Our family was shocked when your great-grandmother asked for her remains to be scattered in Vienna.
Not once during the years she helped raise your mother and I had she mentioned her life before immigrating to America in the 1930s. It was only when the Müllner family began to visit every summer that we learned second-hand snippets of what had happened and how terrible her fortune had been. Her life had been lost, in a certain sense, though she was condemned to remain living. Yet “It can be no other place,” she cried from her deathbed in that thick Austrian accent of hers, “no other place but Vienna.”
Just now, Ada, when the nurse switched off the television, I was watching a group of experts on the news bickering about the new budget the president has proposed so he can build that wall of his, and it reminded me of what we talked about when you drove me to chemotherapy last month. One of the panel’s guests, a staunch conservative wishing to return the country to some fantastic lost pastime, remarked that millennials like you wouldn’t be having such a difficult time if only you stopped “following your passion” and instead chose a useful degree—thus somehow justifying President Trump’s plan to eliminate all federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
The issue has weighed on your mind lately, I know. The world already has Bach, Beethoven and Bieber; what more could you add by pursuing music and risking a life of financial poverty? Without giving it much thought, I nearly agreed with your decision to forgo this path, as well as the pundit’s opinion–that is, until I recalled your great-grandmother’s deathbed request. For it was this unexpected wish of hers that put me on the road to Vienna in search of a lost requiem.
It was 1987, back when you were still in diapers. I was alone at Urli’s (as you know her) bedside just days before she passed. Despite knowing she didn’t have long, a wide smile stayed straightening out her gaunt and wrinkled face. Never would I have expected such a strange calmness from someone facing imminent death. Confused, I inquired as to why, and for the first time she shared with me a specific memory from her youth in Austria, one she had clung to like a child to a mother’s loving hand.
It happened in the winter of 1901, when she was six years old. Her parents had taken her to the Wiener Musikverein concert building on Vienna’s Karlsplatz for a rare performance of Franz von Suppé’s Requiem in D minor. The audience of von Suppé admirers easily filled the building’s Großer Musikvereinssaal, a large wooden hall layered in gold with such renown acoustics that since 1870, when the building was first opened, little of it has been changed out of fear that whatever makes the acoustics so good will be ruined. You might already know this building, Ada. It’s where the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performs their annual New Year’s Day concert.
The Requiem’s performance that evening, held by members of Vienna’s distinguished society for the arts, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music in Vienna), was a unique musical event. The composer, who had died in 1895, had long-insisted that his lesser-known requiem piece, or Missa pro defunctis (the Catholic Church’s Mass for the dead), being one of his few solemn liturgical works, be used only in religious settings, confined within the sacred walls of the church–i.e. never to be performed as mere entertainment.
The 13-part composition, which had elements of Gregorian chant, Slavic and Hungarian folk music and Italian Opera, premiered on 22 November 1855 in the small baroque Piarist Church in Vienna’s suburb district of Josefstadt. It was then performed from time to time in the 1850s and 60s in various small churches throughout eastern Austria, but only as a Mass dedicated to a few select deceased members of the public. As the years passed, the Requiem was performed less and less, until even von Suppé’s most devoted followers were unaware he had written it.
Therefore, in 1901, with the composer long-dead, the Wiener Musikverein concert was the first occasion the Requiem was performed purely for the enjoyment of an audience.
At this point, Ada, I ask you to refrain from going online and digging up whatever clickable information you can find on von Suppé. All you need know now is that he was a popular Viennese composer during the city’s era of economic expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century, the so-called Gründerzeit era, or “age of the founders” (of Viennese liberalism, akin to England’s Victorian age). Composers Johann Strauss Jr., Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms also lived in Vienna during this time.
Von Suppé was known from this era as the founder of the German operetta, the overtures for which he is still somewhat known today (an operetta being a light and overly-sentimental form of opera made famous by French composer Jacques Offenbach). You might recognize several of von Suppé’s most energetic and grandiose pieces from Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse or Animaniacs cartoons. Well-suited to this medium, his music is fierce and theatrical, like Offenbach’s can-can or Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, often alternating with abruptness between fast and slow melodies. Feel free to listen to some of von Suppé’s most popular works: Leichte Kavallerie (Light Cavalry–1866), Ein Morgen, ein Mittag, ein Abend in Wien (Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna–1844), and Dichter und Bauer (Poet and Peasant–1846).
However, for the full impact of what I’m about to tell you, or rather confess to you, avoid looking up more information until the time is right.
– End of Sample