JUL 22, 2001
A Vienna Museum for Would-Be Maestros
By PAUL HOFMANN
ANYONE who has daydreamed about becoming a famous maestro can fulfill
the fantasy at the House of Music, a museum that opened last year in
the heart of Vienna.
"Virtual Conductor," an interactive attraction, lets you step onto
a mockup of a podium (there's usually a line) and take up the baton.
On a giant screen in front of you, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
appears as if waiting for your directions.
As you launch into Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" or a Strauss
waltz, glancing at the score on a billboard to your right, the
musicians on the screen follow your tempi and rhythm. At the
end they get up and reward you with applause for your inspired
interpretation. Yet if you were to hopelessly butcher the music
they would interrupt the performance and protest vocally.
The orchestra-conducting attraction, whose software was developed
for the House of Music, is one of many multimedia wonders of the $55
million six-story complex.
Step into the sequence of halls and niches dedicated to the celebrated
composers who were born or lived in Vienna, and you will hear some
of the greatest music ever written. It is continuously piped in
stereo into the museum's rooms celebrating Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven,
Schubert, the Strausses, Mahler, and the Second Viennese School of
Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples Alban Berg and Anton von Webern.
Oddly, Brahms, who lived in Vienna as long as Beethoven did - 34
years - is missing. So are Anton Bruckner, Hugo Wolf and that champion
of the Viennese operetta, the Hungarian-born Franz Lehar.
In the theme rooms you can listen to outstanding renditions of your
favorite musical works, watch films on demand or consult databases.
Or you can just wander around and view the exhibitions that describe
the personality quirks and ways of life of the Viennese composers.
Facsimile pages from Haydn's journal, with dictated entries about
his activities on a given day, show how incredibly busy the seemingly
relaxed master was.
A letter from the 25-year-old Mozart to his father reads: "My desire
and hope is to earn honor, fame and money." Nearby is a reproduction
of the last notes he wrote, 10 years later - broke, mortally ill and
unable to complete his "Requiem." The tiny iron hearth on which
Beethoven's oft-changing and much-scolded servants prepared his frugal
meals is next to an array of his many ineffectual hearing trumpets.
A Biedermeier spinet and views of early-19th-century Vienna take us
into Schubert's world. There are pictures of the ballrooms where
Viennese couples whirled to Strauss waltzes; the rough trunk of a
mountain pine alludes to the tree house in which Mahler used to
compose during his Alpine vacations. All labels are in both German
A somber memorial, "Exodus," on the same floor pays tribute to Viennese
musicians who were driven into exile or murdered by the Nazis.
On the fifth floor is "Futuresphere," the realm of electronic music,
created in collaboration with the Media Lab of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. "Brain Opera," invented and composed by
Prof. Tod Machover of M.I.T., suggests possible musicmaking in the
new millennium. In a row of cubicles visitors can produce music of
their own on "hyperinstruments" that are played by touch, gesture,
speaking or singing. Fingers wander over a "melody easel," a screen
on which their pressure and position bring forth sounds and accompanying
The third-floor "Sonosphere" is a parade of elementary aural
experiences. From a large diagram of the human ear you stroll to an
audio gallery that ranges from the presumed sound perception of the
unborn to a multitude of noises and tones: the roar of a hurricane,
the smack of a Ping-Pong ball, the Manhattan medley of Broadway
traffic, the hiss of paper being torn.
The museum, which was opened in June 2000, is a private venture,
meant to reinforce Vienna's claim to the title of world capital of
music. Money for it came from the Vienna Civic Insurance Company
and the Siemens Corporation without any public subsidies; its promoters
hope that the operation will break even.
Stefan Seigner, an industrialist and part-time impresario, with
a team of five architects and a staff of experts and technicians,
created the institution in only 18 months. The project involved a
thorough reconstruction of the late-18th-century palace of Archduke
Charles of Hapsburg and installation of lots of high-tech equipment
for both classical music and futuristic audiovisual adventures.
The wedge-shaped museum, adjoining the Vienna State Music University,
was once the home of Otto Nicolai, the composer of the opera "The
Merry Wives of Windsor," principal conductor of the imperial theaters
and, in 1842, founder of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
A life-size mannequin of Nicolai in period dress, striking a mischievous
pose, graces a wainscoted hall of the Vienna Philharmonic Museum, on
the second floor, transferred to the House of Music from its former
seat in a nearby palace; it requires a separate admission ticket.
Its high-ceilinged rooms are filled with historic concert posters,
portraits of such guest conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Leonard
Bernstein, and a wealth of other mementos. Visitors can listen to
records of outstanding concerts by the famous orchestra.
The House of Music's top floor contains a hall, seating 130 people,
for live performances and a practice room. Regular events are held
in collaboration with various groups and artists; young talent and
avant-garde music are favored.
The Musicantino Restaurant, also on the top floor, affords a charming
view of the city's roofscape and of the 600-year-old Gothic steeple
of St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna's signature landmark.
It wouldn't be Vienna if there weren't also a coffeehouse on the
premises - on the ground floor, in the glass-roofed inner courtyard.
It's a pity there is no cafe pianist - once almost obligatory - softly
playing nostalgic tunes.
PAUL HOFMANN, a native of Vienna, is the author of "The Spell of the
Vienna Woods: Inspiration and Influence From Beethoven to Kafka"
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company