Water Music


Louis Spohr was an innovative musician, the first in London to use a baton to conduct an orchestra. He might have wished it was a magic wand during an incident in Vienna.

In his autobiography Spohr tells of emerging from a rehearsal at the Theater an der Wien during a heavy downpour and finding the street to his house flooded as the Wien River and the Danube overflowed. He doubled back long enough to grab his violin case and returned to a street now knee-deep in flood waters.

At home, his landlord’s family was racing to the top floor loft of the house with everything they could carry, and within a few hours the water was lapping at the front door. The streets became rivers sweeping along an unlikely assortment of household goods, drowned cattle, and a cradle containing a screaming infant that was rescued by someone floating nearby.

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As the onslaught of flotsam subsided, the streets filled with boats, some of which carried enterprising merchants selling food, while others ferried businessmen home from the sodden heart of the city.

As long as daylight made it possible to see through the torrents of rain, Spohr found the scene intriguing, but as night fell, the uncertainty turned to anxiety. While his wife and children slept on a sofa, Spohr made a point of staying awake by working on a song that required occasional trips to the piano.

His landlord’s family found the music less than comforting. “That Lutheran heretic will bring even greater misfortune upon us with his unchristian singing and playing,” lamented the lady of the house. But the night passed without further incident, and within a day the streets were again passable on foot.

The Theater an der Wien was not quite so fortunate, however. It remained closed for eight days while it dried out.

Soon afterward, on March 18, 1815, Louis Spohr and his family left waterlogged Vienna to embark on a long concert tour in drier regions.

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