Clarity amidst the static

The Stephansdom in Vienna, broadcasting to the world in living stereo.

Many years ago, when my father was in his 50s and 60s and I was in my teens and 20s, we used to sit together in the evenings and listen to WFLN, Philadelphia’s classical music radio station. For 24 hours a day, mellifluous, plummy-voiced disc jockeys (an unfortunate coinage, that) introduced the masterpieces and less-than-masterpieces of classical music, occasionally interrupted with a commercial break. Founded in 1949, for the first four decades of its existence it barely broke even, but that didn’t much matter; the station’s owners, families by the name of Smith and Green, weren’t particularly interested in turning a profit, only providing music to the city and its environs. In the late 1980s, however, the station’s ownership changed, and in an effort to turn a profit several programming changes were introduced. Instead of playing full symphonies and chamber music works, one got a movement of one, then a movement of another; many of those mellifluous voices were fired; and in 1997 the station finally turned to a pop music format. Announcing the ownership change on the air, Greater Media CEO Tom Milewski rationalized the decision, saying, “Classical music, is, we feel, best presented in a non-commercial context” — a context which wasn’t Greater Media’s, nor was it of many other station owners.  So ended WFLN’s nearly half-century run, a run which had provided my father and myself a unique education in classical music.

There is of course still such a thing as classical music radio; here in New York, WQXR offers it, but fragmenting full compositions just as WFLN did in its later years. And streaming music services offer extraordinarily full libraries of classical music recordings and even live events (my preference is for iDagio and Deutsche Grammophon’s Stage+ service), with splendid sound reproduction through their FLAC formats. But I still miss classical music radio itself: knowledgable voices offering not only context but also companionship, the awareness that there’s another person at the other end of the connection, listening to the music at the same time as you were: a musical bond between these listeners, distance obliterated in an aesthetic experience.

Well, not any more. Recently I stumbled upon Radio Klassik Stephansdom, a radio station that airs in Vienna at 107.3 FM but streams as well, not only through their web site but through several other internet radio services. I’m not sure why I haven’t come across it before — this year the station celebrated its 25th anniversary — but I’m listening to it even now. (An extra appeal is that I get to practice listening to German, too — I’ve taken the language up again.)

The more I learned about it, the more impressed I was. Radio Klassik Stephansdom was founded in 1998 as the brainchild of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who himself flipped the switch in the Archbishop’s Palace in Vienna on September 24 of that year; “Shortly afterwards the Danube Waltz sounded, followed by greetings and blessings from Pope John Paul II,” according to the Google translation of this Archdiocesian web page about the anniversary.

Although RKS is funded and operated by the Archdiocese, in 2025 it looks like the station will be on its own. I must say that I find this a little sad. As might be expected, Radio Klassik Stephansdom’s music programming runs a little more towards the spiritual than the secular; not a surprise, especially when much great music of the past 500 years, from Machaut to Messiaen (whose 115th birthday was yesterday), was inspired by religious faith. The secular, however, also appears on the station’s playlists; just yesterday, RKS played Bizet’s Carmen with Maria Callas in the title role, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Callas’s birth.

I will be visiting Vienna little later this month and plan a visit to the Stephansdom with my kids, of course — it’s a site that can’t be missed, especially over the Christmas season. But over the past few days I’ve been imagining and envisioning the Stephansdom as I listen to some of the music that inspired its construction and has resonated in its halls, not to mention the religious, Christian faith that its architecture and that music reflects. Christoph Wellner, the editor-in-chief of RKS, claims as his area of responsibility: “To form a foundation for passing on the Christian message with the most beautiful music — on the radio, on the Internet, in the diocese, in Austria and worldwide.” Herr Wellner can consider it passed on to me.

You can listen to the station from anywhere in the world through their web site here. And below is the full Google translation of this page from the Archdiocese of Vienna, published there in September of this year, filling out the picture a little bit.

25 years ago, on September 24, 1998, “radio klassik Stephansdom” (then still “Radio Stephansdom”) went on air for the first time. At twelve o’clock sharp, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn activated the start control at a ceremony in the Archbishop’s Palace in Vienna, shortly afterwards the Danube Waltz sounded, followed by greetings and blessings from Pope John Paul II.

In its current edition, the Viennese church newspaper “Der Sonntag” recalls its beginnings a good quarter of a century ago. Austria was the last country in Europe to allow private radio, and only after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which found the right to freedom of expression to be incompatible with a broadcasting monopoly. Ten radio licenses were advertised, for which there were 150 interested parties. Originally, church broadcasters were excluded from the private radio law. This had to be changed after a complaint.

The then head of the public relations office of the Archdiocese of Vienna, Wolfgang Bergmann, and his employees saw the opportunity for a private church radio. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn immediately agreed to it, as he knew of private church radios from France.

In June 1997, the application for a license for the Vienna area was submitted. “In the entire free world, churches are not denied the opportunities of radio, I don’t know why it should be any different in Austria,” said Cardinal Schönborn in a broadcast at the time. The plan was a non-commercial special interest radio that would not be profit-oriented, but would cover its costs through income. The license application stated about the content: “The program wants to invite the listener to pause for a moment and recharge their batteries in the hustle and bustle of the day. It should be an oasis for the ears and soul for radio listeners, away from the constant hustle and bustle and without noisy disc jockeys.”

The archdiocese requested the frequency 107.3. In the spring of 1998, work began on converting a former student shared apartment on the top floor of the Teutonic Order House in downtown Vienna into office space. July 1st was the first day of work for the eight program designers at the time, three of whom are still in the team today: program director Christoph Wellner, editor Bernadette Spitzer and technician Martin Macheiner, who was there before everyone else during the renovation and therefore has personnel number 001. The first editor-in-chief and the decisive role in shaping the radio’s fortunes were in the hands of Anton Gatnar until 2014, who also took over management a little later. The current station manager is Roman Gerner.

Radio faces new economic challenges in the future. Since the Archdiocese of Vienna is planning significant savings in its own media sector, from 2025 the station will have to operate entirely on its own without any diocesan subsidy.

The “radio klassik Stephansdom” can now be received throughout Austria via DAB+. The station can be received terrestrially in Vienna on 107.3 and in Graz on 94.2. The number of listeners is around 200,000.

On the periphery

I want to start the month off by recommending Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire, published by the University of Chicago Press. The book defines what Perloff calls “Austro-Modernism,” a form of modernist thinking engendered in the years 1914 through 1933, when the Habsburg Empire collapsed and its territories became awash in a bewildering brew of nationalism, anti-Semitism, exile, and blood. Perloff differentiates Austro-Modernism from its German cousin, forged in the political cauldron of the Weimar Republic. As she writes:

Weimar was the workshop for radical ideas, from Marxist theory to Heidegger’s ontological exploration of being-in-the-world to the film theory of Krakauer, Rudolf Arnheim, and [Walter] Benjamin himself. But this is not to say that Austro-Modernism, from Freud to Wittgenstein and Kraus, to Musil and Roth, to Celan and Bachmann, is to be understood as a weaker version of the strong intellectual formation of the Weimar Republic. It was merely different. Given the particular situation of the Habsburg Empire and its dissolution, given the eastern (and largely Jewish) origin of its writers, it developed in another direction, its hallmark being a profound skepticism about the power of government — any government or, for that matter, economic system — to reform human life. In Austro-Modernist fiction and poetry, irony — an irony less linked to satire (which posits the possibility for reform) than to a sense of the absurd — is thus the dominant mode. The writer’s situation is perceived not as a mandate for change — change that is always, for the Austrians, under suspicion — but as an urgent opportunity for probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles. (13; final emphasis my own)

Perloff’s analysis stretches from the “probing analysis” and documentary social satire of Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind to the “probing analysis” and socio-erotic frisson of Celan’s later lyric poetry, with an excellent coda that muses upon Wittgenstein’s obsession with the Christian gospels towards the end of his life. Ironic satire is a dominant mode in the fiction of both Musil and Roth, but it’s a satire that, as Perloff notes, doesn’t lead to political action, but instead to contemplative action. “In the face of war, in the face of the twin evils of Fascism and Communism and of the corruption that seemed to threaten democracy at every turn, one could expose the follies and evils of one’s world, but meaningful change could only be personal,” Perloff writes. “The aim, as Wittgenstein put it — and Musil and Roth concurred — could only be ‘to become a different person.'” (15)

Although all of Perloff’s subjects were German-speakers, many didn’t start off that way. They were born not in the Empire’s capital Vienna — though Vienna remained a shining beacon of ambition for each of them — but rather on its periphery, and in many cases its easternmost periphery, speaking languages other than German. Karl Kraus was born and raised in the town of Jičín (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of the Czech Republic); Joseph Roth was born and raised in the town of Brody, a small town near Lemberg, now Lviv, in East Galicia (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of Ukraine); Elias Canetti was born in Ruse, Bulgaria (an independent nation then, but with close ties to the Empire);  Paul Celan in the Romanian town of Czernowitz (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now also a part of Ukraine). That they can be considered various facets of that common experience that led to Perloff’s “Austro-Modernism” points to the role that the Empire played in their upbringing.

The Habsburg Empire in 1914 was a mess. Franz Josef I was considered a weak and vacillating leader; its polyglot culture made it all but impossible to administer effectively (especially by a somewhat corrupt and inept central bureaucracy); what we now call its “multiculturalism” was just as bewildering. But it was a mess that somehow functioned, and for much the same reasons. The same Empire gave rise to a Central European form of Modernism that produced composers like Arnold Schoenberg, philosophers like Freud and Wittgenstein, writers like Arthur Schnitzler, painters like Klimt and Schiele. Austrian Jews enjoyed particularly broad freedoms following the 1782 Edict of Tolerance issued by Joseph II, and in 1867 Franz Josef I formally bestowed equal rights on the Jewish population of the Empire. Indeed, in recent years revisionist historians like Pieter M. Judson have emphasized its strengths (even if, ultimately, its weaknesses led to its dissolution in 1918), suggesting that its tolerance  could be something of a model for the polyglot multicultural societies of the 21st century.

The cataclysmic collapse of the Empire in 1918 left Austria a rump state. The Habsburgs were gone; in its place an unstable republic, an easy target for neighboring fascists, that would last for only 16 years (the monarchy ruled for nearly 400 years). This left Perloff’s writers, working in the years between the two world wars, with a sense of loss — that they’d been cut adrift from the land and culture of their youth. Kraus and the others weren’t sentimental about what was gone, but they recognized its strengths and opportunities as well, giving rise to what might be called an ironic conservatism in their outlook. Ultimately, the collapse was a collapse of cultural identity as well. Despite the almost unimaginable size of the empire’s territories, Musil, Celan, Roth, and the others shared a historical culture, which inevitably led to a common recognition — a recognition reflected in habits of thought, social conventions, mind, language — of their tragic situation. They harbored no optimism for the restoration of the monarchy in the years after 1918. Indeed, they harbored no optimism at all — except for the possibilities inherent in what a “probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles” might reveal about us as individuals and how we live. For this reason alone, Edge of Irony is worth a look.

I happen to be a child (or, at least, a grandchild) of the periphery of the Austrian Empire myself. My paternal grandfather Maxsym Hunka arrived at Ellis Island in 1914 from Ukraine (probably from Berezhany, Ternopil, then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of western Ukraine); he too was an exile from a collapsing world, perhaps sharing (in the peculiar ways of his own situation) in the habits of thought, social conventions, mind, and language of the subjects of Edge of Irony. He was far from an intellectual, receiving only a fifth-grade-level education according to US Census reports from later years. But if there can be said to be a cultural DNA just as influential upon us as our biological DNA, passed down in the form of these habits through the generations, they might generate in us an affinity for characteristics of our ancestral cultures, its origins barely recognized in our individual histories unless we look for them.