I like a cruise with strings attached

September 10, 2004

His historical expertise afforded Richard Evans a ticket to a music-filled trip down the Danube. His diary concludes our series on cultural tourism.

Simon Schama gives his lectures on the QEII ; I do mine in the humbler surroundings of the M S Mozart Rhapsody , a cruiser on the River Danube. According to his own account, Simon seems to have spent most of his time being seasick. No such danger on the Danube, where the water is always calm and the weather this year has been exceptionally good. I do this trip every other year or so, providing historical background lectures to 100 or so cultivated and intelligent clients, mostly in their sixties and seventies, as we travel from Passau, in Bavaria, down river past Vienna and Bratislava to Hungary and back again.

The organiser, Martin Randall Travel, pays me a reasonable fee and lets my wife, Christine, join the tour for a hefty discount. But I'm not really doing this for the money - like the other participants, I like music. Not that it's all play and no work: the lectures have to be specially written and updated each time to match the changing itinerary; simply pulling out some undergraduate stuff from my bottom drawer wouldn't do at all. Entertainment has to be mixed with information, anecdote with narrative, human interest with interpretation: historiography is out, and no historical event can have three numbered causes. I've been doing this for six years now, and it's the only event of its kind I lecture on. This is my diary of this year's trip:

Saturday, August 14

Christine and I fly into Munich from Stansted and await the arrival of the rest of the team with the 100 or so participants in the festival. As we greet the full team from Martin Randall, led by Tara Latimer and accompanied by Marie-Ther se, a local freelancer, a large, rotund figure looms into view through the arrivals gate. It is Roderick Swanston, who organises the musical side of the event and will deliver a set of lectures alongside mine, covering the pieces we are to hear. "Richard, Christine!" he booms. "Lovely to see you again!"

We all take our luggage to the waiting coaches for the drive to Passau, where we board the sleek, low-slung river cruiser on which we will eat, drink and sleep throughout the festival; the lectures will be delivered in the capacious, panoramic bar. The cabins are large enough to accommodate a double bed, large enough, indeed, to accommodate Roderick. Tara hands me a thick wodge of A4 paper containing instructions for the daily schedule. The participants will not see the behind-the-scenes activity that ensures the smooth running of the festival: they are provided with a 48-page brochure giving the timetable of events and outlining the lectures, music, the words to the choral pieces and the architectural history of the venues. All I have to do is deliver the lectures and socialise with the participants.

After unpacking, we rush off to a concert of a capella church music in the Romanesque nunnery of Kloster Niedernburg. Back on the boat, we sit down to an excellent Central European dinner. The waiters are a mixture of Austrians, Romanians and Hungarians. They do their best, though some of them do not speak much English. On a previous trip, we were served roast venison one evening. "What is this?" one passenger asked suspiciously. The waiter searched desperately for the right English word. Finally, enlightenment dawned. He beamed and said triumphantly, "Bambi".

Sunday, August 15

We moor at Linz. After my opening lecture, we go by coach to the 18th-century abbey of St Florian, where the composer Anton Bruckner is buried. After a performance of Bruckner's seldom-heard string quintet in the echoing Marble Hall, the company splits into small groups for guided tours that end in the gloomy vaulted crypt. As we stand before Bruckner's marble sarcophagus, I recall a famous photo of Hitler, taken as he bowed in reverence before this very tomb. Tactfully, it did not show the enormous ossuary that lines one wall, with hundreds of neatly arranged human skulls and bones stretching from floor to ceiling behind an iron lattice. It might have been more appropriate had it done so.

Monday, August 16

The day starts with a second lecture session, in which I provide statistics of the power and wealth of the 18th-century Hungarian aristocracy and illustrate my points with examples from the vast estates of the Esterh zy family. We then go by coach to the family's summer palace at Fertod, where the composer Joseph Haydn was court composer and conductor for the music-mad Prince Nicholas Esterh zy ("the Magnificent") from the 1760s to the end of the 1780s. The palace exterior is somewhat dilapidated, but the interior is mostly in reasonable shape, and it's moving to hear the brilliant Auer Quartet play a Haydn string quartet in the room where it was first performed.

Tuesday, August 17

A third morning lecture, focusing mainly on the 18th-century church as an introduction to today's visit to Melk Abbey, whose economic and social history I looked up one morning in Cambridge before we left. It is followed as usual by a background talk on the day's music by the effervescent Roderick, who leaps from microphone to piano as he peppers his discourse with musical illustrations. Shortly after his talk ends, Melk looms magically into view - a vast, imposing, yellow ochre-coloured complex of buildings high on a promontory -as we glide to the mooring place. The synthesis of lectures, venue and music works exceptionally well today, and is capped by a performance of four liquid Marian antiphons by Abbe Stadler, who was born in Melk and sang in the monastery choir.

Wednesday, August 18

Today we are in Vienna to hear wind quintets by, among others, Zemlinsky and Ligeti in the morning, and the superb Vienna Piano Trio playing Haydn and Dvory k and an enterprising piano-trio version of Schoenberg's Transfigured Night in the afternoon. Like all serious music lovers, the participants respond positively to music of any age, so long as it's good.

There's no lecture for me today, so when we're not listening to music, Christine and I socialise. There must surely be a vice-chancellor on the trip, we tell ourselves, and over dinner we finally spot him. He is the only man in the room who is wearing a tie. I place myself opposite him. Is this his only holiday this year? I ask. "Yes," the vice-chancellor replies with resignation. What is he doing for the rest of the summer? "I'm learning Chinese," he says gloomily. "Every vice-chancellor I know is doing it." How far has he got? I inquire. He brightens visibly and lets out a stream of carefully modulated Mandarin. What does it mean? I ask him. He beams with pride. "It means," he says, "I'm sorry, but I don't speak any Chinese."

Thursday, August 19

Roderick and I give our customary half-hour morning lectures. This time I take the story of the Habsburg monarchy through the 19th century, focusing on the political and cultural history of Vienna, especially in the period of Freud, Mahler and the Vienna Secession. The weather throughout the trip so far has been stiflingly hot, and today is no exception. On the afternoon drive to the Esterh zys' winter palace at Eisenstadt to hear the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra play more Haydn, we all notice a loud, contented snoring from somewhere near the middle of the coach. It is the vice-chancellor, dreaming perhaps of Chinese students queuing to pay their overseas student fees.

At dinner, Marie-Therèse, who radiates aristocratic Viennese charm, reminds me that her step-grandfather was Conrad von Hötzendorff, the chief of the Austrian general staff in 1914. This evening she introduces an elderly guest. "This is Peter," she says. Peter turns out to be the grandson of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and thus himself a Habsburg archduke, if only a morganatic one. So for one evening at least, there is a direct reminder of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy on board.

Friday, August 20

In the final lecture, I take Austria's story up to the present.

Many in the audience have lived through quite a large part of the period I am talking about, and conversation afterwards is more than usually animated. They are keen and attentive listeners; some take notes. After Beethoven and Spohr's nonet at the Schloss Greinburg, it's time for the captain's farewell reception, and everybody dresses up to the nines.

Roderick is sporting an extremely loud bow tie to go with a garish pea-green jacket. The only man not wearing a tie is the vice-chancellor.

Saturday, August 21

Back in Passau, we all head off for the coaches to Munich airport. Amid cries of "See you in Glyndebourne", new friends and old say their farewells. With such an audience, the lecturing has been pure pleasure. Martin Randall tells us he's planning a similar music festival on the Rhine next year. We'll definitely be there.

Richard J. Evans is professor of modern history at Cambridge University and the author of many books on Central European history, most recently The Coming of the Third Reich , which was published as a Penguin paperback in August.

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