chips, is one of Aldeburgh’s most celebrated features. It was fast approaching noon and as yet Hersch had had nothing to eat or drink, which confirmed what I have long suspected, that his metabolism is not that of ordinary mortals. He hungered for, and yet could not bring himself to order, fish and chips. An inability to decide on the things of this world is one of his more extraordinary characteristics, given that creatively he is one of the most resolute of people. He wanted first to go for a walk. We went along the beach to where stood Maggi Hambling’s sculptural monument to Benjamin Britten, a couple of interlocking scallop shells, the bigger one with letters cut into the rim which read I HEAR THOSE VOICES THAT WILL NOT BE DROWNED, words taken from Humphrey Slater’s libretto for Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. A thing not offensive in itself, it would have been better placed in the town centre, a small distance away from what it seeks to evoke. Would one place in the middle of a forest the statue of a tree? So why a scallop on the seashore?     

We began to collect pebbles. The best pebbles are widely considered to be those that have a pleasingly symmetrical shape, and I suppose people can be divided into those who love round ones and those who, such as myself, prefer the flattened ovoid pebbles that are a solid black, brown or white, or, more rarely, with a hint of translucence. My wife is an inveterate gatherer of pebbles and in common with the most discriminating collectors takes no more than two or three at a time. I found a pale one shaped like a small bird’s egg, which I gave to Ah Young as a keepsake. I hope she has it still. Michael seemed to be fascinated by the whole business and started collecting pebbles as well, a little timidly as if this were his first time. I would never have marked him for a connoisseur of pebbles, but maybe with the more symmetrical ones he sees in them musical qualities.  

Suddenly, and this is what came back to me in the Prunksaal, the air was full of thrips, also known as storm flies, thunder flies, thunder blights, thunderbugs, storm bugs, corn flies, corn lice and harvest flies. The storm imagery associated with many of the names relates to the folkloric belief that they are an augur of thunderstorms. Attached to this is the as yet unproven hypothesis that their big moment comes when the earth is negatively and the atmosphere positively charged. Astonishingly, there are approximately 6,000 different varieties of thrips and, whichever one it was that descended upon the beach at Aldeburgh, there were millions of them, which may be why the word ‘thrips’ covers both the singular and plural forms. A single thrips is difficult to imagine. They got into everything, our hair, our eyes, our clothes, the more adventurous of them making it as far as our underwear. The beach was sloped in shelves and Hersch, who had become separated from us, perhaps lost in the contemplation of his pebbles, was a level or two above where we were. Suddenly, he broke into a run, which is not easily done on a shingle beach where the pebbles slip and slide with every step one takes. The man seen in profile, frantically beating the air about himself, was no longer Michael Hersch the composer, nor was he Michael Hersch my friend, but the sole representative of our species, a man alone in the universe, the missing element of some immense metaphysical puzzle we’ll never be able to solve, and now, in the baroque confines of the Prunksaal, those thrips had become musical notations filling the lines of the stave.

I noticed a woman in the front row, bunched up against the growing chill, wearing a leopard-skin-patterned coat, her head buried inside a woollen orange toque, and beside her a pair of bright red crutches. She seemed to me a cross between a figure in a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and the amorphic ‘Old Guy’ one sees on Guy Fawkes Night. Suddenly, in the middle of Movement XXXVII, which in my notes I describe as funereal, she rose and, supporting herself on crutches, walked in the mechanical manner of those who are crippled as opposed to merely lame, the extraordinary thing being that she moved in perfect time to the music. A few minutes later, she returned, again walking in perfect time. I knew then I had to find out who she was. When the interval came I snuck up behind her at the bar and when she ordered a glass of red wine I cut in and bought it for her. We fell into conversation. Sylvia Wagner-Weger is a conceptual artist. I have since looked for her work or such as can be found on the internet and from the few things I’ve seen I am unable to judge of their merit, and, as is so often the case, the language used to describe what she does rather than illuminate obfuscates. What I read about her work is that she uses household materials such as sponge cloths to order to address ‘the hidden mechanisms of power and oppression in the domestic environment’, which doesn’t particularly enlighten me. What I greatly like, on the other hand, are the words she herself uses, which serve as a kind of manifesto: Was ist, war. Was war, ist. (What is, was. What was, is.) She told me her output and opportunities to exhibit had been sharply reduced in recent years with the onset of multiple sclerosis. So that’s what it was. I’d seen that mechanical birdlike movement before. I could not but admire the courage with which she faces her growing immobility. She said she would sooner walk on crutches than submit to the wheelchair. And I complimented her on her willpower at which she started laughing.

‘Wheel power,’ she cried, ‘wheel power! I love it!’

After the concert Bernhard Günther took Hersch and his retinue to a restaurant on the very outskirts of Vienna, much of it still countryside. This was no idle choice. The winery of Mayer am Pfarrplatz had been a health spa in earlier times and it was there, in 1802, that Beethoven took a rest cure and wrote the heart-rending letter now referred to as the ‘Heiligenstädter Testament’ in which he relates the spiritual agony brought on by his loss of hearing: ‘Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed.’ Although the letter was ostensibly addressed to his brothers, it was never sent and in all probability was never meant to be. Mayer am Pfarrplatz was an extraordinary place to be, although it was a shade Teutonically cute.

The pianist Jacob Rhodebeck sat beside me, and sitting opposite was Jessica Lustig who some years before had been the first person to publish Hersch’s music. I made a bit of sport with her. She is a theatrical as well as a musical agent and so I told her, in a somewhat pleading voice, that I had a play she might like, which I’d been working on for several decades. I’ve never written a play in my life. I watched with wicked glee as she hastily moved into defensive mode. Our talk turned to the performance. Jessica Lustig and Jacob Rhodebeck agreed that the work ended on a note of total despair. This troubled me. As if stuck inside some posthumous existence, where I could eavesdrop upon but not actually join other people’s conversation, I said nothing, unable, just then, to communicate my disagreement. My venison dumplings sat heavily on their bed of red cabbage. Hersch was at the far end of the lengthy table, too far away for me to be able to get his thoughts on the matter. A year later, when finally I got to converse with him over the ending of one day may become menace, he would not be drawn one way or the other.

‘Menace is certainly distinct from despair I would think, although when one considers the unenviable state of being under threat it could bring one to despair,’ he replied. ‘To be honest, I’m not happy with any of the characterisations, as I’m not even sure what it was that I felt at the end of that journey. Something, certainly. But what, I don’t think I could peg down.’

This was good enough for me, who dwells in Keats’s realm of uncertainties.                


A couple of weeks prior to going to Vienna, I was shown on a computer screen a darkened area of my brain through which no thought will ever again enter or leave. There could be no telling what I’d lost as there was no telling what I had in the first place. Maybe I had been disburdened of bad memories although my dreams or at least what I can remember of them are much as they’ve always been, unless, of course, they’ve become worse. Apparently, though, the brain runs its own compensation scheme and what’s lost in one place resurfaces in another. As I was still undergoing tests, one for the attractively named pulsus bisferiens, I did not dare ask whether it was advisable to travel for fear the answer would be no. I subscribe to a certain amount of disobedience. What I took to Vienna with me was a recharged sense of my own mortality, a small dose of which serves not only as some kind of corrective, but also as a spur to deeper feeling. One wouldn’t wish for more as more might be a lethal dose. It was in Vienna that I would suffer – no, ‘suffer’ is the wrong word entirely – I would experience my first instance of Stendhal syndrome. Whether this was a direct consequence of my earlier problem, I don’t know, and in fact, I’m not sure whether there really is such a thing as Stendhal syndrome. These days any excess of feeling calls for a purgative.

The term was coined in 1979 by the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini who noticed the high incidence of tourists becoming mentally and physically overwhelmed in her native Florence. It is hard not to be when in Florence. I remember being in the Uffizi Gallery in a small room that had on one wall Titian’s Venus of Urbino, surely one of the most erotic paintings in existence, and, on the adjacent wall, Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation, one of the most spiritual. I hear that like naughty children they have been put into separate rooms. Sacred and profane thus entwined was almost too much for me. The clinical definitions of Stendhal syndrome leave something to be desired. It is most commonly described as a psychosomatic response to a beautiful work of art, which includes tachycardia (quite possible in my case), vertigo (which, if it means being knocked off-kilter, maybe), fainting (no smelling salts were required), confusion (only if confusion is on a par with revelation) and hallucination (in which case, if it requires imagination to see things as they are, then, yes, I hallucinated what was there right in front of me). If all this adds up to a psychosomatic disorder then it is no less than what any artist would like to see his work induce in other people. At the risk of moving into an aery dimension, I would describe it as a seizure of the soul. The soul, however, has been served notice, and what we have in its place, so claim the neuroscientists, is a series of complex chemical reactions that at the point of death cease. If so, then I and billions of others have been deluded and God’s filling out forms at the unemployment office. Why do nurses the world over still open the windows in the rooms where people have just died? It is so their souls might escape. I subscribe to what someone has called ‘quantum weirdness’, which is a friendly phrase for the unknowable. Also I’ve got a sneaky feeling when the soul departs the body it regenerates as birdsong, its wavelength spanning a squawk and a trill.

Say, then, it really was a seizure of the soul, would that chronically unreliable genius, Marie-Henri Beyle, otherwise known as Stendhal, agree? Stendhal got his bout of Stendhal syndrome in Florence, in the Basilica of Santa Croce, but then he describes it in terms closer to what I experienced than anything I’ve found in my brief survey of clinical studies: ‘I was in a sort of ecstasy,’ he writes, ‘from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call “nerves”. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.’ Ah, if I could only forget – I don’t quite believe Stendhal when he says this. What would dottoresa Magherini say to my having been shanghaied not in Florence but in Vienna?  

So what did it for me? At the Kunsthistorisches Museum, scene of my old annoyance, I saw the Caravaggio/Bernini exhibition; an exquisite, small ninth-century Carolingian ivory relief, originally a book cover, of Pope Gregory writing at his desk, a dove representing the Holy Ghost whispering into his ear; Titian’s portrait of Isabella d’Este as a very young woman, a girl almost, in a wonderful balzo headdress, although I now learn she was sixty-two when Titian painted her and already a bit on the stout side; several Breughels that took me back to childhood when I’d spend hours lying on the floor, studying the details in quarto-sized volume issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and, Titian again, his Woman in a Fur Coat, who, I’m delighted to discover, is the very same who modelled for his Venus of Urbino. It was something altogether more modest that floored me, a marble female bust described as an ideal portrait of Petrarch’s Laura by the Dalmatian artist Francesco Laurana (1430–1502) or, to those Croats who wish to claim him as their own, Frane Vranjanin. It is one of only nine such works by him, which are widely remarked for their beautiful, geometrically simple, faces. There is another in Palermo, which I saw some years ago. This one has the look of a girl who is not about to respond to the rude taunts being made by her fellow classmates, some of whom will think her bit snooty whereas really she is above the world’s cares. This is what Petrarch says about her: ‘Non era l’andar suo cosa mortale / ma d’angelica forma’, or, in Anthony Mortimer’s excellent translation, ‘She moved not like a mortal, but as though / she bore an angel’s form’. Angels can take all that you throw at them and more. Laurana took extra care with this sculpture, adding coloured wax to bring out her features, and, now missing, put a real jewel above her forehead where there had been a decorative ferronnière such as women wore during the Renaissance. The catalogue claims it may in fact be a portrait of Ippolita Maria Sforza, the first wife of Alfonso, Duke of Calabria, but there is already a bust of her by Laurana and it does not strike me as the same woman. It also says it might be Ippolita’s daughter, Isabella, but I see little resemblance between this and an early engraving of her in which a double chin is quite pronounced. The claim to this being Petrarch’s Laura is not wholly unfounded as it is quite possible Laurana saw the colour life drawing of Laure de Noves, in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, in Florence. She is a strong candidate for the woman who inspired Petrarch’s verses. The historical evidence for Petrarch’s Laura is meagre, and even during his lifetime there were those who thought she was merely a figment of his imagination. The poet in one of his letters scoffs at the suggestion: ‘Simulatio esset utinam et non furor!’ (‘Could such a fiction have continued for so long!’) I see no reason to suppose he was not a fool for love. Also it is the delicious pain the man of feeling conjures for himself in order to keep the Muse close. It has been suggested that Giorgione’s Laura, also in the Kunsthistorisches, might be a portrait of Laure de Noves. If so, she is bulkier than the Laurenziana Laure.

There was a hushed stillness about the bust of Laura as though I had chanced upon it at the very moment it was about to breathe. Suddenly I was overcome by a desire to kiss the nape of her neck and would surely have done so had it not been for the glass encasing her. Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. I began to weep and tremble, my knees about to give way, and I should think there was also the palpitation of the heart that is so much a feature of case histories. And just in case I am thought overly impressionable, I am not thus inclined and would prefer not to make a spectacle of myself in the public arena although I’m not as worried about this as I am about writing breathless prose. Only later, when I thought about it, did I remember, although I’m still not sure there is such a thing, Stendhal syndrome.


Visiting the places where famous people lived is more often than not a futile exercise in ‘making contact’ with their spirits via phantom furniture. The Mozarthaus at Domgasse 5 is in some respects a slightly desperate affair, there being not even a stick of the original furnishings and very little by way of the old décor, the stuccoed ceiling maybe. As for which rooms served as what, this too is all conjecture and, if one were feeling irritable, the entry fee could be seen as a bit of a scam. The alternative take is that it’s a rather splendid place, sensitively curated, and a good example of bel étage architecture. Several things made my visit valuable. For the two and a half years Mozart lived here, between September 1784 and April 1787, which, depending on one’s view, is either no time at all or an enormous slice of his creative life, he composed Le Nozze di Figaro, three of the ‘Haydn’ string quartets and many other works. As well as it being a time of immense productivity it was also, dare one say, one of personal happiness.

We know Mozart had a billiards table and although we can’t be sure where it was positioned, because there is no proof of anything, it is not unreasonable to suppose it was kept in the main parlour. The amount he spent on it, 300 florins, was exactly one third of what he paid for his pianoforte, a hefty sum given that the annual rent for the place, the most luxurious of Mozart’s several residences, was 460 florins. Mozart was not a man to be deprived of fun. Indeed, it may be the most serious aspect of his music. Thus isolated, fun is profound, mysterious even. We are told Mozart played billiards with his wife Constanze. Sometimes what transports one is the smaller thing against which the bigger is of scant importance. A small key opens the world. Behind the ghostly strains of whichever quartet was playing on the audio guide I heard the clack click clack of billiard balls, or is this something I added later? This image of them at play brought the place alive.

You look out the window of that spacious room and straight ahead is the slightly curving street called Blutgasse, which remains absolutely unchanged. You see it through Mozart’s eyes. Suppose it is 15 January 1785 and you’re outside, you have just turned on to Blutgasse, which leads on to Domgasse, you hear the playing of instruments from an upstairs window, and as you come closer you realise it is a string quartet and you think, so lovely the sound of music coming from people’s houses, and you walk on, the sound becoming ever fainter. What you do not realise is that in the parlour room upstairs Haydn is sitting in a chair, maybe beside the billiards table, listening to the performance specially put on for him by the much younger Mozart, one of the cycle of six string quartets which the latter dedicated to him. After hearing three on the above date and the rest on 12 February, Haydn said to Mozart’s father, ‘Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name’. Such was the generosity of the man who at that point was the most celebrated composer in Europe. So rare, this spirit of deference, you struggle for other instances.

The other thing I heard on the audio guide was a story completely new to me, Mozart’s friendly relationship with an African ex-slave called Angelo Soliman. I am surprised this should have escaped the encyclopedic mind of the French writer, Mathias Énard, whose masterpiece Compass is set in Vienna. Its main character, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist confined to bed for reasons not exactly clear, and from there he surveys key moments in his life, many of which, most eerily, have also been key moments in mine. Ritter (and by extension Énard) spent considerable time in Syria. I ghosted him or he ghosted me through the streets of Aleppo and Damascus. We ate in the same places and on a couple of occasions encountered the same people, one of them the French Sufi musician, Julien Jâlal Eddine Weiss, whose apartment, now destroyed, was in the Aleppo souk. Énard includes so many actual events and people in his work that it becomes difficult to separate truth from fiction. This surely is his aim, to set alight the borderline between the two. As well as looking back on his own life, Ritter goes back through history and explores the meeting points between classical music and Orientalism. Soliman’s absence from Énard’s book may be due to Nigeria being not quite east of Vienna, but such was the thinking in Mozart’s time that someone from Africa might be considered an Oriental or Turk. It is quite possible that Soliman was the model for the sympathetic figure of Bassa Selim in Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’). The opera is not for the more faint-hearted of Edward Said’s acolytes, who find fault with any who cross a certain longitude, but at the time of its composition, 1781–82, it was a flattering and not wholly inaccurate portrait of Ottoman society. Maybe its plot is a bit on the wild side, but not nearly as improbable as the story of Soliman’s life.

Soliman, whose tribal name was Mmadi Make, was of princely origin. As a boy he was taken captive in Nigeria and sold as a slave in Marseilles and from there taken to Sicily where he entered the household of a sympathetic marchioness who oversaw his education. Mmadi’s affection for a servant girl called Angelina inspired him to change his name to Angelo. As yet he was not his own man and in 1734 he was gifted to the imperial governor of Sicily, Prince Georg Christian, Prince von Lobkowitz, became his valet and travelling companion, and even joined him on military campaigns, at one point saving his master’s life. After the prince’s death, Soliman entered the Vienna household of Joseph Wenzel I, Prince of Liechtenstein, where he was made tutor to the prince’s heir, Aloys I. It was during this period Soliman married a young widow, the sister of one of Napoleon’s generals, which, maybe because of the interracial aspect of the marriage, greatly displeased the prince. Nonetheless, Soliman’s rise in Viennese cultural circles was rapid and extended even as far as the Emperor Joseph II. In 1783 he joined the Masonic lodge Zur Wahren Eintracht (‘To True Harmony’) whose membership included many of the cultural luminaries of the period, including Joseph Haydn, the Hungarian poet Ferenc Kazinczy and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There, as ‘Angelus Solimanus’, he became Grand Master of the lodge.

There is nothing to prove the depth of their friendship, not a single mention of Soliman in Mozart’s voluminous correspondence, but what we discover in the Masonic lodge’s records is that the two often signed in together, which suggests that they’d met beforehand. If the character of Bassa Selim really was inspired by Soliman, then we may feel free to assume there was at the very least cordiality between them. There is so little solid evidence that its dearth is a boon for the imagination. Soliman, renowned for his high intellect and the fact he could speak several languages, died in 1796 of a stroke, and there begins the terrible story of his posthumous existence, which was enough to make of his previous life a pitiful charade. At the instigation of the emperor – one might well ask how deep their relationship went – and despite the desperate entreaties of Soliman’s daughter, Josefine, his corpse was skinned and stuffed and then placed in a cabinet of curiosities at the Imperial Natural History Collection. Decked out with ostrich feathers and beads, Soliman was the perfect illustration of the African savage. He was only granted release from this second enslavement when during the October Revolution of 1848 the part of the museum where he was put on display was set on fire.    

Was Soliman no more than an exotic ornament for the Viennese upper classes? And might he himself not have colluded a little? Clearly, he enjoyed his rise to polite society and becoming Grand Master of the Masonic lodge was no mean feat. Mozart was already in his grave when Soliman died and so we can only guess at what his reaction to his friend’s fate would have been, but I think it is fair to say he would have been horrified. There has rarely been a great artist in whom one may locate a deeper sense of justice. It informs virtually all his operas, at the end of each there is always a resolution, something which directors today would do well to recognise. Mozart may have been a smutty brat at times, a gambler and a profligate, but there was an abundance of truth, beauty and loyalty in his nature.    

When I began to pull together these memories of Vienna I was in the process of going through my mother’s effects, two boxes I had shipped over from Canada, which contained books, photographs, old passports and such letters as she had allowed to survive. Included was a copy of The Illustrated London News, for the week ending Saturday 21 June 1845. Why it was there, I can’t say. I skimmed through the pages to see if there was anything that might relate to family history. There wasn’t. Almost immediately, though, my eye fell on a small notice in the section titled ‘Epitome of News – Foreign and Domestic’.  

Os-keoau-mai, the wife of Little Wolf, one of the Ioway Indians, died last week in Paris, of an affection of the lungs, brought on by grief for the death of her young child in London. Her husband was unremitting in his endeavours to console her and restore her to the love of life, but she constantly replied – ‘No! no! My four children recall me. I see them by the side of the Great Spirit. They stretch out their arms to me, and are astonished that I do not join them.’

This spoke directly to the sense of displacement that marked Angelo Soliman’s strange and not wholly unhappy life. Why was the Ioway woman in Paris, so far away from home? My researches led me from her to the American painter George Catlin, who probably was neither wholly bad nor wholly good, his flaws barely distinguishable from his virtues. Catlin brought to Europe several members of the Ioway tribe, whose purpose was to bring his paintings of them to life. It was what in modern parlance we’d call a sales pitch. The Ioway chiefs for their part were curious to see of what exactly their white settlers were made. They, however, were the ones on display. Charles Baudelaire, who attended the exhibition, remarks on ‘the proud, free character and the noble expression of these splendid fellows’, although in calling them savages he fails to rise above the tenor of the times. We can’t really judge him from our self-righteous perspective. The printed notice in the Illustrated London News was a tiny window into an immense tragedy. When I copied it out for a friend of mine, he immediately replied, saying it would be a perfect starting point for an opera. He was not being facetious. Maybe my mother was sending me a message. Although she was a difficult woman, when it came to the oppressed of this world she was sympathetic to the point of disliking all else.

The next snippet of news following that of Os-keoau-mai’s death is rather more mundane, but what caught my eye was, although hardly worthy of note, its geographical location:

The Austrian papers announce that a merchant of Venice has obtained permission to construct a railway from Verona to Bregenz, by way of Roerede, Tirent, Bolzin, Meran, Landeck, and Feldkirch, to effect a close communication between the Austrian seaports. The plan is said to have been very favourably received at Vienna.

Vienna is not a place I’d choose to live. Firstly, there is the food, the ubiquitous Wiener schnitzel, a clumsy relative of the Italian cotoletta alla milanese. Apparently, Austrians enjoy it enough to make an evening of it at a restaurant, when they can have it just as easily at home, more cheaply too. All you need is a frying pan and a sufficient lack of finesse. And then my friend Eric Ormsby singles out for special praise the Tafelspitz, what many of us would call boiled meat, but then what’s to be said of a man for whom the hot dog is the epitome of high cuisine? The pastries, though, are divine. Secondly, the coffee, though excellent, is expensive. Thirdly, when one turns the corner of any street, one finds exactly what one expects to see, the city’s architectural regularity being one of the things for which it is accorded praise. I abhor the straight line. These things aside, and, after all, nobody is inviting me to live there, I’m glad I went so that I might bury the hatchet I’d kept sharp for four decades. Surely a city that brought out the best in Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and Mahler ought to bring out the better in me. Most vitally, I had been forced back upon myself into a deeper consideration of the soul or whatever it was that Vienna drew out of me. I wonder if what we call soul is not in fact a conduit to the interconnectedness between all things whereby it might be possible, after quitting our shells, to take up residence inside a bird’s song.  

String theory is, poetically, the most satisfying of all theories, even or maybe especially to those who don’t understand it. The idea that all forces in the universe, even those that would appear unrelated, are part of a single framework is perhaps the closest we can come to any understanding of what we call God, or, in keeping with ancient pagan thinkers – for what is a pagan but a Christian parboiled – a synthesis of all nature’s forces. I seek a connection between all this: these are distances the stammering mind cannot hold.

I have not yet unpicked all the tangles in Hersch’s weighty opus, nor am I ever likely to. I don’t know whether the marble bust really is Petrarch’s Laura, nor, again, am I ever likely to, and what it would be to know of what Mozart and Angelo Soliman spake, but if, as certain physicists argue, there’ll come a point when time goes backwards, the wait will be a long one. What was it about Vienna and its willowy muse that I should have been rewarded not once, not twice, but thrice?

This article is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

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