It’s the 185th anniversary of the Waltz King’s birthday today. Thus, we recollect our thoughts on the suave, charismatic and flamboyant composer of Viennese waltzes and other dance music.
I’m certain that many Strauss fans have waxed lyrical over his exquisite waltzes and other dance pieces and that the joie de vivre in his masterworks have been enduringly popular even till this day.
While we primarily remember Johann Strauss II for his most famous composition, the Blue Danube waltz, I’ve had the good fortune to sample some of his lesser-known waltzes in the past year or so. Of course, not every composition under this name is delectable. Quite a number of them are mediocre and most others are just listenable and pleasant though not necessarily memorable.
Still, the founder of the famous Strauss Dynasty was not Johann Strauss, Jr. – his father, also named Johann Strauss (14 March 1804 – 25 September 1849) paved the way for his sons (though unintentionally) to establish the musical dynasty.
Johann Strauss I probably did not enjoy as much popularity as his son, nor possessed a musical talent as great – but his works are not poor by any conceivable standards. His famous ‘Radetzky-March’ op.228 is almost always the final piece of the Wiener Philharmoniker’s Neujahrskonzert and the jaunty piece is just as original as some of his son’s best inspirations. Johann Senior’s waltzes are melodic and tuneful – among them are:
(a) Wiener Carneval op.3;
(b) Kettenbrucke Walzer op.4;
(c) Das Leben ein Tanz oder Der Tanz Ein Leben op.49 (which is highly-recommended, though relatively rare)
(d) Paris-Walzer op. 101;
(e) Wiener Gemuths Walzer op. 116;
(f) Lorelei Rhein Klange op. 154 (which is IMO the best waltz written by Strauss father)
Strauss Father was also awarded the honorary KK Hofballmusikdirektor position by the Habsburg monarchy and Johann Jr and Eduard ensured that it the position was retained within the Strausses until the dawn of the following century.
This, we have to balance between the fact that by the 1850s, Strauss was already an established conductor and showman pretty much in demand in his native Vienna and most of Europe – conducting waltzes and other dance music for the ballrooms and other festivities for the Viennese. Early sojourns took him and his orchestra to Pavlovsk in Russia where he conducted for many summers and probably amassed a sizeable fortune in the process. When the engagements became far too hectic to be managed as far as home obligations were concerned, Johann (“Schani”) hastened to press brother Josef Strauss (20 August 1827 to 22 July 1870) (also known as “Pepi”) to deputize for him in the Vienna home base. Josef complied albeit reluctantly but became so popular that he shirked the idea of going back to the architect’s drawing board, which was his initial profession. Johann once generously quipped that “Pepi is the more talented of us brothers; I’m merely the more popular” which may be rather fanciful but nonetheless charming. Whether true or not – posterity seems to agree: Josef’s works while almost always more emotional and sentimental in style as compared to the brash and direct style of his brother’s, retain a highly-individual style as can be heard in waltzes like ‘Village Swallows from Austria’, ‘Watercolors’, ‘Dynamiden’, ‘Transactions’,‘Deliriums’, and ‘My Character is Love and Joy’, the last of which is probably one of the best the Strauss family ever wrote.
Eduard (“Edi”) Strauss (15 March 1835 – 28 December 1916), the last surviving member of the Strauss dynasty had a peculiar predicament. I’d say that his works are not bad, in fact, a handful of lovely waltzes do exist – ‘Fesche Geister op. 75’ and ‘Doctrinen Walzer op. 79’ count among some of the pieces worthy of the concert hall rather than the polished parquet of a ballroom. But Edi had a trick up his sleeve. Where his two elder brothers triumphed in waltz competition, he made the polka-schnell genre his own. The fast polka (or galop) in 2/4 time hardly plays more than three minutes on average and would be arguably difficult in creating a lasting impression among his listeners. No matter – Eduard Strauss wrote imperishable examples like the ‘Bahn Frei op.45’, ‘Ohne Aufenhalt op. 112’ and other gems in similar style. Regardless, Edi may not be the composer that history recognized as one of the best but he did lead the Strauss Orchestra into the 20th century and established another generation of following for his family’s music. One gripe about this composer was this – Josef and him had a pact whereby in the event one brother died, the surviving brother would have the authority to destroy the deceased brother’s musical archives. Edi sat down in front of a furnace in Vienna’s Mariahilf district in 1907 and oversaw the large-scale destruction of Strauss family archives, including brother Johann’s. We may never know what transpired but we do know that it was one hell of a rash decision.
(in the next issue of Johann Strauss II, we look at his best works and some of the worst dreck ever to flow out of his composition pen)