Saturday, 29 December 2012

Reconstructing Salzburg

Salzburg is Mozartkugeln. Marzipan; a bit too sweet. Salzburg is Mozart. That's all you hear about.

In fact, Mozart may have been born here, but he didn't spend all that much time here - travelling about Europe as an infant prodigy, and getting out of Salzburg as soon as he could to make his fortune in Vienna. (A good plan, slightly spoiled in the execution, though according to some scholars he wasn't as poor as has been made out in the hagiographies.)

If we look at Salzburg through Mozartian glasses we will miss the most interesting historical moment - the moment when Salzburg changed decisively from a medieval cathedral city to a modern urban landscape. And if we get stuck into Mozart's Salzburg we'll also miss another composer worth listening to, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.

There's something revolutionary about Biber's music. His use of scordatura for instance, in which he uses different violin tunings to achieve particular effects (something guitarists are more used to, these days); he makes the violin a fully polyphonal instrument, creating huge landscapes of counterpoint out of just a few touched-in notes. He uses programmatic devices, such as the Battaglia, a depiction of military action in music, in which he introduced polytonality four centuries before Bartok and Stravinsky got hold of the idea, or uses birdsong as a base for a melody. He was fascinated by the attempt to create great metaphysical structures for his music; in the Mystery Sonatas, he portrays the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, starting in normal tuning and then moving through different scordature till he returns, in the final great Passacaglia, to normal tuning. He struck out on his own path, and it's a fascinating journey. (Listen to Andrew Manze playing the Passacaglia and you'll find it's a mystic mandala, slowly spiralling round until it has you completely hypnotised.)

Biber was born and spent the earliest part of his career in Bohemia; but he knew a good thing when he saw it, and having come to Salzburg on business, decided to stay on. That was in 1670; Biber spent the remaining 34 years of his life working for the Archbishop.

Salzburg then was way ahead of other cities in its development. That started with Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, Archbishop from 1587 to 1617, who commissioned a new baroque design for the cathedral and built the Mirabell palace, and started laying out the city with fine public squares and fountains - a development that continued under the next two archbishops, over the next half century. When Biber arrived in Salzburg the city had been transformed; it was the first fully baroque city north of the Alps, and he gave it the music it deserved.

Trying to see Salzburg through Biber's eyes is instructive. While Mozart saw a city under the autocratic, archaic rule of Archbishop Colloredo - and saw it from the perspective of a young man who had been feted in London, Paris, Munich and Vienna - Biber had spent his time in Kromeriz, a fine little town dominated by its Archbishop's Palace, but nothing like Salzburg. (It didn't even have a cathedral; the palace was only the summer palace for the Archbishop of Olomouc.) Biber would have seen Fischer von Erlach's Trinity Church with its dynamic curved facade being built - it was finished in 1702, two years before Biber's death; he would have seen the new Cajetaner church going up; he saw Fischer's Collegienkirche in the building, too, though he didn't live to see it finished. Baroque Salzburg was still a work in progress for Biber; for Mozart, it was a bit of the past.

When we travel, we reinvent cities, or reconstruct them. The Indian restaurants and sari shops of Whitechapel disappear when we explore Jack the Ripper's London; when we look at Shakespeare's London we don't see the Shard, or the Hop Exchange and the nineteenth-century industrial heritage of Southwark. Mozart's and Biber's Salzburgs are other constructs; but the difference is that in the case of Mozart, Salzburg has made an industry out of that reconstruction, while in the case of Biber, I had to do the work myself.

Sometimes the DIY reconstruction is the best; using the eyes of the imagination and a guidebook, or Wikipedia, to reconstruct the city of a certain time. (I worked with my father to do this on the Podtours Norwich 1450 guide - and that was fun, including the discovery of a medieval political chant and some major aldermanic skulduggery.) You are an archaeologist of the imagination. Defoe's London, or Blake's, would be interesting; or Mozart's Prague - if you must do Mozart...

You may be wondering what set off this post. Quite simple; on my last visit to Salzburg, noticing a plaque on a wall near the Franciscan church, commemorating Biber. And then having to put up with Eine Kleine Bloody Nachtmusik, for the hundred and eighty-ninth time, belching out of the loudspeakers at lunch.

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