City of Dreams… friends of mine have been using their ‘social media’ accounts to circulate a rather wonderful piece of old footage that was filmed from a Viennese tram as it drove through that great imperial city more than 110 years ago. I’m always delighted to see such glimpses of long-vanished lives and the worlds that disappeared with them, so let me share the film here — in a form, and a context, that is slightly different from anything you’ll have found anywhere else.

For reasons that will become clear, it’ll take a few paragraphs to get to the clip itself; I think it will be worth the wait, so please don’t jump ahead…

Now, the date given for the film is 1906; and since the item appears to come from ‘Film Archiv Austria’ — which is a pretty serious outfit! — I’ve no reason at all to doubt its accuracy. As a result, I find myself looking at the scene and its people partly in the light of my knowledge of that particular year’s place within Vienna’s musical and intellectual history — my favourite bits of it, anyway.

Thus I think of Sigmund Freud, who was 50 years old in 1906 — and actually lived just a short walk from some of the streets we see. Depending on the precise date/s on which this footage was shot, it might even have been possible for one of those people to walk into a bookshop and buy one of his brand-new 1906 publications (My Views on the Part Played by Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses, perhaps, or Psycho-Analysis and the Establishment of the Facts in Legal Proceedings) — before going into a cafe to read and/or argue about it…

Vienna Hofoper (click for a larger image)

Then there is the glimpse we have of the Hofoper — the Vienna Court Opera — where, in 1906, the 46-year-old Gustav Mahler had been in charge for nine years. Depending, again, on precisely when this footage was shot, it’s not impossible that Mahler was actually inside the building — conducting a rehearsal, coaching a singer, doing paperwork, sitting in a meeting — though if the date was in the summer, he is more likely to have been at his country house in Maiernigg, polishing the orchestration of his Seventh Symphony or composing his Eighth…

Schoenberg in 1906: detail from the portrait by Richard Gerstl (1883-1908)

And then there is the 32-year-old Arnold Schoenberg — Viennese-born, unlike the other two! — who on 25 July 1906 completed his ‘First Chamber Symphony’ in E major, Op. 9, written for 15 solo instruments. It’s this ‘Kammersymphonie‘ that I am including here for people to try out as a sort of authentically historical soundtrack to the filmed sequence — if they feel like having one, of course. Just to be clear: I’m not suggesting that the music ‘fits’ the content of the film; nor am I even hinting obliquely that great art ‘expresses its time’, or any silliness like that. I simply think that it’s nice, once in a while, to see something being ‘returned home’, as it were — allowing people to see some vivid record of the very time and place in which certain thoughts were being thunk. (Yes, I know Schoenberg actually finished the Kammersymphonie while he was on holiday by the Tegernsee, in Bavaria; but you get my point…)

The performance I’ve chosen is a student one, and very impressive it is, too: there are a few things in it that I’ve never heard played as clearly or as comprehendingly in any other performance. (I also think the video suits this posting because the wood-panelled interior looks nicely old-fashioned…)

So, if that’s the music I’ve selected, we are almost ready to consider playing it together with the film clip. There’s one thing I need to point out first, however…

The clip that’s being shared around takes about 2 1/2 minutes from start to finish — and, in my opinion, it is actually quite irritating to watch … because the frame-rate at which it is being played is vastly greater than that at which it was filmed. This phenomenon — which persists only because of the appalling laziness of the very people who affect to value the world’s old filmic heritage — is something that I have hated with a passion since I was a small boy watching silent, black-and-white film of people walking, marching or dancing in stupidly fast and jerky ways, and not being able to do anything about it.

Well, now I am able to do something about it. I have today downloaded the film; made my own video version which plays back at a speed that is reduced by more than half; and re-uploaded this version to YouTube. So what you’ll see when you click on the panel below is something that takes well over 5 minutes to get through — and reveals a good deal of human and animal detail that simply was not visible previously. In particular, I am touched by the sight of the couple that lazily walks across the road, apparently deep in conversation. We will never, ever know who they were; but in their wholly anonymous way, they have entered the historical record — and they didn’t even look up as they did it…

Feel free to play both videos at the same time: Schoenberg’s 1906 First Chamber Symphony reunited with the city and the era in which it was conceived…

[[You can see the original version of the film here.]]

Of course, if we can do this with 1906, the question naturally arises as to whether we can do it with any other year. And the fact is that we can: it turns out that another Viennese video from the same source exists on YouTube — this time from 1911.

As you’ll see, a lot has happened to Vienna in the intervening five years: for one thing, the fact that we now notice several petrol-driven cars in the same place suggests that the age of motoring has definitely arrived, at least for the Viennese elite.

And a lot has happened to Schoenberg’s musical thinking, too — as you will hear from the recording of the 1911 Herzgewächse (‘Foliage of the Heart’), Op. 20, for coloratura soprano, celesta, harmonium, and harp. (The title and text are from a poem by Maurice Maeterlinck; an attempt at an English translation can be found here. )

In the case of this historical footage, too, I have felt obliged to produce my own video version which plays back at a slower speed — though only about 30% slower in this case.

Once again: I’m not suggesting that there is any deep point to be made by seeing film of a city and a population within which a particular composer lived and worked and produced a particular piece of music. It’s just nice to have a glimpse of things are they were around the same time — and which everybody involved took for granted to an extent that is simply impossible for us to recapture…

[[You can see the original version of the film here.]]

[[Insert: I’ve been in touch with the folks at Filmarchiv Austria, and they say that no date more precise than a year can be assigned to these two films. So all we have beyond that is the impression that the 1906 film looks like summer, and the 1911 film looks like winter…]]

For the rest, if anyone feels that I have slowed either film too much, then do let me know: the error will be fixable…


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2 thoughts on “City of Dreams…

  1. Fascinating to watch. I’d say they may both be slowed down a little too much – going by the occasional people running (a man from right to left at 2:25 in the second one, and a man at 2:15 in the first one both look a bit too floaty, for example) or moving out of the way of trams (two or three times in the first one). Good though, thanks.


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