Anker-ing Tradition

On the Hoher Markt, an Imperial Procession on The Hour to the Strains of Haydn’s “Gott Erhalte”

On The Town | Jodi Keen | September 2008

The Anker Uhr at the Hoher Markt (Photo: João de Mancelos)

For someone who prides herself on her sense of direction, I get lost in Vienna a lot - about every three days, in fact. Most passersby are able to aid me to some degree. The big problem is my complete inability to speak German. As a Spanish student, I’ve mystified many (even myself) with my choice to spend the summer in Vienna versus a Spanish-speaking country. Knowing most Austrians understand a little English was a comfort, though, so I wasn’t terribly concerned…

Until I arrived here and started getting lost. Often, my garbled pronunciation of a place name becomes insurmountable, and directions can sometimes leave me more confused.

But there’s one place all Austrians seem to know and love – and that I can pronounce: the Anker clock.

At a simple mention, locals’ eyes light up, and they begin to relate their experiences viewing the clock. Everyone seems to have a story of staving off camera-wielding tourists or narrowly escaping being flattened by a charging taxi. But most recall their initial sense of wonder at the clock and its history.

Intrigued, I decided to check it out for myself. Agreeing to meet a friend there, my walk from Schwedenplatz should have been brief – it’s only about three blocks – but somehow on the way I managed to get all turned around. After wandering aimlessly for what seemed like forever, I stopped to ask two construction workers for directions.

And there I encountered the barrier: They spoke no English. Not one word. But all I had to say was "Anker Clock," and they began animatedly pointing me down the street. After thanking them profusely, I walked a little further when I was hit with a feeling of deja vu. Hadn’t I already been down this very street just 10 minutes before? A quick question, including the words "Anker Clock," to a bank employee immediately steered me further down the street and directly to Hoher Markt, and my destination.

At 10 minutes before noon, a large crowd had already assembled and was still growing. Taxis and carriages were having difficulty navigating the streets, and the sound of horns blared from impatient drivers routinely interrupted conversation. A film crew, armed with a boom microphone and large video camera on a tripod, were preparing prepared themselves to film the processional of nearly life-sized figures who would emerge from the Clock when it stuck the hour.

I gazed up at the clock: On the right side, the Empress Maria Theresa is resting her head on the shoulder of her husband Franz I, as they guard the clock’s face, biding their time. As I had been warned, tourists were everywhere, as evidenced by their cameras. They wiggled their way around each other, trying to find the prime spot for their photo-taking extravaganza. But they weren’t the only ones: the scene was varied: tourists, locals, businessmen and women, schoolchildren, Asians, Austrians, Americans. People chatted casually, double-checked their camera’s batteries, and keeping one eye on the Anker Clock, waiting impatiently for the moment it would come alive.

At the stroke of noon, cathedral bells rang out into the brilliance of from St. Stephen’s just a few streets away. Nobody moved, all eyes glued on the clock face. Twenty seconds passed, as the chimes rang on.

Then suddenly, Maria Theresa and Franz "got a hitch in their girdles" (as we’d say in America’s heartland), and scooted out of the way to make room for Josef Haydn, the 12 o’clock man.

As the clock chimed the hour, cameras were instantly thrust into the air and began clicking away. Shot after shot captured the Habsburgs retreating and Haydn making his grand entrance to "Gott Erhalte." Chatter stilled so you could hear the faint notes of the glockenspiel emerging from the depths of the mechanism. A few resourceful individuals set their cameras to video to take one continuous shot of the entire walk-through.

Conversation began again amongst the watchers, but all eyes stayed fixated on the slow-moving figures. I was surprised by the pace of the processional. I hadn’t anticipated a horse race around the clock, but I certainly hadn’t expected the arthritic crawl, either. After three minutes of video taking with my camera, my right arm began to tingle. At the five-minute mark, it went numb, forcing me to switch hands.

Twelve minutes and half a battery later, I had in my hand a video of the complete processional, from the Habsburg’s quiet exit to Josef Haydn’s second go-around. In between were mayors and kings, emperors and counts, Charlemagne, a poetWHO? and a consort, all parading around the clock to music selected from their time and taste. The gentle melodies of hymns, traditional Viennese songs, and Mozart floated down from the bridge and cascaded over the assembled crowd, making it feel like it was at the red carpet of a 12th-century ball.

It was only later that I realized there was another whole set of Bible stories carved under the Anker clock, to which I had been completely oblivious. Another visit would reveal Adam and Eve, along with an angel and Satan, gracefully etched into the bridge’s stone underbelly.

To a newcomer, the Anker clock at noon is like Austrian History 101. Not only did I meet 12 key figures in Austria’s long and distinguished past, but the musical selections introduced me, or perhaps reminded me of the magnificence of her arts.

One example was Josef Haydn, who now parades out to different music than in past years. Originally, Haydn’s processional music was the Imperial March, the former national anthem of Austria – from the beloved slow movement of Haydn’s Kaiser Quartet, Op 76, No. 3.

But after the former German national anthem (also the alma mater of Yale University) became fatally associated with the Nazis, Austria made the grand post-war gesture of donating the Imperial March to the new Federal German Republic. And so Haydn was given another of his chorales as his parade music on the Anker Clock.

I left Hoher Markt at a quarter after 12, feeling I had a better grasp on Austrian history but also that I had been privileged. Here was a prized piece of Austrian culture, going about its business and still attracting visitors after nearly 100 years. Perhaps it was this ability to transcend several centuries and still appeal to a modern world that seemed so moving, that spoke for its importance and relevance.

History has a place in this world, and the Anker clock will quietly continue to chime the time away.

Other articles from this issue