Finding your rhythm in Vienna

From Mozart to marching bands to balls and boy’s choirs, for most visitors, often the most difficult part is cutting through the noise to find the music scene that suits them best.

They call Vienna the city of music, but there is more than one way to find your rhythm in this classical city. From Mozart to marching bands to balls and boy’s choirs, for most visitors, often the most difficult part is cutting through the noise to find the music scene that suits them best.

The poster child for Vienna’s music scene is, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Austrian musician and composer who completed his first composition at the age of five. He won the heart of the city and the Royal Court after performing for Empress Maria Theresa in 1762 at the age of six, climbing into her lap after his performance and giving her a kiss.

Mozart lived in more than a dozen homes in Vienna (his neighbours must not have been wild about the racket he made), each adorned with a special plaque. One home in the 1st District, Mozarthaus, is now a museum that looks at Vienna in the time of Mozart and includes a recreation of his apartments.

The tourist office has a great Mozart Walk available for download – though do not be surprised if you bump into him along the street; someone dressed in his likeness can be found on nearly every major boulevard, selling tickets to tourist-oriented concerts held in palaces and ballrooms throughout the city. Quality varies according to price, but most of these performances offer a decent night out, featuring a mixed programme that often includes the works of Johann Strauss and Mozart, and features an orchestra, soprano, baritone and a ballet couple.

One of the most celebrated nightly performances is held in the Schonbrunn Palace Orangery in the 13th District, on the same palace grounds where Mozart performed for Empress Maria Theresa.

But Mozart is not the only boy wonder in Vienna. Today, just as famous is the Vienna Boys Choir. Originating in 1498, the 100 or so choirboys perform in Vienna and around the world as ambassadors for the city.

Catch a performance of the choir during Holy Communion in the Hofburg Chapel, held each Sunday at around 9 am from September to June – although be aware, while you can hear them, often you cannot see them due to the chapel’s tight configuration. Plus, you have to sit through a rather lengthy church service in German on hardback chairs.  Standing room is free, however, and seated tickets can be pre-booked. 

If you would rather see the choir perform, visit the city’s newest concert hall, which opened in December 2012 next to the Augarten Palace in the 2nd District. Called MuTh, the theatre seats 400 and will host regular performances by the choir.

The darling music venue of the city is, of course, the Vienna State Opera House in the 1st District. The iconic building opened in 1869 and is a visual feast with sumptuous interiors. Damaged during World War II, it was rebuilt and refurbished to its original splendour, reopening in 1955 – although the 60,000 bees who live in hives on the roof are a recent eco-friendly innovation.

Tickets for the Vienna State Opera are often sold out months in advance, but there are ways to get bargain tickets for next to nothing. Inexpensive standing room seats are sold 80 minutes before the performance at a separate box office on Operngasse street. If you miss out, the opera is telecast on big screens outside the opera house in April, May, June and September, so you can catch as little or as much of the performance as you wish. Best of all? Standing outside, the show is free.

Also on the free and fabulous list is the weekly performance by the Hoch-und Deutschmeister marching band, held at 10:45 am Saturday between May to October. The band heads up Kohlmarkt street to the inner Burghof courtyard, putting on a 40-minute summer spectacle that draws the crowds with music from Johann Strauss, Franz Lehár, Carl Michael Ziehrer and Robert Stolz.

If your toe tapping needs to be taken to the next level, consider visiting Vienna during ball season, which runs from New Year’s Eve to the end of February. More than 450 balls take place during this time, held in the city’s palace and chambers.

The waltz is sacred to Viennese high society, and rules are so strict that if you want to take part in any of the exclusive opening balls, a mastery of the Viennese waltz reverse turn (which for non-dance folk means, basically, to the left) is required by all ball committees. Those who need to brush up on their moves should book a private dance lesson at Elmayer in the 1st District, a famous dance school established in 1919.

Just across the road from Elmayer is another famous dancing institution: the Spanish Riding School, home of the dancing horses. The stunning white Lipizzaner stallions perform twice a week, and less expensive morning training sessions are open to the public on a first come, first served basis, starting at 9 am.

While Vienna’s music scene can seem a little formal and traditional, there are plenty of contemporary grooves in the city; most summer evenings there are hip hop, soul and funk performances in the Museum Quarter. In its third decade of operation, legendary night club U4 in the 12th District provides electronic beats until the early hours six days a week.

Of course, finding the rhythm in Vienna can also mean a quiet stroll through the Baroque streets at night, a meander along the banks of the Danube or just stirring a cup of coffee in a cafe. After all, Mozart himself, the city’s unofficial ambassador put it best: “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”