Seance with the Composers

An Allerheiligen excursion to the graves of presidents of old, musical minds and the nostalgia of Austria’s one-hit wonder

The monument at the grave of composer Johann Strauss Jr. | Photo: Stadt Wien

“In this section you find the composers and over here the famous actors.” The man at the gate points at the map of the cemetery.

“And over here you find Falco,” he adds.

It is the end of October and the weekend of the Allerheiligen, and the three of us – a visiting friend, my boyfriend and I – are about to enter the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna’s Central Cemetery. “You have to be back by ten to six, otherwise you risk to get locked in,” the man warns.  We glance at each other and look around us. The sun has already set and the few lampposts create strange shadows around the gravestones. We nod at the gatekeeper and promise to be back on time.

Our visitor for the weekend is a talented pianist with a great interest in classical composers. We sniff at the guard’s comment.  Why would we want to see the gravestone of the one-hit-wonder Austrian singer of  “Rock me, Amadeus!” –portraying Mozart as a punker – when we could visit the last resting place of the composer himself? We start walking along one of the long and dark alleys, and with a cell phone as our only source of light, we try to find our way.

We reach an intersection. Wide allies in all four directions, equally long, equally murky. I thought of the movie The Third Man that I recently saw for the first time, and as we stumble along the pathways between the graves, I understand why the characters visited the cemetery by car. This is a very big place: Opened in 1874, its 2.5 square kilometers make it the second largest cemetery in Europe by area and with 3.3 million interred, the largest by the number of old souls buried, double as many buried as the total current population of Vienna. We speed up our pace.

Finally, we reach the center of the graveyard, where the graves of former Austrian presidents are located. As it is Allerheiligen, the monuments are decorated with votive candles and large bouquets of flowers. We pass the area with Austrian actors and make it to our final destination:

Mozart’s gravestone, a tall and impressive monument decorated with the composer’s well-known silhouette.

“But Mozart is not actually buried here,” my pianist friend confesses. What? I feel cheated. He was buried in a massive pauper’s grave in Salzburg. And despite numerous attempts, no one has been able to identify his remains.  Disappointed, I have a look around; I want something more, a sense of connection. With the graves of Strauss (the Elder and the Younger), Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven to choose from, I turn toward Beethoven’s, who as far as anyone knows, is there for real.

Where did this desire come from to mingle with the dead, and with the remains of artists and composers? It’s as if they held some magic power, like the relics of a saint. To be honest, it is not first time I’ve been out tomb-spotting – a few years ago I paid a visit to Oscar Wilde´s grave in Paris. In my own defense, I hasten to say, at least I didn’t join the line of women leaving the moist mark of a kiss on the polished granite.

But there is something exciting at the idea of standing in front of the grave of someone so celebrated, knowing that this person actually lies in the ground below. The gap in time between our lives, in the case of Beethoven close to two centuries, is broken down to a physical distance of two tiny meters. But beyond that, I feel nothing. Where is the deeper connection we had all yearned for? Where is the powerful sense of the presence of the man beneath? I gazed at the headstones: the immortal composers would continue their final rest serenely unaware of our presence.

As the cemetery church clock strikes 5:30, we turn and hurry back. Darkness has fallen and, with the sanctuary candles playing in the   wind, the alleys look all the more mysterious. As we say good-bye to the man at the gate, I wonder if he wasn’t actually right in the end.  Maybe Falco is in fact the medium to connect us with Mozart. As children of the 1980s and brought up with multimedia and MTV music videos, maybe some simple beats and a corny video with Mozart rocking in a punker wig, is indeed what we need to bridge the two centuries that lie between.

When we got home, we decked ourselves out in makeshift wigs and long jackets, we put our pretensions aside and gave in to a round of Falco on YouTube. Maybe it was frustration. But it worked.

Come on! Rock us Amadeus!

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