Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Sound of Music

Months ago, during my first week in Salzburg, I got lost.

I had walked through the Altstadt southward, away from the Dom, and wandered through the winding lanes near the Kajetanerkirche until I reached the southeastern toe of Mönchsberg, the mountain on which sits the massive white fortress, the Festung Hohensalzburg. There I turned right, thinking that I could keep walking clockwise around the mountain and come back round to the Altstadt.

I was wrong. The geography of the city is not that simple. The footprint of the mountain is larger and more complex than I had, naïvely, assumed.

I’ve been to the corner where I turned right several times since, wanting, in part, a clearer mental map of where I went wrong. But I also wanted to find Nonnberg Abbey, which I knew was somewhere nearby. You can see its distinctive red onion-topped steeple from most places in Salzburg, rising over the large blue-green dome of the Dom, nearly as high as the Festung itself. It should be right there, along the streets I walked. But like a mystical city lost in the interstices between this and a parallel universe, the abbey eluded me.

Nonnberg Abbey is a Benedictine convent founded in the 8th century by St Rupert. It’s reputed to be the oldest convent in the German-speaking world. Part of its fame for tourists to Salzburg is due to its having been the convent where Maria Augusta Kutschera had begun her novitiate before going as a tutor to the family of Georg von Trapp. It is where the pair were married in 1927, and its exterior was a location during the filming of The Sound of Music. I was curious to find it if only to tick it off the list of things to see in Salzburg. (Researching Nonnberg since, I’ve realised there are cultural and aesthetic reasons to make a special trip to visit the abbey.)

Sunday, a warm day with the rain holding off, Himself and I set out on our bicycles to explore the area again. We followed my original route, turning right at the southeastern toe of the mountain, and soon found ourselves on a tiny square opposite a church looking up at the southern aspect of the Festung. There was no sign of the abbey from there. So we turned back and cycled through the twisting lanes again. Still no sign of the abbey, until, at last, we noticed a small street sign set into the stone wall in a small fold in Kaigasse. ‘Nonnberggasse’ it read.

Securing our bikes, we found ourselves at the foot of a very long series of steps that disappeared as they ascended along a narrow passage between buildings. From our vantage on the street, we couldn’t see any sky above them. Exhausted after a long uphill cycle earlier in the day (but that’s another post), we started climbing. A few minutes into the climb with no sign of the end in sight, we spotted a group coming down the steps.

‘There, the man in the green shirt,’ I said, pointing to the figure at the top of our field of vision. ‘If we don’t get there by the time we’re at that step . . .’

Himself completed my thought. ‘We’ll reconsider our options.’

But, when we reached that point, we were at the top of the steps and Stift Nonnberg was to our right. A gravel path swept around the edge of the mountain; spread out beyond us was the green Salzach valley. Directly below, we could see the narrow street with its domed church and tiny green square we had recently left. From here, I could see the steep path than ran from the street level to where we were, another way to reach the abbey. Nearby, a large sign outlined the geological history of the valley. We were standing where once, hundreds of thousands of years ago, an enormous glacial lake had covered the region.

At our backs was the small gate to abbey itself. Inside it, we found a compact courtyard in front of the church. Inset in its stone walls were memorial stones carved in low relief, some of them with naïve-looking images, some with ornate death’s heads and inscriptions in German Gothic script. Several graves ranged along  the wall, three of them seemingly completely overgrown with ivy. I thought of the women who lay there, their names obscured, with no children or grandchildren to remember them. Does the same oblivion await me, I wondered, with no descendents to recall my life?

There was a constrained feeling about the courtyard, enclosed narrowly between the wall separating it from the outer path and the walls of the church itself. Himself remarked that he could still not see the distinctive red onion steeple, but, craning our necks and searching overhead, we saw it at last, rising overhead with a gilt clock on its tower. It was quiet on this late Sunday afternoon, in the small courtyard far above the busy plätze and gassen below, most of them filled with tourists, festival goers and ordinary Salzburgers enjoying a dry warm day. A bird sang in the tree, and we spoke quietly, conscious of the privacy of the nuns within. At last, though, we mounted the worn red stone porch, pushed open a thick, battered wooden door, and passed between the carved figures on the jambs of the Gothic doorway.

The interior was illuminated faintly by dim light passing through high clerestory windows. It is small, a late Gothic church, containing a nave, two aisles and side chapels under groin vaulting. Completed in 1506, it replaced an earlier Romanesque church destroyed by fire in 1423. We could barely make out the soaring winged altarpiece beyond the chancel arch, its gilt flamboyance dulled in the half dark. Beneath the altar is a crypt where the remains of St Erentrudis, the founding abbess, lie. Steps on either side of the altar lead down to it. Peering into it, I could see stone floors and wooden benches reflecting the half light. At the back of the church, under the nuns’ choir and behind clear panels, one can see the faded colours of the remains of graceful frescos from the older, replaced Romanesque building.

These details we noticed later, though. What we were first aware of, after the creaking groans had subsided when the heavy door clanged shut, as our eyes adjusted to the low light and we seated ourselves on uncomfortable wooden pews, was music. A choir of women’s voices was singing, their voices drifting towards us from somewhere above. Opposite us sat a young man, alone, motionless. A few pews in front of us was a couple, also motionless as they listened. We sat, rapt, enchanted. It was the nuns at their afternoon office, sung gracefully with rich, sweet voices, accompanied by organ. Now and again a soprano voice rose above the rest in melodic solo before rejoining her sisters in the chorus.

Conscious that we had, once again, been lucky in our timing, we sat in the near dark listening for some minutes. I turned round to see high above us, at that back of the nave, the windows into the nuns’ private choir. They had been swung open. Looking up, I could see frescos decorating its shallow vaulted ceiling. I could see nothing else, though. The nuns were secluded in their own world, celebrating their centuries-long monastic tradition.

After a time, the singing stopped; the organ continued, swelling majestically. Then there was silence. Silence above and silence below, as we eavesdroppers in the half-dark sat still, still wrapped in the heavenly voices, still held in the magic middle passage, that enchanted space that marks the transition between song and absence of song.

The silence stretched out. At last came a quiet swish, swish, swish from beyond the windows above. Himself leaned toward me and whispered, ‘It’s the chair seats flipping up.’

That it was. We stood, ready to let the day continue in its flow as we slipped once again into the life of Salzburg.


  1. Thanks for sharing this journey, Lorraine.

    The whole time reading three images came to me, scenes from the Sound of Music, one of my favourite films since I first saw it as a fifteen year old.

    The second my older brother telling me again in my late adolescence after he had spent time as a lay missionary in New Guinea that he had come across descendants of the Von Trapp family, all the way they had travelled over time to New Guinea. I could still see those cloistered graves behind the statues where the family hid in the film to escape the Soldiers.

    I also thouht about the one time I went to Salzburg with my husband in 1980. We were so young then. We went with my aunt and her husband and stayed in a hotel near to the station.

    By chance we ate dinner in an amazing restaurant along the main street whose name I cannot remember. The best meal of our lives we still say. And what I remember most of all is a huge ball of butter carved into the shape of a lamb and the dignified service from a bunch of delightful waiters.

    Your post is fairly inspirational for me when I considr how much the events and scenes you describe stir up my own memories. And yours is such beautiful writing.


  2. Great description of silence!

    Your post reminds me that like many Austrians I yet have to see The Sound of Music. I will put it on my Netflix list of movies to rent soon.

  3. I love the "magic middle passage", the "enchanted space" between song and not-song. I've never had the words to describe that space as you have so aptly done.