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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Waltz King

As a young conductor in my 20s my focus was on being a serious conductor of serious things, taking myself oh so seriously and wanting others to do the same. I didn't have time for light music and especially I didn't have time for Strauss waltzes. Strauss waltzes had never been part of my world, despite the efforts of my mother who had bought me a recording of Strauss waltzes when I was a child. So as a young conductor I viewed this repertoire with thinly-veiled contempt...until I actually had to conduct it.

I think my first exposure to conducting Johann Strauss was the overture to Die Fledermaus, a notoriously difficult piece which is often set as a technical test for young conductors. I failed miserably and to this day I have issues in my head with that overture. I think it was the Emperor Waltz, though, which revealed to me the real depth in Strauss's writing, and the real skill required to perform it. Through personal experience I came to respect the music of Johann Strauss II in a way I never thought I would, and I credit my conducting teacher, the late Myer Fredman, with giving me the subtleties of technique required to conduct it. Since then I have performed what might loosely be called "Viennese repertoire" a lot, and it's music I love to perform. In this program I want to look at the life and work of Johann Strauss, the man referred to even in his own day as the Waltz King. [listen]

Johann Baptist Strauss the younger was born in the suburbs of Vienna on 25 October, 1825. His mother was Maria Anna Strauss, née Streim. His father, also called Johann Strauss, was a struggling young musician. In time, though, the elder Strauss would become the most famous dance band director and composer in Vienna.

Johann Strauss Snr (1835)

The younger Strauss grew up, therefore in a very musical household. He was the eldest of six children, and two of his younger brothers - Josef and Eduard - would eventually become composers as well. But their father was not keen on any of them becoming musicians. Strauss senior knew full well how difficult and precarious a musician's life could be, and he wanted his children to have safer and more secure lives.

In 1841 Johann junior entered the Commercial Studies Department of the Vienna Polytechnic Institute with a view to fulfilling his father's desire for him to become a banker. Despite showing skill in finance, the young man left the institution in April 1843, aged 17, determined to carve a career for himself in the world of music.

The Strauss family had been enduring ongoing rupture and scandal since 1833 when Johann senior met and started an affair with a young woman by the name of Emilie Trampusch. Between 1835 and 1844 the elder Strauss had fathered seven children with her while still married to Maria Anna. In 1844 the incredibly patient Maria Anna sued her husband for divorce, which was granted two years later. It wasn't until then - 1846 - that the elder Strauss left the household to set up house with Emilie, so life must have been very unsettled for the family, to say the least.

Johann Strauss Jnr

In 1843, after leaving the Polytechnic Institute, the younger Strauss began serious musical studies behind his father's back. He had violin lessons with Fritz Amon, the man who led his father's orchestra, and also studied harmony and counterpoint with leading teachers of the day.

In 1844 Strauss formed his first orchestra, an act which led to further tension with his father. The young man's public debut as an orchestra leader took place in October of that year and the location, Dommayer's Casino, was one of his father's regular venues. The repertoire even included one of his father's compositions, the Lorelei Rhine Sounds Waltz, still regarded as one of the elder Strauss's best waltzes. [listen]

Strauss also included some of his own earliest compositions on that inaugural program. The Epigrams Waltz, later published as his opus 1, was mentioned in one of the reviews as vibrating with rhythmical flourish and glowing with characteristic Viennese lightheartedness. [listen]

Strauss senior was by this time a famous and respected dance orchestra leader; that his son would seem to take him on, and in one of his regular venues, was much talked about. But the event was a coup for the younger man. Of this debut performance, one Viennese critic wrote: "Strauss's name will be worthily continued in his son...three-quarter time will find a strong footing in him". All other press comment was favourable as well; the young Strauss couldn't have got off to a better start.

But it wasn't instantly plain sailing. For the next five years, until his father's death, Strauss struggled to get enough work for himself and his orchestra and they often had to travel outside of Vienna for engagements. In 1845 he received his first official recognition with the granting of the honorary and largely ceremonial title of Bandmaster of the 2nd Vienna Citizens' Regiment (at the time Strauss senior was Bandmaster of the 1st Regiment). And in 1847 young Strauss began a long association with the Vienna Men's Choral Association. Many of his later works (including the Blue Danube) would incorporate parts for men's chorus, written for this choir, but to mark the start of their association Strauss dedicated to them a waltz which was purely orchestral, Singers' Journeys. [listen]

Von Alt: Opera Crossroads, Vienna (1876)

In 1848 Vienna didn't escape the wind of revolution which swept across Europe. Initially Strauss sided with those seeking reform, as opposed to his father, who sided with the Habsburg monarchy. Johann junior expressed his solidarity in the Revolutions March, which is written in the Hungarian style. [listen]

Siding with the revolutionaries instantly made Strauss the younger a political and social outcast from the point of view of the establishment. Realising this would damage his career he switched his allegiances, but he had already badly undermined his position in society. The attempts to ingratiate himself with the new young Emperor, Franz Joseph, included the writing of the Franz Joseph March, which was first performed in August 1849. [listen]

The following month, Strauss the elder died, and this marked the real start of the younger Johann's ascent to the heights of Vienna's musical world. He merged his own orchestra with that of his father and many of the contracts which his father's orchestra held for performances at balls and at concerts transferred to his son.

In 1852 Strauss composed what is regarded by many as the first of his "master" waltzes. He'd begun to develop the waltz form substantially, beyond the simpler structures of those written by his father and other earlier waltz composers like Joseph Lanner. Some of his introductions are long and almost symphonic, and the sequence of waltzes is coherent and homogenous. The codas often reprise melodies heard earlier and the whole was dressed in exquisite orchestration. We shouldn't forget that one of Strauss's contemporaries was Johannes Brahms, who often spoke very highly of Strauss's skill as an orchestrator.

Joseph Lanner
Strauss and Brahms (1894)

The first waltz which gives an indication of Strauss's future directions was the Liebeslieder (or Lovesongs) waltz of 1852. Of this piece the Allgemeine Wiener Theaterzeitung, one of Vienna's leading theatre journals, wrote, "It now turns out for certain that Strauss the Father has been fully replaced by Strauss the Son". [listen]

Strauss was working incredibly hard and experienced a physical and emotional collapse only a year later. This necessitated a seven-week rest cure in the country and over the following years he often had to take major breaks like this to recover from the sheer volume of work he was undertaking.

It was around this time that he reached an agreement with the Tsarkoye-Selo Railway Corporation to direct a summer concert season in Pavlovsk, near St Petersburg in Russia. The experience was successful and lucrative for both parties, so much so that he returned every summer to lead these concerts until 1865, and continued to perform there less-regularly until 1869.

Some of Strauss's best-known works date from this period, including the Trisch-Trasch Polka, the Pizzicato Polka, the Im Krapfenwald Polka (known in English as the Cuckoo Polka) and this, the Champagne Polka. [listen]

In January 1855, the Vienna Morning Post described Strauss as "a true beachcomber of world history". This referred to a canny marketing ploy on Strauss's part whereby he commemorated social, cultural, technological and political events in the titles he gave to his music.

Strauss's huge output includes waltzes with titles such as Telegraphic Dispatches (referring to the new means of long distance communication), Vibrations (referring to a popular form of massage), and Motors (a title inspired by new developments in engineering). The interestingly-titled Paroxysms Waltz was written for a ball held by medical students, and the Electro-Magnetic Polka of 1852 [listen] was named after a term Strauss just found when he picked up a scientific journal. In the words of the Grove article on Strauss, "The titles and dedicatees of his compositions may be viewed as a musically-illustrated guide to about 50 years of European history".

An example of a work inspired by world events is the Egyptian March, composed for the concerts in Pavlovsk in 1869, the year the Suez Canal opened. The trio section contains a cute little moment in which the members of the orchestra are briefly required to sing along with the tune. In this video, the members of the Vienna Philharmonic clearly relish their moment to shine vocally... [listen]

Johann Strauss, with his brother Josef, held sway over Vienna's dance music world from the late 1850s until Josef's death in 1870. There was a friendly rivalry between the two brothers and between them they produced some of the finest music of its type ever written. The development of the waltz into a work nearing symphonic proportions, and the fact these pieces work as well in a concert as they do in the ballroom, says much for the musical sophistication they achieved. The waltzes Artist's Life, Tales of the Vienna Woods, Wine, Women and Song, and the most famous of them all - At the Beautiful Blue Danube - were all written at this time, regarded as the peak of Strauss's career.

Josef Strauss

Another was Morning Papers, a waltz which was born out of another example of friendly rivalry, this time with the French operetta composer Jacques Offenbach, who visited Vienna in 1863. In 1864 Strauss conducted the premiere of an unnamed waltz by Offenbach at a ball held by the Vienna Authors' and Journalists' association. The event's committee named Offenbach's waltz Evening Papers, and the companion waltz Strauss wrote for the same event was given the name Morning Papers. [listen]

Strauss didn't like travelling and only undertook tours when he felt he absolutely had to. Still, he managed to cover some large distances, with journeys to Paris, London and Berlin, as well across the Atlantic to Boston and New York. In Berlin in 1889 he premiered the well-known Emperor Waltz. In London he wrote a waltz called Memory of Covent Garden, based on popular English tunes.

Johann Strauss

Both Johann and Josef Strauss championed Liszt and Wagner, neither of whose music was held in high esteem in Vienna at the time. Johann included "futuristic" elements, suggestive of techniques used by Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, in his waltz called Wellen und Wogen (Waves and Billows) of 1852.

Strange as it may seem to us, Giuseppe Verdi too was very unpopular in Vienna at the time, and likewise the brothers included Verdi opera extracts in their programs.

Johann Strauss went further and based three of his own compositions on melodies by Verdi. A good example is Verdi's opera Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball). This was premiered in Rome in 1859 but didn't make it to the stage in Vienna until 1866. Four years earlier, though, in 1862, Strauss introduced Viennese audiences to its tunes in the Un ballo in maschera Quadrille. [listen]

Viennese theatre managers were looking for a home-grown antidote to the operettas of Offenbach, which were all the rage in Vienna at the time. Strauss started experimenting with operetta in the mid-1860s, but the first of his operettas to make it to the stage was Indigo and the Forty Robbers, which was produced in 1871. It received mixed reviews, but one critic said, "it promises the most splendid expectations for the future". Eduard Hanslick, always a tough critic, was less kind, describing it as no more than "Strauss dance music with words added and ascribed roles".

Strauss was not a natural theatre composer and by all reports he found the process of writing operetta rather difficult. All up he wrote fourteen operettas and one grand opera but only three of the operettas have found a lasting place in the repertoire. The earliest of these, Die Fledermaus, (The Bat) dates from 1874. [listen]

The other two Strauss operettas which still have some currency today are A Night in Venice (1883) and The Gypsy Baron (1885). Ever the shrewd operator, even while his career focus in later life was on the theatre, Strauss maintained a presence in Vienna's ballrooms and concert halls by way of his clever arrangements of tunes from his operettas into polkas and waltzes. Many of these instrumental works have remained popular today even after the operettas which inspired them have been long forgotten. The most famous waltz which grew out of an operetta is probably Roses from the South, based on melodies from The Queen's Lace Handkerchief. Among the polkas, the At the Hunt Polka is perhaps the best-known of the stage-inspired ones, using themes from Cagliostro in Vienna.

Johann Strauss II was married three times. His first wife, Henrietta Treffz (known as Jetty), was a well-known mezzo. She married Strauss in 1862 but died in 1878. Six weeks later Strauss married the actress Angelika Dittrich (known as Lili) but it turned out to be an unhappy union. After many legal and religious complications they divorced in 1882 after four and a half years of marriage. Strauss seems to have found great happiness with his third wife, Adèle Deutsch whom he married a month after the divorce from Lili was finalised. All three women are commemorated in musical works by Strauss: Jetty in the Bluette-Polka, Lili in the Kiss Waltz, and Adèle in this piece, the Adèle Waltz. [listen]

Johann and Adèle Strauss

Strauss's only grand opera, Ritter Pásmán, dates from 1892 and the success of the ballet scene in that work led to friends of Strauss suggesting he write a full length ballet, something he'd never done before. Initially unenthusiastic about the idea, Strauss was persuaded to take part when a public competition was held to find a subject for the new Strauss ballet. The panel of judges included the critic Hanslick and none other than Gustav Mahler, who was then Director of the Vienna Court Opera. The subject which won was Aschenbrödel, the German name for the fairytale character we call Cinderella. Strauss's version, though, was very much an updated one, set in a department store. Sadly, he didn't live to complete the score. He developed pneumonia in the spring of 1899 and died on 3 June, aged 73. By the time of his death he'd finished the rough draft of the score and had orchestrated Act One and parts of Act Three. Aschenbrödel was completed by others, mostly using Strauss's own music from elsewhere, and it was premiered in May 1901, two years after his death. [listen]

Johann Strauss was given the nickname of the "Waltz King" during his lifetime, and no-one deserves the accolade better than he. In addition to his sixteen stage works, he wrote more than 150 waltzes, about 130 polkas, about 60 quadrilles, and more than 30 marches, in addition to many other pieces. He characterised an age and gave voice to an ethos which nowadays seems to define 19th century Vienna.

Strauss Monument, Stadtpark, Vienna

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2011.

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