Classical Composer Biography : Johann Strauss II
by Betty Fry
What else would I first listen to for inspiration if not ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz when writing of Johann Strauss. There can be few who have not heard its wonderful lilting music, or who do not think of it at the mere mention of the name of Strauss.
When I was young I just had to dance when I heard it begin. Sometimes on a big well sprung dance floor; sometimes without shoes under the moonlight on the grass of my garden; sometimes around the floor of my kitchen with maybe a wooden spoon or some other kitchen implement in my hand.
Cakes might burn, milk boil over, sink overflow as I was transported like a latter day Cinderella to another world where I dipped and waltzed with a handsome prince charming. There is no other music for dancing that compels me so strongly as does this lovely melody.
Even those first soft notes on the horn sound like a distant call from a fairy land. And then as each new melody enters, the lilt of the waltz grows ever more intoxicating right up to the final rendition of that unforgettable tune.
In my mind’s eye at any rate, no stretch of water was ever more blue and sparkling than the river in the title of this most famous of all waltzes.
It also makes me want to sing. In fact it was originally entitled ‘An der schonen blauen Donau’ which translates to ‘On the Beautiful Blue Danube’, and was first performed with verses sung by a male voice choir. The main theme is the first of several waltz tunes that make up the piece.
With its distinctive three beats the waltz began as a simple Austrian peasant dance called the ‘Landler’.
During the early part of the 19th century serious composers turned the waltz into a really sophisticated dance, and from the ballrooms of Vienna it spread like wildfire across the rest of Europe and America.
It was also the first fashionable dance that required couples to hold each other round the waist, and was therefore quite shocking in some people’s eyes.
But I digress. It is inevitable the various Strausses should be looked at as a family because not only were their careers closely linked, but they all wrote copiously and in not dissimilar styles.
Johann Strauss senior was a world famous violinist; conducted his own band; and composed dance music. Born in 1804, he was the father of three sons, namely, Johann II born in 1825; Josef born in 1827; and Eduard born in 1835.
He had a turbulent marriage, producing children both by his wife, and by a mistress, with the result that he saw little of his legitimate children..
More successful as a musician than as a husband, he became a celebrity in Vienna and throughout Europe, until he died relatively young of scarlet fever.
The small age gap between Johann I and II of only 21 years meant that father and son were nearer contemporaries than might have been expected.
The dominant figure was Johann II whose career quickly eclipsed his father’s.
Josef, though perhaps equally talented, was more retiring and achieved less.
Eduard devoted his time to conducting and produced only a few distinguished works.
There is of course the German composer Richard Strauss who was also a great composer, but who came after the Strauss family of Austria, and was no relation.
Johann Strauss II was initially a bank clerk, but soon followed the family tradition and in 1844 set up his own orchestra.
His success was immediate as he was able to develop his father’s dance forms, including not only waltzes, but gallops, quadrilles, and polkas with richer harmonies and more ambitious structures.
When his father died in 1849 he amalgamated the two orchestras and continued the touring tradition he had started, which included a visit to America, and became known as ‘The Waltz King’.
His married life was as complicated as his father’s. In 1862 he married a popular young singer, Henriette Treffz, but she died in 1878.
He then married Angelika Dittrich whom he eventually divorced, and then married the widow of a banker.
Johann Strauss II composed everywhere and anywhere, and was always jotting down music notes for later reference.
If a piece of paper, napkin or tablecloth was not handy he would write on his shirt cuff. The beautiful Blue Danube waltz was originally sketched on one of his shirts.
Whilst Strauss is most famous for his waltzes, he did write other works, and ‘Die Fledermaus’ is probably his most well known classic operetta.
The term refers to a piece of musical theater that is light and tuneful, with a strong romantic interest, or a good slice of comedy. The characters usually speak their lines between musical numbers, as in straight theater, rather than singing them.
The title ‘Die Fledermaus’ hangs on the famous operetta by no more than a thread. Fledermaus (literally ‘flying mouse’) is German for ‘bat’.
As the story unfolds, it transpires that Eisenstein has left his friend Dr. Falke asleep at a fancy dress party, obliging Falke to make his way home in broad daylight dressed rather absurdly in a bat’s costume. In fact, Falke is never seen on stage as a bat in the operetta.
Johann Strauss II in Vienna, and Jaques Offenbach in Paris. were the first two grand masters of operetta. Then came the Hungarian born composer Franz Lehar, and in England the celebrated team of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.
Johann Strauss deserved his nickname of ‘The Waltz King’ because his waltzes are indeed second to none in melody and charm. But he could write with equal ease in rhythms other than the lilting three-beats-to-the-bar of the waltz, as his dashing polkas testify.
The ‘Tritsch Tratsch Polka has always been one of Johann Strauss’s most popular works. It is a light and high spirited dance in which the orchestra indulges in decorative runs, trills, and humorous flourishes.
The brass and percussion are used to excellent effect, although the furious pace of the dance makes it very demanding on the players.
Strauss recorded in one of his journals that at a London concert the audience demanded to hear it played an unbelievable 38 times. That is probably hyperbole. Nevertheless having heard it played I can well imagine the effect the music might have on an audience caught in its hypnotic exhilaration.
Polkas make up an important part of the classical Viennese dance repertoire, and the title for this polka comes from the German word ‘tratsch’ , meaning gossip. ‘Tritsch’ was added later simply to make the title resemble the English phrase ‘chit-chat’
Nor was Johann Strauss limited to dances. He composed a series of brilliant operettas.
Whatever this master of light music set his hand to, the same graceful Viennese mood and love of melody shines through.
But the waltzes Johann wrote for Vienna’s glittering balls, or for its charming cafes and gardens, made the waltz the world’s favorite dance, and made Vienna itself the most romantic of cities in the eyes and ears of the rest of the world.
Strauss’s operettas similarly reflected this Viennese gaiety and charm. But they did much more than that.
Exported to the U.S.A. they helped to mold the form and style of the American stage and screen musical, which has played so large a part in the popular music of the 20th century.