'There is no history of mankind, there are only many histories of all kinds of aspects of human life.'
- Karl Popper
Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash
Someone is playing the Beautiful Blue Danube in Vienna’s Saint Stephen’s square. Even at midnight, it is overrun with ice-cream licking tourists.
We have ours too, on the terrace of Aida, whose coffee is excellent, locals claim. The locals are right; one rich and dense espresso, one delightfully foamy mélange. And actual pieces of cake folded into the Sachertorte gelato.
And the violinist playing on, the notes trilling in rippling waves. Crescendo in sets of one, two, three. One, two, three. Till they peak at the chorus. One violin in that square, but I can hear the full orchestra in my head; an army of strings, percussion, woodwinds, brass. Crisp tailcoats, organza gowns.
The melody is familiar enough that it transcends cultural barriers. Conversations in dozens of languages are paused. Passers-by stop to listen.
The actual Danube is a short stroll away. It is quite blue, and beautiful. Along its banks civilizations have come and gone over centuries. From Roman military settlement to vast and mighty Holy Roman Empire; cosmopolitan, imperial Hapsburg dynasty; republic; fascist regime. Today, the traders and conquerors have been replaced by immigrants and tourists. In parliament, worldviews differ and multiply. Outside parliament, the music.
On Herbert-von-Karajan-Platz, facing the Vienna State Opera, hundreds spread blankets and uncork wine bottles as they listen to free opera. That George Bizet’s Carmen is in French and most do not speak it does not matter. The story tells itself, heartbreaking, not with the words but the voices.
On one far corner, an accordion. On another, a tired guitar. Further, a tenor sings O Sole Mio then a commercial pop song. Everybody knows both, wherever everybody is coming from or going to. In English, in Italian, in made up words, we sing along as we walk on.
A piano concert spills out of the Venetian windows of a coffeehouse. Down by the grungier riverbank, beer and the beats of a metal band.
The Danube flows through 2,860 kilometres. Ten countries. From the Black Forest of Bavaria, Germany, till it spills into the Black Sea. Twenty million people use it for drinking water. Irrigation, freight transport, and fishing. The generation of hydroelectricity, industrial and residential water supplies, and of paintings, poetry, and music. And of romantic sunset photographs.
‘We step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not.’
We come and go, with our baggage and realities. Those change. So does running water. But the Beautiful Blue Danube does not. Neither the waltz nor the river.
We stop a minute or two and watch it flow on to Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine. Places we might one day visit. Lives and experiences we might have, or not. Other rivers we might step in.
There are as many views of the Danube as there are people and moments. In all, there is music, and we can all recognize the opening bars of that waltz.