The Strauss family led Europeans in a joyous waltz in a repressive era. But what was the secret that prevented Johann II, the greatest of the Strauss, from dancing himself?
if any composer can be said to have discovered the secret of eternal youth, it was johann strauss ii. For more than 40 years, he led Europe’s greatest salon orchestras of the 19th century with a violin in one hand and a bow in the other, and inspired a dance fad that rivals anything in today’s nightclubs. The social morality of a sexually repressive era was put on hold as entwined couples swirled and chased across the dance floor, their soaring spirits intensified by the heady flow of champagne and Strauss’s indelible melodies.
Strauss quickly became an icon, the widely adored Peter Pan of the ballroom scene. a famous photograph, taken on his terrace in 1894 with his friend and admirer brahms (see page 37), says a lot. brahms at 61, with his long gray beard, is every inch of the aging great. the charismatic Strauss, with a full head of slicked-back jet-black hair, still looks young; surprisingly, he was almost 70 years old.
for many years, strauss’s music was dismissed as “light” and not to be taken seriously. However, it was greatly admired at the time, not only by Brahms, but also by music heavyweights such as Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss (no relation), and remains popular today, as we prepare to dance. christmas and new year. Even Vaughan Williams, who had little time for parlor miniatures, grudgingly admitted that “a Johann Strauss waltz is good music in its rightful place.”
times have been much kinder, and in recent years the record label marco polo has completed the herculean task of presenting all the music of johann ii on cd, while bärenreiter is gradually publishing the complete works, more than 600 pieces in total, exactly like strauss. originally intended them.
The most remarkable thing about Strauss’s prodigious musical output is the impressive variety he achieved within very narrow parameters. He inherited the waltz form developed by his father, Johann Senior and Josef Lanner, a short introduction, usually followed by five waltzes and a coda, and gave it symphonic coherence and heady nostalgia. in doing so, he elevated this seemingly simple dance style from its relatively humble beginnings to mini-masterpieces worthy of the concert hall.
Not even the likes of Lanner, Emil Waldteufel, Franz Lehár, and Emmerich Kálmán, not to mention Strauss’s father and younger brothers, Eduard and Josef, matched the consistency of Johann II’s invention. It’s no wonder that his music has become the focus of New Year’s celebrations around the world, especially in his hometown of Vienna.
it soon became apparent that johann ii would become a serious musical rival to his father. Johann Senior, who is chiefly remembered today for his Radetzky March, wrote 251 published works, including 152 waltzes. he had established a phenomenal reputation with his own dance orchestra, for which he was rewarded in 1846 with conducting the court balls in vienna, a post he held until his death. At the time, 21-year-old Johann Junior was a fluent composer and, much to the disapproval of his father (he didn’t want his daughter to take up music), had achieved some success leading his own ensemble. of local musicians.
in 1849 johann senior died. His son, Johann II, merged his father’s orchestra with his own to form a super virtuoso ensemble and wowed Austria, Germany, Poland and Russia in quick succession. In 1863, he took over as director of court balls, eventually handing over the baton of responsibility to his younger brother, Edward, in 1871. Edward also became responsible for conducting the Strauss family orchestra, and kept it up. until its dissolution in 1901. In addition, he produced some 300 works, although nothing he composed seriously rivaled his brother’s output in popularity.
Acquitted of responsibility for conducting court dances, Johann II accepted an invitation to perform a series of “monster concerts” in Boston during 1872. For a memorable performance, he conducted an orchestra of 2,000 and a chorus of 20,000 people, with the help of 100 assistant directors who valiantly tried to keep everything under control. but it almost went wrong. Strauss later recalled that when his specially illuminated staff was lowered to set the blue danube in motion, “a dreadful fight ensued, the likes of which I shall never forget.” much to his relief, the audience of 100,000 people enjoyed it.
it was around this time that his first wife, the celebrated mezzo-soprano jetty treffz, finally persuaded him to try his hand at operetta, as suppé and offenbach. In just the third try, Strauss hit the jackpot in 1874 with Die Fledermaus. He wasn’t entirely comfortable working in the medium, but a first-rate libretto by Richard Genee (himself a gifted composer) and Strauss’s ability to produce inspired melody meant it soon established itself as the most popular operetta of all time. time.
in 1878, pier died after years of painful illness. Just a few weeks later, Strauss married again, this time to actress ‘Lili’ Dittrich. This less-than-happy arrangement survived for only four years: Lili eventually left with Franz Steiner, a theater director. But undeterred, the 53-year-old composer quickly fell for a recently widowed young admirer, Adèle Strauss (no relation). Such was her devotion to her that he renounced her Austrian citizenship in order for the Catholic Church to officially recognize her divorce from Lili. Adèle, for her part, remained absolutely faithful to him.
Meanwhile, the hits kept coming despite Strauss’s lifelong battle with ill health. and far from showing a decline in invention, his later work remains astonishingly fresh. Der Ziguenerbaron (The Gypsy Baron), for example, finds Strauss nearly reinventing the operetta genre by adopting popular Hungarian and Viennese styles. Featuring a band of gypsies, hidden treasure, an inheritance, and a series of mistaken identities, the irresistibly frothy concoction of him is served with lashes of cheekiness from the orchestra pit.
during 1894, vienna honored the 50th anniversary of strauss’s professional debut with several days of celebrations, as congratulatory letters and telegrams poured in from around the world. His last operetta, Die Göttin der vernunft (The Goddess of Reason) premiered in March 1897. Unfortunately, Strauss was too ill to attend: he was already suffering from the bronchial ailment that would eventually kill him. however, the terminally ill Brahms strove to see him; three weeks later he was dead, while strauss survived another two years.
Johann’s younger brother, Josef, had died years earlier in 1870 at the age of just 43. he collapsed in the director’s box, probably due to an inoperable brain tumor, but he had left a deep musical impression. In fact, many fans think he was more talented than Johann II, a view shared by his more famous brother. Josef was an artistic all-rounder, inventor, architect and designer and conductor of the family orchestra when Johann II was indisposed.
among josef’s 283 works are music of the spheres and the unforgettable dynamiden, which richard strauss later adapted for his operatic pasticherie, der rosenkavalier. Josef and Johann II also collaborated on four pieces, including the popular polka pizzicato.
the only brother left alive, eduard now decided to honor an extraordinary private contract signed years before with josef. there was an agreement that if eduard was no longer directly associated with the orchestra, the family’s music archive would be destroyed to protect against plagiarism and unsolicited arrangements. so, in October 1907, he set this priceless treasure on fire. it is only through the dedicated efforts of societies and fans around the world that much of it has been painstakingly reconstructed from existing performance pieces.
and yet the author of many of these works, johann ii, hid an extraordinary secret: he was, in fact, a lousy dancer.
“That’s why”, she confided to a friend during one of her first concerts in Russia, “I have to give a firm ‘no’ to the many tempting and seductive invitations to the dance.”