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Introduction * Schubert the Composer * Schubert's Times * Schubert's Vienna

Schubert's Vienna

Vienna is the centre of the classical music world. More great composers have lived and worked here than in any other city on earth: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, to name just a few. As far back as the thirteenth century, the land around Vienna was resounding with music. In 1543 one musician announced that "I praise this place above all lands; more players and instruments could surely nowhere be found."

How did Vienna come to be such a musical city? Was it by accident? Not really. It probably happened because Vienna stood at the crossroads of many trade routes for over two thousand years, and commerce always brings with it culture and a demand for entertainment. The Vienna Schubert was born into in 1797 was a prosperous city, but it was also a city that had seen much political unrest and military action. Twice during his boyhood, when he was eight and again when he was twelve, Napoleon's forces occupied the city. On one occasion, a canon ball landed right outside his school; another shell actually went through the roof. Scary times!

Vienna : A happenin' place

Vienna had a fairly large middle class, and these people needed something to do during their free time. There were no TVs, radios, computer games, movies or theme parks in those days. But there were a large number of theatres where one could see plays and operas. Concerts given by small groups of musicians were also popular, usually given in small halls holding no more than a few hundred people. Tickets were reasonably priced, costing around one or two florins ($2-4 Canadian today).

Many middle-class homes had a piano, and music publishers did a good business selling short, easy pieces and arrangements for amateurs to play. People enjoyed listening to music played in private homes (Hausmusik), music played by wind ensembles outdoors (Harmoniemusik), music played by string groups in the Prater (Vienna's huge, world-famous amusement park - Take a look at the interactive map of Vienna. The Prater is still there!) [link to interactive map] and to music churned out by organ grinders on street corners. Even the buildings themselves seemed to make music, with their musical clocks that turned out tunes on the hour. Yes, Vienna was - and still is - a city where music seemed to be everywhere.


The Viennese love coffee. There were no Starbucks, Second Cups or Café Dépôts in Schubert's time, but there were dozens of coffee houses large and small where people went to socialize, exchange gossip, stare, gamble, make business deals, play cards or chess, read a book or newspaper, listen to a poetry reading, have a snack, maybe catch a snooze and, yes, even have a cup of coffee.

Vienna's coffee craze was born back in 1683 (more than a century before Schubert arrived on the scene). When the invading Turks left Vienna that year, they abandoned hundreds of sacks of coffee beans. The Emperor gave a man named Franz George Kolschitzky some of this coffee as a reward for providing information that allowed the Austrians to defeat the Turks. Kolschitzky then opened Vienna's first coffee shop. The Viennese passion for coffee continues to this day. In Schubert's time, some of the places he liked to go were called Bogner's and Zum Anker. Take a look at the interactive map of Vienna. Coffee shops from long ago are still standing!

Lookin' Good

Balls were extremely popular. In 1832, for instance, there were 772 balls held in Vienna, attended by 200, 000 people - half the population of the city! Of course, to go dancing you needed (or thought you needed!) special clothes. For the ladies, simplicity combined with classical elegance was "the look." Their dresses had long, flowing trains, the fabric was clingy soft, necklines were low, and restrictive corsets were left at home. Women combed their hair back and gathered it in ringlets or coils at the back of the head.

For men, shoes without buckles were the "in" thing. They often wore full-length trousers (associated with workmen) rather than knee-breeches (a sign of the aristocracy). Hair was short, with a casually tousled look. Some men whitened their hands with bleach, reddened their faces with rouge, and covered their body odor with lots of cologne. (A daily shower was not common in those days!) People were obviously just as fashion-conscious then as they are today!


Did the Viennese ever love to dance! People everywhere have always liked dancing, but in Vienna it was something special. Like music-making and coffee-drinking, it became another fashionable middle-class concern. Minuets, contredanses, polkas, Ländlers, marches and other dances were popular. But beginning about the time Schubert was a teenager, the waltz took over. Aristocrats, the middle class and the poor - everyone got into the act. We think of the waltz today as a classy, elegant dance. But in 1815 it was still considered slightly scandalous and naughty. Of course, that didn't stop many people from doing it!

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