Archive for October, 2005

The Strauss Family: Waltzes, Polkas and Marches


The Strauss Family: Waltzes, Polkas & Marches
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Willi Boskovsky
Recorded 1957 to 1976. 6 CDs. Decca #455254

It only takes a few bars – dee-UM-pla pla plaaa – ting ting – ting ting – dee-UM-pla pla plaaa- ting ting – ting ting ……and there we are, the Blue Danube carrying us round the ballroom, suddenly whisked back to the days of Imperial Balls, moustachioed gentlemen in military attire, decottéed ladies in long flowing dresses, rotating round and round beneath the chandeliers…. a Strauss waltz!

Vienna and Johann Strauss I
The waltz first became fashionable in Vienna in about the 1780s (time of Mozart, Haydn and the young Beethoven!). It is thought to be an adaptation of the ländler, a folk dance from Austria and South Germany, which featured hopping and stamping. But as it moved up-class socially, it became smoother and faster. It is a dance in 3/4 time, done primarily in “closed position”, where the commonest figure of movement is a full turn every two bars (six steps). It was the first dance in which the couple embraced; it was thought scandalous – and became highly popular.

Johann Strauss I was the son of a tavern-keeper, a self-taught musician, born in 1804. He ran a dance band, and rose to fame and success playing waltzes, galops, polkas, marches and quadrilles. (Of these, only the waltz is in three-time, the others have the emphasis every second or fourth beat). It was a propitious time: the waltz reached England, and became a craze in 1816, post-Waterloo, just entering an extraordinary 90 years of peace and cultural flourishing.  Johann I’s orchestra became the most renowned in Vienna. He was also a prolific composer, writing over 250 tunes. However, he actively discouraged his sons’ musical ambitions, training them for other professions.

Johann Strauss II
The eldest son born in 1825, Johann II, was destined to become a banker. Johann I forbade his studying music, even though the house was full of it. But with the secret support of his mother, Johann II studied violin, musical theory and composition, began writing music, and even recruited and trained his own orchestra. Then, when he was 19, in 1844, he declared his option for a musical career, and began playing professionally with his orchestra – at Dommayer’s Casino in Vienna. It was immediately apparent that his skills as conductor and leader were as good as his father’s, while in composition his melodies were even more attractive and memorable. During the next 5 years, the two even vied for the same gigs, and their bands played side by side on official occasions. One can imagine the blow to the strict family hierarchy of the times, even though Johann II always acknowledged his debt to his father, and counted him his source of inspiration.

After Johann I’s death in 1849, Johann II’s prestige as the leader of the most successful dance band in Vienna was undisputed. His orchestra was in heavy demand, playing in summer at a different venue every night, and frequently going on tours. The standard line-up was 26 strong – strings, woodwind, brass, percussion. Johann II (portrayed) was called the Waltz King, and his fame spread all over Europe, to Russia and to America. In 1867 he took the orchestra to Victorian London, and conducted 63 concerts!

In 1862 he married Henrietta Treffz, former mistress of a banker, with 7 natural children to her credit. She proved to be a wonderful partner, assuming the management of engagements and orchestral chores. When she died in 1878, Strauss was so lost he rushed almost immediately into another marriage, with Lili Diettrich. This was a disaster, and they separated in 1882. Johann II some years later began living with Adele Deutsch, and he managed to officialize his divorce and marry her in 1887 by changing his religion from catholic to protestant. Adele was also a great manager, and lovingly supported him up to his death in 1899, then looking after his estate up until her death in 1930.

Johann Strauss II was a prolific composer – over 500 waltzes, polkas, polka-mazurkas, marches and quadrilles. His music epitomized the spirit of the times – joyous, carefree and festive. Listen to the titles of some of his best-known compositions – the waltzes Morning Papers (1864), By the beautiful blue Danube (1867), Tales from the Vienna Woods (1868), Wine, Woman & Song (1869), Vienna Blood (1873), Voices of Spring (1883) and the Emperor (1889). Some famous polkas are Annen (1852), Tritsch-Tratsch (1858), Excursion Train (1864), Thunder & Lightning (1868), and Tik Tak (1874). As from 1871, Johann II began writing operas and operettas, of which the best-known are Die Fledermaus (The Bat) (1874), A Night in Venice (1883) and The Gypsy Baron (1885) – 17 all told.

….and his brothers
Brother Josef, two years younger than Johann II, studied and worked as an engineer. But in 1853 he was called to substitute Johann II as conductor of the Strauss orchestra when Johann became seriously ill through overwork (not surprisingly!). Then was discovered another considerable talent, perhaps even more creative and original than Johann II. He contributed another 300 compositions in the genre, and became second conductor of the Strauss orchestra. He continued the trend in evocative names – waltzes Village Swallows from Austria (1864), The Music of the Spheres (1868), Live, Laugh, and Love (1869) –  polka-mazurka Woman’s Heart (1864) and The Dragonfly (1866) – polkas On Holiday  (1863), Without Cares  (1869). Unhappily, he died in 1870, at 43.

Brother Eduard, ten years younger than Johann II, was trained as a diplomat. But he gave this up and was drawn into music, in 1862 becoming too conductor of the Strauss orchestra. He also has 300 compositions to his credit, though they have not proved as famous as those of the rest of the family. In 1906, in an extraordinary act – apparently to fulfil a promise to his brothers – he burned the entire Strauss orchestra library, and the original manuscripts of the whole family. It took seven hours in a furnace, overriding desperate protests….. As a result, most of the orchestrations we hear today are based on secondary sources, recreating what the Strausses might have sounded like. However, Eduard’s descendants are now strong defenders of the cataloguing and recording of the family’s music.

The CDs
There are so many recordings of the Strauss’ dance music. This set of 6 CDs is a bit of an overdose (83 tracks!), but has the stamp of authenticity. The Vienna Philharmonic is faithful to the tradition, and conductor Willi Boskovsky played with the orchestra for years. The different forms – waltzes, polkas etc – have been well mixed together, so it is not dull. On the contrary, the music is fun, often exciting, with a zest which carries the spirit of the 1860s right down to us….

Good listening!

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