I have always been fascinated by the imposing Pestsäule (Plague Column) in Vienna, erected by Emperor Leopold I soon after the plague epidemic of 1679 that killed as many as 75,000 people. Situated on the Graben, Vienna’s most famous thoroughfare, it attracts little attention from the hoards of tourists eager to walk from St Stephen’s Cathedral to the Michaelerplatz and Hofburg, or to sample the attractive boutiques on the street itself. Yet it is an impressive High-Baroque symbol of trauma, gratitude and hope.
Mozart would have passed the Pestsäule regularly; for most of his decade in Vienna (1781-1791) he lived within half a mile of it and in 1784 just a few yards away at a large residential building, the Trattnerhof. Not one to marvel at great sculpture and architecture (at least not in his correspondence), it is not known what he thought of it. But Mozart would have had cause to muse on its significance, more than most of us returning to the monument at different stages of our lives. For in 1767 aged 11 he experienced first hand his own “plague” – smallpox – in Vienna. The Mozart family, visiting the Habsburg capital from Salzburg to promote his career, ultimately decamped to Olmütz (present-day Olomouc) in Moravia to try to avoid the outbreak, but sadly to no avail. For a while after Mozart had contracted the disease, things were touch and go. As father Leopold explained to a friend: ‘Towards evening he began to rave, and all night long and during the morning of the 28th [October] he was delirious.’ But thanks to the generous assistance of an acquaintance, Count Leopold Anton Podstatzky the Cathedral Dean, Mozart recovered. ‘I want only to ask’, Leopold wrote, ‘how many people there are who would receive into their house, as he did, a whole family with a child in such a condition, and furthermore out of no other instinct than human love. This deed will do his Excellency Count Podstatzky no little honour in the biography of our little one that I shall have printed in time. For here begins, in a way, a new period of his life’.
Mozart apparently reacted stoically to the life-threatening illness, joking about his swollen appearance. Significant ailments were a fact of life in the late eighteenth century: during his Viennese decade alone, the adult Mozart experienced powerful sore throats and headaches, chest pains, raging colic, chills and fevers. Yet he worked through them with few complaints, producing some of the great musical masterpieces in the Western canon. And after his premature demise aged 35 on 5 December 1791, generations of musicians, writers and critics would take inspiration from the confluence of his life, work and death captured by the unfinished Requiem at his bedside.
Vienna, like cities across the world, now lies silent. But when normal life resumes its citizens – and, indeed, all of us – will have cause to re-evaluate actions, symbols and achievements from the past, finding newly relevant messages of hope, kindness and determination in the face of adversity. Perhaps we will all stop at the Pestsäule and appreciate it in a new way.