Vienna’s Croatian Connection
Imperial remnants linger in the names on facades, statues and waterfalls in Vienna and Croatia
In a city endowed with history, place names in Vienna often evoke brief encounters from another time, moments when eventual figures of history stayed in a hotel (Mark Twain, 1897-99), might have crossed paths in a park (Stalin and Hitler in January and February 1913), dined in the same restaurant (Ludwig von Beethoven, Franz Grillparzer, Johann Strauß Jr. …and Johnny Cash at the Griechenbeisl), or simply slept anywhere they were tolerated (Mozart and Beethoven). Along its streets, Vienna wears the mantel of its vast empire.
On the facades in Ungargasse in Vienna’s 3rd District, a few of the city’s many memorial plaques (Gedenktafeln) mark such brief encounters. At No. 5, you’ll likely recognise the Beethoven plaque, marking the house where he composed his 9th Symphony, and its 4th movement masterpiece, the "Ode to Joy", now the European anthem.
Further up the street at No. 39, another Gedenktafel marks the residence of Croatian poet Petar Preradović, perhaps a lesser-known figure to the Viennese, but a very prominent name in his home country.
In Zagreb, a statue of the great poet stands looking down on a lively square named in his honour. Cafés with sunglassed onlookers spill out onto the square, and kids run up to the base of the statue and kick a ball around it. He lived the final two years of his life on Ungargasse, and passed away in 1872. Such are the many historical connections between Vienna and its former crown lands like Croatia.
His granddaughter Paula, born in Vienna and raised in Pula on the Istrian peninsula, returned to Vienna to live in Osterleitengasse 17 in Döbling between 1924 and 1951. A noted songwriter, she composed "Pave and Pero" for her grandparents, and decided to submit the lyrics years later to a national competition. In 1946, these lyrics were selected to accompany a Mozart cantata to form the new Austrian national hymn, Land der Berge, Land am Strome.
Today, there is no sign of Paula von Preradović, no Gedenktafel to mark the street where she lived for a long time. Only Preradovicgasse above Hütteldorf in Penzing recalls her legacy.
The ties also go the other way: Not only do many of Vienna’s streets recall famous Croatians, but many of Zagreb’s buildings and sites connect to time spent in Vienna.
As an architecture student in the 1870s, Milan Lenuci studied at the Technische Hochschule in Graz and later worked in the architecture office of Adolf Gabriel in Vienna. He saw first hand the revitalisation of the Ring in the 20 years after Franz Josef ordered the dismantling of the former city walls in 1857.
Lenuci returned to Zagreb and designed the Green Horseshoe, a U-shaped stretch of parks and green spaces that, even today, offer natural respite from the stone and concrete cityscape around them. Citizens picnic and musicians perform in a gazebo among the monumental museums and performance halls also reminiscent of Vienna.
At the western tip of the Green Horseshoe, Zagreb’s elegant National Theatre, designed by Vienna Volkstheater architects Ferdinand Helmer and Hermann Fellner, looks like a transplant from the Ringstraße. Opened in 1895 by Emperor Franz Josef, today it houses the country’s premiere opera, theatre, and ballet performances.
Croatia’s musical legacy also owes a lot to Vienna. One of its great operatic voices, Milka Trnina, got her start in Vienna as a soprano under Joseph Gänsbacher in 1883. After stints in Leipzig, Graz, and Bremen, she achieved immediate success at the Munich Royal Opera, and performed throughout Europe and the U.S. Facial paralysis in 1906 sadly cut short her career, but she is remembered in the name of a waterfall in Croatia’s Plitvice National Park, and, as legend has it, in the name of the popular Milka chocolate bars.
Among the many great Croatian musicians in Vienna was Lovro von Matačić, who began his musical career in the Vienna Boys Choir. Establishing himself as a conductor in Ljubljana, he returned to the city of his youth to conduct the Wiener Symphoniker for the first time in 1928. Highly regarded as the greatest Croatian conductor of all time, Matačić returned to Vienna a total of 23 times as a guest conductor, frequently performing at the Musikverein.
Born and raised in Rijeka, composer Ivan Zajc made Vienna his home between 1862 and 1870, penning operettas that pleased the Viennese public. Afterwards in Zagreb, the prolific composer wrote nearly 1,000 works as director of the Croatian Opera and Institute of Music.
Not all of these figures have had their names etched into Vienna’s facades, but a plaque at Florianigasse 51 recalls the playwright and librettist Milan Begović. Born in Vrlika, he was active in Vienna between the wars as director of the Neue Wiener Bühne, a former theatre at Wasagasse 33 in Vienna’s 9th District, and penned such plays as Adventure at the Door and An American Yacht in Split Harbour.
Today, Preradović (father), Lenuci, Trnina, and Begović all rest in Mirogoj Cemetery on the northern outskirts of Zagreb. It’s a leafy, tranquil retreat, expanded and endowed between 1879 and 1917 by the Cologne-born architect Hermann Bollé, a member of Wiener Rathaus architect Friedrich von Schmidt’s atelier who was active in many building projects during the twilight of the Austrian Empire.
Croatia has gained its independence, but Vienna and Zagreb have never lost their common past. Today, with a little scratch on the surface, a stroll through a cemetery, or a peek in a courtyard, visitors to both places will find these brief encounters remembered and still very much a part of city life.