RClément Vautel recently lamented the demise of Parisian bohème in the Paris Journal on the occasion of Henry Murger’s 100th birthday. Vienna, the city where Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Haydn, Strauss and the composers of most of the best modern musical comedies lived and worked – this cheerful and beautiful city, where art is a living thing, could only be surpassed by Paris Cult of bohemian, and like the Rodolphs and Marcels, the Chaunards and Collines had their Café Momus and the later generation of bohemians led by Verlaine, Mérimée, Manet, Degas, their Closerie de Lilas, Nouvelle Athene and Café d’Harcourt, in other words four generations of Viennese art that were closely linked to the café.
The café here has replaced home. The student spent most of his free time – and too many of his study hours – doing it. Lawyers and merchants met in the café to discuss their cases or conduct their business. The scientist went to a cafe where he could read the world’s most important scientific treatises for the price of a cup of coffee. The man on the street went there to read the Viennese daily newspapers and maybe the German, English and French magazines. The housewife was served the latest “Fashion Blatter” and chose her seasonal clothes from it. All the news in the world was available for 40 Heller or a “mocha coffee”, and while the café visitor read or chatted, he could listen to a first-class orchestra playing Italian or German operas and sweet Viennese songs.
The old Viennese café was a bourgeois institution. The middle class and the intelligentsia were constant patrons. But this middle class has become so poor and desperate that they can no longer afford even the small price of a cup of coffee. The old bohemian is slowly disappearing. The younger generation tends to frequent the club. And so the famous old cafes are gradually closing. The famous Café l’Europe was one of the first to close – almost a year ago. It was familiar to tourists. It was directly opposite St. Stephen’s Church, Vienna Cathedral, and many English people will remember the beautiful view of the Domspitze from the café terrace. Financiers, famous merchants and actors used to visit “Europe”. The disappearance of the Café Fenstergucker, formerly on Kärntner Strasse, near the Opera, is a natural consequence of the demise of the old military class. The members of the Austrian General Staff have met here for at least two generations. Although Konrad von Hotzendörf rarely visited the café, his predecessor, General Schemus, was a daily guest, and virtually all other members of the General Staff were regular visitors. With the collapse of the Reich, the General Staff died and with the General Staff, the Café Fenstergucker went. Symbolic of Vienna’s transformation, the old café has been converted into a bank, as has the other famous café on Wipplingerstrasse, where Austria’s interior ministers for three generations, the Bachs and Schmerlings, took their second breakfast. Other cafes have been converted into fur shops, car showrooms and the like.
More than any other area, the Viennese café played a role in the city’s artistic life, especially in music. Gluck and Haydn belonged to the pre-coffee hour; but Beethoven loved the café. He was a restless soul; he constantly changed his places of residence in and around Vienna, and as often as he changed his place of residence, he also changed his café. The small cafés around the Schwarzspanierhaus have the richest memories of him. In these dingy little places where Beethoven often came to sip his Mocha Schwartz, many sweet-sounding consonances were devised. Mozart was restless too. However, we do know that the small café in one of the courtyards of the old labyrinth of houses called “Freshaus” in the heart of Vienna witnessed the birth of many of The Magic Flute’s most beautiful passages. Up until a few years ago, there was a dirty little place called Silberne on Plankengasse near the Neuer Markt. Here Schubert composed many of his most beautiful songs, and here he met his friends – Beethoven and the famous Austrian playwright Griliparzer. Brahms, the other of the great Viennese musicians, often frequented the café Apple, behind the Technical University. It was a café frequented mainly by students, but Brahms’s usual table was also here, where he enjoyed his coffee and met his friends every afternoon. The café was near his home on Karlsgasse, and he and his friends played billiards and skittles there every day.
Another man who loved cafes and billiards was Johann Strauss, the “Waltz King”, composer of the Blue Danube. He was used to meeting his friends in the café Dobner, on Linke Wienzeile, and used to watch a game of billiards with his friends every afternoon. The cafe The Dobner was and is a typical theater café where actors and actresses meet. The “actor exchange” takes place here at Easter. All provincial actors seek, find and renew engagements around the small marble tables of this café. Artists and variety people have their “Börse” or fair in the Artisten Café, near the Praterstern. The Gay Knights, the first actors’ union (which existed before people knew the word union), was based in this cafe.
So the café played a big part in the life of Vienna, and now it’s passing away. One is tempted to ask: is the decline of the café a sign of the decline of the arts in Vienna? Who knows? Mayer, the corpulent bass of the Vienna Opera, still goes to the opera café almost every day. But the once crowded singers’ table is almost empty. The beautiful blonde, ever-smiling Jeritza, who once sat here every day, wows audiences at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and, one fears, takes on the airs and hauteur of the American prima donna and loses her old democratic, free, bohemian spirit.
The scientist, the student, all too often cannot afford to go to the café in these dark days. That nouveau riche are snobbish and contemplate the cafe below them. The only class that can afford the café are the workers, and the working class is also changing in its psychology. The worker is machinized, tired and mentally jaded from eight hours of work on the machine. The café, with its coffee and gossip and its newspapers, offers him little entertainment. Instead, he looks for the cinema – and drinks. The decline of the café is marked by the rise of the inn in Vienna in its specific form “The Heurige”. But the growth of the Heurigen is another story.
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