Sail on ‘the world’s most musical river’
This superb voyage combines history and harmony as you travel along the Danube
The Danube has a good claim to be the world’s most musical waterway. The composers that were born or flourished near its course include some of the greatest names of all time: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Johann Strauss I and II. One city on the Danube in particular, Vienna, has a claim to be the nervecentre of the classical tradition.
But it’s not the river’s only important musical hub. And the thing we call ‘Viennese classicism’ didn’t spring out of nowhere. Before its inventor Joseph Haydn came on the scene, the cities, monasteries and princely courts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had already nurtured a fabulously rich musical culture, over more than five centuries. You may not have heard of Ludwig Senfl, Heinrich Isaac, and Johann Jacob Froberger, but they were all fine composers.
What made the musical culture of the Danube area so rich was its extraordinary mix of cultures. The rich Habsburg courts of Salzburg and Vienna attracted Protestant Germans from the North, Flemish masters of church polyphony, French dancing-masters, Bohemian virtuosos, then Italians with their traditions of opera and Baroque concerto.
Then there were the things that were specifically Austrian or Viennese. The Viennese love of satire produced a great tradition of comic theatre. And Vienna was a vital centre for the German-language form of opera with spoken dialogue, known as the Singspiel.
All these things came together in the mid 18th century, in a miraculous way. Look closely at the early quartets of Mozart, as we will be doing in the company of the Ruisi Quartet, and you can see traces of the old courtly serenade and after-dinner Tafelmusik of the princely courts. Haydn’s minuets often reflect the earthiness of the peasant dances he heard on the Hungarian plains near the Esterháza Palace. Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio and numerous instrumental works embrace the Turkish ‘Other’, and his Magic Flute is the greatest of all Singspiels.
With Beethoven the music of Vienna changed. It became dynamic and bourgeois, rather than aristocratic and leisurely, though in his later works you can hear the beginnings of nostalgia for the old ways. By the time we got to Brahms and Johann Strauss (father and son), nostalgia for the bucolic and easy-going ‘Old Vienna’ had taken over.
We can’t explore all this in depth, but we can certainly get a little closer to understanding why this meandering waterway spawned such a rich musical culture. And as we explore, we’ll enjoy some wonderful music.