I knew it was the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth before I left for Vienna. What I didn't know was what this would mean for the Viennese.
From the moment I stepped off a tram opposite the State Opera House, it was Mozart's name and Mozart's image at every turn. Tour buses shuttled his picture through the streets. Bookstores displayed his biographies. Souvenir shops offered Mozart pens, playing cards, and violin-shaped boxes of chocolates. Giant billboards proclaimed "Spirit of Mozart 2006."
Tourist issues aside, the well-loved composer had obviously endeared himself to Vienna. I wanted to find out why. What was the "spirit of Mozart," anyway?
At the Mozart Infocenter outside the Opera House, my sister and I picked up a map of Mozart sites around the city and accompanying audio guides. We set off on foot, looking for the red "calling Mozart" posts planted throughout the city. At each site, we'd dial the number on that post and then listen to an informative recorded message, which included quotes in "Mozart's" voice.
Outside the Hofburg Palace it was Mozart's father's voice, complaining that the family got nothing but a medallion for their prodigy's performance. In the Graben, a street just for pedestrians, I learned that Mozart used Turkish music in his opera "The Abduction From the Seraglio," voicing the rivalry between the Austrian and Ottoman empires. Under the sky-piercing Gothic steeple of Stephansdom, I listened to the tale of Mozart's marriage to his beloved Constance Weber.
Our last stop was Figarohaus (now renamed Mozarthaus), where Mozart's family and servants lived in the mid-1780s. The sunny, wood-paneled rooms gave me a sense of the prosperity Mozart enjoyed as the new darling of the Viennese public.
We headed for the Café Mozart on Albertinaplatz, in continuous operation since 1794. Just inside the door, a glass case displayed no less than 27 different kinds of luscious pastries.
I ordered the Mozart torte, decorated with a chocolate silhouette of the composer, and sunk my teeth slowly into its alternating layers of chocolate cake and frothy mousse filling. Although Mozart never actually ate here, it was easy to imagine the finery-loving young musician feeling right at home at one of the marble tables under a three-tiered crystal chandelier.
Across the plaza, the Albertina museum offered a special Mozart exhibit. A bronze sculpture portraying little Wolfgang plucking a violin charmed me. A clavier with ivory keys inlaid with mother-of-pearl bore Mozart's name.
But what really struck my imagination were the faded sheets of musical notation written in Mozart's own hand.
I was getting closer to finding the "spirit of Mozart" here in Vienna. Yet, somehow, it always seemed just out of reach. The celebrated hero still seemed remote – the soul of his music hidden behind a cardboard facade.
I decided I must hear his music performed in this city. The Schönbrunn Palace offered a Mozart package: tour, dinner – including Mozart's favorite dishes – and a concert in the Orangery. It was tempting, but the $154 price gave me pause.
Instead, we toured Schönbrunn on our own. The gilded ornamentation of the palace's interior seemed so many grace notes. Was this place the architectural equivalent of Mozart's music?
My last night in Vienna we went to a concert in the Musikverein, a grand structure completed about 1870 on land donated by Emperor Franz Joseph.
Before the main concert began, we listened to a string quartet play Mozart pieces in an intimate theater in another section of the building.
The music was light, playful, pleasantly entertaining. I noticed a teenage boy in a red sweater leaning forward, listening intently, as someone might have donein a Viennese audience 200 years ago.
We moved on to the Musikverein's enormous hall for the main program – a Mendelssohn violin concerto and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 performed by the Society of Friends of Music. The hall is supposed to be one of the best in the world for acoustics.
During the Mendelssohn concerto, I stopped analyzing and lost myself in a feeling of grandeur. Kettle drums thundered; the violin ascended celestial scales; horns shot explosions of sound into the vast spaces of the high-ceilinged hall.
Then came Beethoven's Ninth, the mature fruit of a genius recognized by Mozart when Beethoven came to Vienna as a teenager. This music was about something bigger, grander, and more powerful than the Habsburg Empire, I realized. That's why it was still being performed.
Before the last movement, the University of Vienna Choir filed in to sing "Ode to Joy." As the familiar tune unfolded, I was lifted up. I noticed how each singer committed every ounce of his breath to those notes.
When it was over, the soprano soloist couldn't stop beaming. And the audience couldn't stop clapping. The conductor left the stage and came out again – three, four, five times – and still we applauded. We clapped until my hands hurt.
"Vienna is the best place in the world for my profession," Mozart wrote to his father after a long tour of Europe. Now I could see why. With its heartfelt appreciation of truly great music, Vienna had provided rich soil in which Mozart's genius could flourish.
Witnessing how that Beethoven symphony inspired Viennese performers and audience members alike helped me feel, at last, a living connection to the spirit of Mozart and a much fuller appreciation for Vienna.