Sunday, 26 February 2012

Return to Vienna (2)

You mustn't hold it against me, this excessively romantic cast of mind. I couldn't rid myself of it, even if I wanted to. I know, you're all so pragmatic and down-to-earth, so sensible and clear-visioned, you've got your feet so firmly fixed on the ground that the following story may mean nothing to you. In fact, if I were you I should stop reading right now and do something sensible, like make a Yorkshire pudding, clean out the hamsters, pay the electricity bill and get your calceolarias in. Right? You've been warned...

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My first thought after leaving school at 18 was to get myself to Vienna to pay homage at the grave of Beethoven. His music had irradiated me, thrilled me, sent shivers down my adolescent spine, excited me to a world-view of limitless, Olympian joy. He had to be thanked. So I and a particularly complaisant friend set off hitch-hiking to Vienna. (A truncated version of this saga appears in the very earliest Lydian Airs posts, back in 2008. My friend, whose real name was Martin, is called George in that account, I don't know why. And as for 'Adèle', her real name was Gudrun.)

According to my information at the time Beethoven (d.1827) and Schubert (d.1828) lay side by side in a little park in the 18th district of Vienna. We found them easily, two elongated mounds with lichen-grown, obelisk-like headstones. On Schubert's headstone there was his name and a lyre. On Beethoven's there was his name and the figure of a butterfly carved into the stone. My information (a biography of Beethoven by Marion Scott) interpreted this butterfly as a symbol of freedom. I bowed the grateful knee. And touched my forelock respectfully to Schubert, whose music I loved too, but not with the same ardour that I felt for the Master. Duty done, we came home.

Then some years later I read, to my horror, that in 1874 the Vienna city council had opened a new municipal cemetery two or three miles out of town, the Zentral Friedhof, where the great and good, present and past, as well as the humble of Vienna would henceforth be buried. To this end they dug up Beethoven and Schubert from their little private graveyard and transferred what remained of their remains to new resting places with their fellow musicians. The quiet graves beside which I had paid homage had been empty. Schubert's lyre hardly respected the truth, and Beethoven's butterfly had flown.

So last week in Vienna, in fact on my birthday, and with J. as complaisant as my friend Martin had been, I put the record straight. I bought two red roses from a flower stall in the city centre, we took a taxi to the Zentral Friedhof, found the true graves and I laid a rose on each.

We came back to the city centre by one of the characteristic Viennese red and white trams. There were no means that we could find for buying tickets, so I'm afraid we bilked the fare. But next day we bought a book of 10 public transport tickets, valid equally for any journey by tram, bus or underground. We didn't use them all, so I suppose our consciences are clear.

And I feel I've discharged my obligations, even if it took me half a century to do so.

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