Waltzing with Strauss in Vienna

THE AUSTRIAN music scholar, Max Graf wrote, “If there exists a form of music that is a direct expression of sensuality, it is the Viennese Waltz…”

What is it about the waltz that has kept listeners mesmerised for so long and will undoubtedly continue to do so? The waltz was a smash hit from the start and swept out of Germany in the middle of the eighteenth century to conquer all of Europe, inspiring an old German verse: “Whosoever the dance did discover, had in mind each maid and lover with all their burning ardour.”

The word waltz derives from the Italian “volver” meaning to turn or revolve and was an outgrowth of the country dance, the landler. The hopping and jumping were replaced by polished and graceful gliding movements. Initially, the waltz was rather low-brow and provincial, as it was rural people who found the whirling steps so appealing. In those days, there was something rather unsavoury about a woman being gripped in a man’s embrace while whirling in a frenzy around the dance floor!

This was quite a contrast to the stately dances of the aristocracy where a certain distance was kept. A first-hand account of a village dance in the latter part of the eighteenth century read: “The men dancers held up the dresses of their partners very high so that they should not trail and be stepped on, wrapped themselves both tightly in the covering, bringing their bodies as closely together as possible, and thus whirling about went on in the most indecent positions… As they waltzed around on the darker side of the room, the kissing and the hugging became bolder still. It is the custom of the country, I know, and not as bad as it looks, but I can quite understand why the waltz has been banned in parts of Swabia and Switzerland.”

Naturally, the scandalised upper classes could not endure the lower classes having all the fun, and so, in time, the waltz achieved a degree of legitimacy, without losing any of its basic appeal.

The ancestry of the Viennese waltz goes back to the rural inns and taverns on the outskirts of Vienna and the banks of the Danube, with travelling orchestras ensuring that the waltz craze reached epidemic proportions.

And it was into this dance-mad atmosphere that we discover Josef Lanner and Johann Strauss the elder, who were both members of the same orchestra before they each set up their own bands to tour all over Europe. With these composers, the waltz gained sophistication and a distinctly light-hearted spirit.

Johann Strauss Senior had six legitimate children and five illegitimate children but it was his son, Johann Strauss the Younger (legitimate!) who claimed the title of the Waltz King. His father, however, was vehemently opposed to his son’s musical ambitions and even whipped him on one occasion when he found him playing the violin.

Yet Johann II persevered, assembling his first orchestra at the age of 19 with instant success. The headline in a Viennese paper read “Good night Lanner. Good evening Father Strauss. Good morning, Son Strauss.” From then on, the two Strauss family orchestras ran in open rivalry with each other until 1849, when the elder Strauss contracted scarlet fever from one of his illegitimate children and was found in his apartment dead, naked and abandoned by his mistress. She had taken her children and all her possessions and vanished off the face of the earth.

Johann Strauss II then combined the two orchestras and enjoyed a fabulously successful career, eventually running six orchestras simultaneously. Is there anyone who doesn’t know the Blue Danube, composed in 1867 with the claim of being the best known piece of music ever written? In 1872, Strauss was invited to America to conduct that very waltz for the colossal fee of $100,000 for 14 performances! At another concert he conducted a choir of 20,000 in front of an audience of 100,000. After a short tour, he doubled his money and returned to Europe a millionaire.

In 1863, he met Offenbach who was at the height of his fame and in Vienna for a production of Orpheus in the Underworld and he and Strauss decided to enter a competition to write the best waltz for a ball – Offenbach won! This was the spur to write something for the stage, and after a few flops, Strauss came up with one of the most perfect examples of the operetta genre – Die Fledermaus and Die Zigeunerbaron.

His flair, energy and creativity never left him and when his third wife, Adele, introduced him to Brahms, the two became close friends. Brahms’ death in 1897 left Strauss intensely depressed.

To this day, the tradition of the waltz is deeply steeped in Austria with the famous New Years’ Concert in Vienna being sold out a full year in advance.

The concert reaches not only those lucky enough to have tickets (prices range from 20-680 euros for the New Year’s Eve concert and 20-380 euros for the New Year’s Day concert) but also to over 50 countries through television broadcasts.

The concerts originated during a dark period of Austria’s history and were initially conceived for a local audience as a reminder of better times and a source of hope for the future. Today, millions of people throughout the world are similarly encouraged with the light-hearted but profound character of this music.

The history and association of the Vienna Philharmonic with Johann Strauss, Jr. goes right back to April 22, 1873 with the premiere of the waltz Wiener Blut op 354 conducted by Strauss himself with violin in hand at the Musikverein.

The work was encored and the collaboration between the ‘serious’
Philharmonic musicians and the ‘King of Waltz’ was considered a veritable sensation.

On October 14, 1894, the Philharmonic celebrated Strauss’ fiftieth conducting anniversary with the composer presenting the orchestra with a commemorative medal and telegram saying “ Warmest appreciation to the great artists of the famous Philharmonic, not only for your masterful playing, but also for the expression of your kind sentiments, which has given me great joy….Johann Strauss.”

Unfortunately, the following encounter between Strauss and the orchestra was tragic as, while he was conducting the overture to Die Fledermaus, he caught a cold which developed into pneumonia proving fatal on June 3, 1899.

It was the conductor Clemens Krauss, a great supporter of Strauss’ music who initiated the Vienna Philharmonic’s Strauss tradition with a concert on August 11, 1929 exclusively of the composer’s music. The first ‘true’ “New Year’s Concert” took place on January 1, 1941 under the baton of Krauss, who led these concerts until the end of the war. After his death in 1954, concertmaster Willi Boskovsky took over the artistic direction of the concerts for over 25 years. When in 1980, he was forced to relinquish the concerts, the Philharmonic chose Lorin Maazel and since 1986, the conductors have varied each year.

New Year’s concert conducted by Zubin Mehta will be broadcast on CyBC 2 at 12h15.