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.

Greek New Year’s Carols

Here are the lyrics to the Greek New Year’s Carols >

In Greek > 

Ayios Vasilis erhete
Ke den mas katadehete
Apo, apo tin Kessaria.
Si sa arhon, si sa arhondissa Kiria!
Vastaei penna ke harti
Zaharokandio zimoti
Harti, harti ke kalamari
Des kai eme, des kai eme, to pallikari!

To kalamari egrafe
Ti mira tou tin elege
Ke to, ke to harti milouse
To hriso, to hriso mas kariofili!

Arhiminia ki arhihronia
Psili mou dendrolivania,
Ke arhi, ke arhi kalos mas hronos.
Eklisia, eklisia, me t’ ayio throno!

Arhi pou vgike o Hristos
Ayios ke Pnevmatikos,
Sti gi, gi na perpatisi
Ke na mas, ke na mas kalokardisi!

In English >

Saint Basil comes,
And does not acknowledge us
From Caesarea.
You are, you are the mistress of the house!

He holds a pen and paper
And leavened sweets
Paper, paper and ink.
Look at me, look at me, the brave one!

The ink wrote
And told fortunes,
And the, and the paper spoke.
Our golden, our golden clove!

It is the first day of the month and the year,
My tall rosemary,
And from, and from the beginning a good year for us.
The church, the church with the holy throne!

Christ came in the beginning,
Holy and Spiritual;
On earth, on earth he walked
To give us, to give us good cheer!

George Michael’s Xmas > TV, Dad and Me

Couch potato yuletide for ‘Last Christmas’ singer

Pop Superstar George Michael, of Greek-Cypriot origin, is spending Christmas with his dad in front of the TV.

The pop superstar, who scored a massive festive hit in 1984 with ‘Last Christmas’ when he was one half of Wham!, has turned down several invites from his famous friends to spend the day with his Greek Cypriot father Jack.

George, 43, is looking forward to a quiet Yule Tide watching some “good old “Christmas TV” while eating chocolates. Although he can’t wait to start watching the festive programmes, there seems to be one glaring omission from the scheduling on the major terrestrial British channels which is upsetting George.

He told Britain’s Daily Express newspaper: “I’m annoyed that ‘White Christmas’ seems to be missing from the TV schedules this year.”

The Christmas Early Music Festival

Festival that features Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque music organized by local website

How would you like the idea of a Christmas Early Music Festival in the very heart of Athens? Old musical instruments, such as the viola da gamba, the theorbe or the harpsichord, will revive Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque compositions in the hands of skillful soloists. Very slowly yet steadily, Greece is opening its doors to this early music, or the music written before the end of the 18th century, a very long period which has been recently enjoying great popularity on an international level.

Athens’ Christmas Early Music Festival, which will take place tomorrow through Monday at the Goethe Institute, is organized by the Greek classical music website www.classicalmusic.gr, a silent engine which was created in 2003 and has been growing day by day and serves as a forum for all classical music fans who want news and information. The festival now has its own website (www.christmasearlymusic.gr), highlighting the interest that exists in Greece for this kind of music, which so far had found no outlet.

“It is the beginning. We have many dreams and ambitions, but we are going ahead realistically, step by step,” said Thanassis Hadzitheodoridis, the man behind www.classicalmusic.gr. He was designing it for six years, before finally launching it. For Hadzitheodoridis and for all those who are hoping for greater promotion of classical music in Greece, this festival is a move forward in a series of cautious steps. The first cycle of classical music, which had consisted of six concerts, took place in early 2005 at the Benaki Museum and in the German Church. “We didn’t manage to get any sponsorship for the festival,” said Hadzitheodoridis, who has dedicated himself to classical music out of love and personal interest, and devotes as much of his free time as his professional obligations allow. “But the festival went ahead, because the musicians themselves wanted it to. They wanted to start something, finally.”

Soprano Maria Georgarakou, theorbe player Nikos Panayiotidis, the Lyrae Cantis ensemble, which will play secular music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Baroque violinist Simos Papanas, viola da gamba player Angelos Repapis, harpsichordists Katerina Ktona and Katerina Michopoulou, viola player Andreas Georgotas, the Sinfonia baroque ensemble, with 16th and 17th century English compositions, Dimoklis Goudaroulis who plays an authentic old cello and the Concerto Ellenico under Costis Papazoglou with a dolce flute, with the support of the Austrian Embassy, will create the very special atmosphere this kind of music requires.

The venue > The Goethe Institute, where chamber music concerts often take place, is not an ideal venue but it suits this type of music. “It is extremely difficult to find venues suitable to host early music concerts in Athens,” explained Hadzitheodoridis. For instance, the Anglican Church is small, the Saint Dionysius Catholic Church is not available for concerts, Orthodox churches do not provide their premises for concerts and there are no castles or palaces in Athens, he said. “There are, nonetheless, certain venues outside Athens, in Corfu, Crete and even in the Cyclades,” he added.

The festival will feature two concerts daily, so as to facilitate those traveling from out of town to attend it. Fans of early music are scattered all over Greece and there is a vivid interest for the old instruments of the pre-classical period. The Koukourigou brothers from Macedonia, for instance, who make their own guitars, exact replicas of those used in Baroque times, will also be coming to the festival to exhibit some of their creations at the foyer of the Goethe Institute.

“Despite the meagre means of promotion at our disposal,” added Hadzitheodoridis, “we gain from the power of word-of-mouth. It is the most important thing. That is how a community of people who love music was gradually formed. But we have the feeling that we are not even at the beginning yet; we have a lot to do. What is important is that we are moving ahead and we have a lot of ideas for next year.”

The friends of the festival (www.friends.christmasearlymusic.gr) are highly active and there are plans for future lectures, presentations and small-scale recitals.

The Christmas Early Music Festival will take place tomorrow to Monday at Athens’s Goethe Institute, 14-16 Omirou Street, Kolonaki, Athens, tel 210 3661000. Nearest metro station “Panepistimio”. Tickets are available at the Ianos Bookstore, 24 Stadiou Street, Athens, tel 210 3217917. General admission costs 15 euros, 10 euros with a discount. An 85-euro ticket is available for those wishing to attend all concerts.

City of Athens Music Ensemble celebrate Christmas

The City of Athens Music Ensemble greet Christmas this year with a series of performances by the City’s Symphonic Orchestra and Mixed Choir.

Five concerts will be held, on December 11, 17, 23, 27 and 29, featuring works of great classical composers, excerpts of well-known operas and beloved Christmas melodies that will add to the city’s festive atmosphere.

“We want to make the festive season even more enjoyable for Athenians through music which conveys the spirit and magic of Christmas in a unique way,” said Music Ensembles chairman and City Councillor Katerina Katsabe-Marneri.

The programme of concerts is as follows:
Monday, December 11, 2006 – National Opera, Time: 8.30pm
Performance of Sacred Music by Mozart, Bruckner and Wagner, Conductor: Eleftherios Kalkanis

Sunday, December 17, 2006 – Technopolis, Gazi, Time: 8.30pm
“Christmas by Candlelight” with Christmas music by Bach, Pachelbel, Mozart, Gounod and Ireland, Conductor: Eleftherios Kalkanis

Saturday, December 23, 2006 – Neos Kosmos Multi-purpose centre, Time: 8.30pm
Festive performance with excerpts of Operas and Christmas Suites, Conductor: Michalis Economou

Wednesday, December 27, 2006 – Neos Kosmos Multi-purpose centre, Time: 8.30pm
“With plenty of rosewater and icing sugar”, Family Voices, Conductor: Stavros Beris

Friday, December 29, 2006 – Akropol Theatre, Time: 8.30pm
New Year’s Gala with works by Rossini, Bizet, Strauss, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Sarasate, Conductor: Eleftherios Kalkanis

Entrance is free. For further information call 210 9243226, 210 9243227.