The Goldener Saal (‘Golden Hall’) of the MusikvereinThomas Joashi

Disclaimer: This article was originally written before escalations in the current pandemic outbreak. Tom has since had to leave Vienna and all concerts at the Musikverein have been cancelled. What was once an ode to his favourite concert house has now become a eulogy, for the time being at least.

There are ten minutes before the performance is to begin. The hall is submerged in a sea of tailored suits and combed white hair, horn-rimmed glasses and colourful ties. The air is thick with the somewhat stifling redolence of expensive perfume. The familiar din of stray strings and warm brass fills the room as the musicians tune up; far louder yet is the clamour of pleasantries and vigorous small talk among the audience, for these characters all know one another.

It seems that way at least. The proud figures of classical heroes, glowing in the light of great chandeliers, dance about the walls and ceiling of the Musikverein’s Goldener Saal. The regulars perhaps imagine these surfaces to be mirrored. Around three times a week this exact scene plays out; and it follows the same script each time.

The Wiener Musikverein is Vienna’s principal concert house, first opened in 1870 during the city’s period of great modernisation and growth in bourgeois culture. Down came the city walls of a bygone, ‘barbaric’ medieval age, up from the rubble rose a shiny new ring road, elegant white townhouses and neo-classical temples of culture. Fast-forward to the present day and the Musikverein is now renowned throughout the world of Western classical music, home of the Wiener Philharmoniker and cathedral of the melodically devout.

“The Musikverein is a social space for members of the elderly Viennese high society; one here sees and is seen.”

I am on my year abroad here in the Austrian capital. Thanks to the financial support of the Erasmus program and the heavily-subsidised ‘Club20’ subscription scheme, I have regularly attended concerts at the Musikverein, almost once a week; after my fourth or fifth trip, I began to notice certain quirks and curiosities I believe unique to this experience.

The Musikverein is a social space for members of the elderly Viennese high society; one here sees and is seen. But to those foreign to such circles – say, perhaps, a curious 22-year-old with an overactive imagination and little better to do – it is a theatre. In some distant hall of this colossal structure there sit tourists, lured in by charming men in 18th century jackets outside St Stephen’s Cathedral; they watch the somewhat kitschy Wiener Mozart Orchestra, the performers dressed up in the garish outfits of Enlightenment lords and ladies, as they scratch out the overture from ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’.

The great irony is that this concert house’s true rococo spectacle and those very real members of the Ancien Régime are all, in fact, to be found within its largest hall. It is all the more dramatic for the collective refusal to acknowledge it.

In January, I attended a concert that marked the Musikverein’s 150th birthday. Under the great Riccardo Muti, the Wiener Philharmoniker performed a program of the classics, concluding on Beethoven’s heroic – and rather overplayed – 5th symphony. Perhaps due to the significance of the occasion, the audience comprised far more non-pompous punters and curious tourists in addition to the usual ceremonious suspects. For some of them it may have been their first classical concert; at the end of the symphony’s first movement a handful of spectators began enthusiastically to clap, before sensing their mistake and stopping.

“ an exchange student, soon to return home, it is easy for me to laugh and enjoy these oddities.”

Clapping between the movements of a full work is a venial sin of which most fans of the genre have once been guilty. It is merely frowned upon for the disturbance made to the overall impression of the piece, usually. Yet that evening, in response to a hesitant trickle of ingenuous applause in this particular concert hall there rose up such a great symphony of sighs, tuts and sniggers; never before had I heard such audible outrage over the infringement of concert house conduct, far louder than the crime itself.

And what was so wonderfully ridiculous about such an exaggerated display of horror was our Musikverein character’s perceived enjoyment thereof, in distinctly pantomime fashion. I felt that many of them had turned up explicitly for that confirmation of superior taste and their adherence to something exclusive.

On another occasion, I was amazed to hear members of the audience booing a performance – much as one boos Cinderella’s evil stepmother – of the contemporary composer Jörg Widmann’s ‘Con Brio’. Having mentioned this at a later date to a professional tenor and native of the city, I was informed that as these upstanding members of society had paid good money for their tickets they reserved the right to react however they jolly well pleased, thank you very much.


Mountain View

Coronavirus and my year abroad

Naturally, this concert house has its celebrities; in the figure of Rudolph Buchbinder, homegrown Wiener and great interpreter of Beethoven’s piano works, I believe it even has its monarch. Buchbinder is decidedly regal in character, his thick, long hair perfectly coiffed, his gaze gentle and benevolent. I have seen him on occasion in the audience, greeting nervous fans as they fawned and swooned. He appears to know each and every guest. I assume he knows me too.

Following a performance of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto (aptly titled ‘Emperor’), Buchbinder took a seat on the balcony, apparently to watch the rest of the concert. Yet every time I looked up at him I was certain that he was staring back at me. I believe that all who looked up saw the same; from his throne in the middle of the hall’s left side the Goldener Saal became the Goldenes Panoptikum.

Entertainment in the Musikverein is layered, provided in all forms for all in attendance. Elements of farce are never too distant, no matter the gravity of the performance. And as an exchange student, soon to return home, it is easy for me to laugh and enjoy these oddities.

I must admit that, as one of the audience’s select few with black hair and brown skin, I did at first feel a tad uncomfortable. I noticed an increase in the civility with which I was treated upon starting to dress a little smarter. But laughing helps. Henri Bergson held the comic as resulting from an inelasticity of character; he viewed laughter as corrective, smoothing out such rigidities through ridicule.

‘Any image, then, suggestive of the notion of a society disguising itself, or of a social masquerade, so to speak, will be laughable.’ While I am here I shall maintain my critical distance. Sat comfortably within this theatrical world of classical music, I shall enjoy the full show for all that it is.

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