At the Cafe Mirabell

By Wilder, Thornton | New Criterion, February 2012 | Go to article overview

At the Cafe Mirabell


Wilder, Thornton, New Criterion


I was young--in my later thirties, but my time-table has always been in retard; I had more money in my pocket than I felt was due me as "professorial lecturer" at the University of Chicago. I had had a relative failure or two during the Depression years with The Woman of Andros and Heaven's My Destination. But I was healthy, filled with curiosity, and ignorant. (1)

What I was principally ignorant of was politics. I was thoroughly book-taught in politics from Aristotle down and I took a lively interest in presidential elections that turned on our hopes that a wise government would repair the appalling condition into which the country had fallen. In writing die book which I have designated as my second failure I had written--without knowing it--a political novel. My ignorance consisted in an inability to relate the general ideas which are called politics with the relations of the individual citizen to the agencies of government that shape his life-an area of intense struggle which is also called politics.

I was young and as happy as a cricket and I went abroad for several summers in succession. On two of these trips I visited Salzburg during its festival of music and drama.

I am not fond of music in general. I deplore grand opera. But I am so admiring of great music and of a dozen grand operas that I arrange to hear them infrequently, I might say as seldom as possible. Just as I choose to read Don Quixote once every ten years on the decades of the year of my birth. Music is a rhetoric like another--that is, a mode of expressing the emotions in a language that has undergone a long and complicated development. (Salzburg is a pilgrimage-place, for two of these rhetorics--for music and for architecture.)

So early in the spring I purchased my tickets--a pair of tickets for each performance--from a travel agent. On such and such a night I would be hearing Toscanini conduct Fidelio; then I would be present at Max Reinhardfs production of Faust with Paula Wessely as Gretchen. Then Bruno Walter's Don Giovanni with Dussolina Giannini, and his Die Zauberflote. I would hear the Masses in churches a stone's throw from the composer's birthplace.

Both summers enjoyed beautiful weather. The rain itself fell in sunlight. The narrow streets and bridges were crowded. There were not many automobiles; a few were conspicuous: a flag on top of the hood meant royalty, as the right hubcap meant an ambassador or senator or perhaps a brash assumption of importance. Buses brought throngs from Berchtesgaden, fifteen miles away, and from Vienna. The afternoon performances of Everyman in the Cathedral Square seated many hundreds; there were concerts and open-air serenades. An unending queue awaited admission at the door of Mozart's birthplace. (As I was a professor and looked like a professor, I was often stopped on the street by strangers and asked in one language or another "Was he really born there?" One cannot be too careful.) But the tickets for the principal performances had been long sold out and prices for them on the black market had risen to extraordinary heights.

There was a feverish tension in the town not solely attributable to the presence of so many notable persons or to the expectation of masterpieces. Politics freighted the air. Hitler's rule was in the ascendant; Mussolini was reaching toward a revival of the Roman imperium; the hope of social resolution was organized into parties throughout the world. In every country in Europe politics exerted its pressure on every aspect of public and private life. Families selected their guests, publishers their authors, civil servants their office workers either by a judicious mixture of "left" and "right" or by a bold resolve to support one tendency or the other. Particularly in France, Italy, and Germany the commitments assumed daily reached agonizing proportions. They involved the disavowal of old friendships and loyalties. "Your brother will not be allowed in this house. …

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