Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Book Of Austria

My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this month.  To mark the occasion, we treated ourselves to a weekend getaway in picturesque Niagara On The Lake, Ontario where we stayed in a charming bed and breakfast called Cecile's House.  Our accommodations were both comfortable and elegant.  The large house was built circa 1840 and decorated in a stylish French Provincial style. Our host was a former chef, complete with a charming "Pepé LePew" French accent, who had a particular gift for attention to detail.

In our room, on the night table next to my side of the bed, was a musty-looking hard-cover book, probably meant more as a decoration than a remedy for guest boredom, entitled "The Book of Austria".  The book captured my attention for two reasons; firstly because of the seeming incongruity of its subject matter amidst otherwise French surroundings, and secondly because I happen to be a native-born Austrian.  It was almost as if our host had some sort of sixth sense where his guests were concerned and placed it there specifically for my benefit.

Intrigued, I picked up the book and began leafing through it.  It was published in 1948, shortly after the war, by the "Österreichische Staatsdruckerei" (Austrian State Printing and Publication House) in Vienna.  After only a brief perusal, I was so taken by the book that I immediately set about Googling it on my return home, and I quickly found an on-line vendor that offered a copy, in very good condition, at a reasonable price.  I wasted no time in ordering it.

The book is full of interesting facts about Austria; its history, its geography, its culture and its people.  The very first chapter begins thus:

"He who would find Austria on the globe must turn the round ball of the Earth slowly on its slanting axis, otherwise he might easily overlook the Austria of the 20th century."

In truth, Austria today is a fairly small country.  Its entire geographical area would fit neatly into Lake Superior.  Politically, its global influence is negligible today.  Yet, in not-so-distant historical times, during the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its geographical boundaries were considerably larger, and both its political and cultural influences notably stronger.  Even after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seemingly unimposing Austria had a role to play in the outbreak of yet a second world war.  Adolf Hitler, who forced the world to go to war for a second time was, in fact, Austrian by birth.

The Book of Austria pays homage to what the country was and what it is today (or, at least, to what it was in 1948), including:

The Geography of Austria:  Small as it is, Austria is further divided into nine provinces.  From the cosmopolitan Vienna, which is considered both a city and a province simultaneously, to mountainous Tyrol, home of Innsbruck, one of the world's skiing Meccas, Austria exhibits an astonishing diversity for so small a geographic region.  Styria, the province in which I was born, is poetically described in a word-palette that illustrates something akin to a merger of J.R.R. Tolkien's woodland elves and mountain dwarves:

The Music of Austria:  During the 19th century, Vienna was, for a time, considered the music capital of the world.  Some of the world's most renowned classical composers, including Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Strauss were Austrian.  Several other classical composers, while not native-born Austrians, were nonetheless strongly influenced by Austrian music, such as Ludwig Van Beethoven, who studied under Mozart.  The Christmas Hymn "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" (Silent Night, Holy Night) was written by Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr, both Austrian.  According to The Book of Austria, "Vienna in the Biedermeier Age," the period during which art and music were enjoyed by the middle class as opposed to being the sole purview of the aristocracy, "had found its most perfect form of expression" in its music.  Today, musical societies and organizations remain in Austria which were established for the purpose of encouraging music in all its branches, including the "Gesellschaft der Muiskfreunde" (Society of the Friends of Music), the world-famous "Wiener Sängerknaben" (Vienna Boys' Choir) and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Karlskirche, Vienna
Austrian Culture:  One chapter in The Book of Austria discusses Austrian Baroque.  In the words of the author: "If you wish truly to understand and to appreciate this curious country, to unravel the living mystery which is Austria, you must learn how to experience the most intimate and most glorious manifestation of her spirit, as it exists in legend and song, in literature and painting, in architecture and in the great festivals of the country.  It is in our Baroque that you must seek it."  I've visited Vienna twice in my lifetime, and both times I was struck by the gothic architecture, the ancient churches and buildings, festooned with gargoyles and friezes.  Everything in Vienna seems to be presented with a certain flourish.  North American architecture, by comparison, seems bland and soulless.

Austrian People:  The Book of Austria describes Austria as being, in a sense, "the first attempt to create a European citizen - a world-citizen.  What is elsewhere so often but a vague longing, an illusion, or the unrealised dream of isolated individuals, has long been anchored in Austria among a wide circle of people."  The "typical" Austrian is described an an "everyman" who feels "mysteriously at home in another world which lies beyond their fellow citizens ... We may consider this will and this ability to live humanly among other human beings as the call of Austria to the whole world."  The typical Austrian, declares the book, "has a passion for 'wandern' - for hiking - deeply engrained within him. His mouth demands to breathe in the air of the great mountains, his foot the soft carpet of mossy slopes and his eye continual change, now drinking in the green of near-by forests, now reaching out to the distant lines which the silent horizon has etched against the bright sunshine."  I can personally attest to this.  Some years ago, I visited the beautiful Banff national park in my adopted homeland of Canada. Even though I had left Austria at the tender age of three and consider myself to be fully Canadian, yet as I hiked along a mountain trail overlooking Lake Louise, I felt a profound sense of well-being, like I had come home.  Perhaps this is why so many Austrians who have immigrated to Canada have settled in British Columbia.  With its towering mountains and its lush woodland, British Columbia is extremely reminiscent of Austria's Styria province.

In the book's forward, the author states "In contrast to other books, the Book of Austria does not wait until you encounter it by chance.  It comes to you, approaches you in word and picture - and in many another way."  I must admit, it certainly found me.