In a city of music, the silence deafened me. My balcony had become a riot of twittering and chirruping. At the Belvedere, I could make out the song of melodious coaltits and cacophonous jackdaws. And the barking of dachshunds and shih tzus resounded in anxious courtyards, into which I ventured with the sureness of a neighbour. But the city’s churches and concert-halls and opera-houses – there are no less than four – stood empty and silent.
Later that sunny March morning, I zigzagged, driven by increasingly parched hope, from one coffeehouse to another. I could discern no porcelain-led percussion, no cake-fuelled gossip, no hyper-caffeinated babel, no fork clinking against k.u.k. saucer. On the deserted streets, sightseers having suddenly stopped streaming from coaches to clink small change in their instrument cases, the buskers and their saxophones and panpipes and trumpets – the Zauberflöte is not the only flute, here – were nowhere to be heard.
The calm before the viral storm?
I had caught wind that the Café Central – that Parthenon of patisserie, cloister of cappuccinos – was a last bastion… But no! In two or three uncertain days, I had witnessed its slump from brisk trade to ghoulish quiet – and now to sealed-and-cordoned closure. No more garrulous strudel-lovers spilling onto the streets, no more queues patiently awaiting Esterházytorte, with the staccato of Fiaker hooves as soundtrack. I had no reason to implore, “Please spare the horses, Jakob!” – everyone was already at home, confined until it was safe to venture out.
I read the laconic café sign out loud to myself, breaking a brittle silence that ricocheted like a hammer-blow from the cochineal-streaked columns within. This Establishment Is Closed Until Further Notice – Thank You For Your Understanding.
What I could hear, deep in my ear’s labyrinth, were mysterious rumours from Wuhan, snow-muffled panic blowing in from the Tyrol, the confused hush of evacuated ski-resorts in the not-so-distant Alps – and now the murmur of ‘lockdown’, when nobody knew exactly what that meant. The very word, as yet rough-hewn, clattered on the cobbles like glass shards on a granite threshing-floor. I felt utterly helpless as, before me, anonymous contagion silenced every Heuriger and Konditorei and Beisl across a city where wine and song are as vital as air and water.
Even on cold days, locals and visitors alike will throng the Graben, Vienna’s central oblong – more handsomely proportioned than the woeful Stephansplatz from which it extends, a proud scion far outgrowing its blighted parent. That midday I stood almost alone, transfixed by a sole soprano – melancholically Russian, Siberian perhaps? – who sang Rachmaninov songs to a tiny knot of downcast Viennese, plus me. We all stared admiringly, and cravingly, at the singer’s icon face while stealing glances at the Pestsäule behind.
Standing loftily disconsolate midway along the designer-shop-lined street – like a half-melted wedding-cake decoration of white and gold – the ‘Plague Column’ was built at the behest of Emperor Leopold the First after an epidemic of flea-borne pestilence that butchered thousands of sinners but spared the innocent. Now, nearly 350 years on, I watched this baroque cone of allegory and confession – a monument generally overlooked by latter-day shoppers and tourists noisily in search of a precious café seat – suddenly metamorphosing into a taciturn warning of cataclysm.
In awe, I observed as it conducted the plaintive notes of Kak mne bolna! (‘Sorrow in Springtime’) from the bouquet-strewn balustrade of its pedestal up to the gilded Trinity perched on high, all glinting crosses and double-headed eagles and provincial arms, leaving the flagstones below silent, burnished by the song.
Then my ears began to throb, aching from the tundra-chilled dirge, like an easterly blasting in from the High Tatras. The very echo of my footsteps mocked my Angst. But this city always, I recalled, rewards the walker. Now where? The Musikverein was closed, dumb; the Volksoper quarantined, scarcely whispering; the Staatsoper padlocked and still: not even wartime had gagged it so brutally. Vienna, the doyenne of orchestral conductors, had to take up the baton. Ah! Rossinigasse! Bellinigasse! Puccinigasse! As if by magic, the street names broke the music-starved silence.
First, I strode around Beethovenplatz, where a loudly provocative Ludwig looked down at me, almost leering. When the maestro’s deafness became tolerable no longer, I strolled along Mariahilferstrasse, hoping the Haydn statue might compose uplifting symphonies for my benefit. But his flinty countenance, so unlike his music, struck me as dour and judgemental.
And then, diapason! Little Brahmsplatz, with its harmonious monument to Johannes, both inspired me and calmed me. I very nearly plucked the stone lyre beneath his feet, as his violin concerto in D major played in my head.
Finally, as if by fate, I turned the corner into Vienna’s quietest street of all: Taubstummengasse, named after an imperial school for deaf-mute children. Long gone, pupils and all.