Peter Altenberg (Peter Altenberg)

Peter Altenberg

Author.  He was a well-known Viennese literary figure in the years before World War I.  Altenberg noted the world around him with witty,  aphoristic little sketches that blurred the line between poetry and prose.  To keep them brief he often composed them on the backs of postcards.  Typical of his observations are “There is only one thing indecent with nakedness, and that is to find nakedness indecent”,  and “A happy couple:  he does what she wants,  and she does what she wants”.  They were collected in 14 books,  including “As I See It” (1896),  “Ashantee” (1897),  “Pictures of Small Life Forms” (1909),  “Harvest” (1915),  and “My Old Age” (1919).  Altenberg was born Richard Englander in Vienna,  the son of a prosperous Jewish merchant.  He studied law and medicine and quickly abandoned both.  Certified by a doctor as too nervous for any sort of career,  he left home in his early 20s to lead the life of an archetypal bohemian.  He drank a lot,  never had a steady job,  lived in cheap hotel rooms,  and spent most of his time writing and chatting at Vienna’s Cafe Central,  where he had his mail delivered.  Although he converted to Catholicism in 1900,  he came to view organized religion as “a kind of ideal application of persecution complex on human nerves”.  His circle of admirers included architect Adolf Loos,  painter Gustav Klimt,  and authors Arthur Schnitzler,  Hugo von Hofmannsthal,  and Karl Krauss,  who aided him financially and helped get him published.  Novelist Thomas Mann said he fell in love with Altenberg’s style “at first syllable”.  He died of pneumonia at 59,  a consequence of his habit of sleeping with the windows open during winter.  Today he is probably best remembered for composer Alban Berg’s atonal cycle “Five Orchestral Songs After Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg” (1912).  Its 1913 premiere was aborted after the audience began to riot;  the sensitive Berg withdrew the score and it did not receive a complete performance until 1952.  The Cafe Central still exists and a life-size statue of Altenberg is seated at his favorite table. (bio by: Bobb Edwards)


  • March, 09, 1859


  • January, 01, 1919


  • Zentralfriedhof
  • Austria

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