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Defending The Waltz King

by Margaret Montet


Margaret's essays are travel narratives with memoir, research, and anecdotes braided in. She is a college librarian pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and teaches wildly original Music History courses to older adults and Effective Speaking to college students. Her work has been published in Danse Macabre, Pink Pangea, Toastmasters Magazine, Edible Jersey, Library Journal, and other fine periodicals.

“You know, that was just entertainment; that wasn’t high art.” And so it started: the young man behind us on the bus apparently did not enjoy the Strauss/Mozart concert we attended as an optional excursion from our week-long river cruise. It continued: “You can tell because the orchestra was smaller. The Cleveland (Orchestra) is much bigger and they play pieces forty minutes long sometimes at their concerts. I’ve heard them five or six…or six or seven times. I heard them play Disney music.” He was criticizing the small orchestra, but more so the musical selections of the evening. The same guy who respects Disney movie music could not accept the enduring melodic invention and exquisite orchestrations of a true innovator named Johann Strauss.

The young man’s criticisms were especially obnoxious to me because I had just recently overcome my own prejudices against the Strauss family and sorted out who’s who. Knowing that I would be visiting Vienna twice this summer, I wanted to know more about this famous family of waltz and light-music composers that I had been taught to ignore as a college music major. Perhaps stern Professor Parker said something like, “We do not study the music of Johann Strauss in this classroom. You must realize that it is not serious art music and not worth our attention.” That’s the kind of edict she would issue in our Music History III course often. I did not dare pay attention to Johann Strauss for decades. Here in Vienna, though, Strauss’s music, portrait and name are found everywhere. Now with a group of writers for my second Viennese visit, I find myself staying in, of all places, the Johan Strauss Hotel. In-between lectures and seminars, I visited the famous golden statue of Strauss in the Stadtpark, and the Kursalon, the concert hall where Strauss conducted many concerts.

There’s not a lot written about the Strausses besides brief encyclopedia entries, but I found a couple of scholarly articles and a fine collection of their waltzes, polkas, and marches with impressive album notes. My new Strauss compact discs received a lot of play in recent months and I began to wonder why waltzes make us want to waltz. It’s counterintuitive, really, because waltzes have three beats in a measure, and most humans have two feet. I haven’t found the answer to this, but the quest has been most delightful. While in Vienna, I even found time to visit his apartment, now a museum.

The musical Strausses captivated greater Vienna for almost a century. The first musical Strauss was Johann. He came from Leopoldstadt, a suburb of Vienna, and his father was a tavern owner. Johann’s father died while Johann was young, and his mother married an innkeeper. This innkeeper stepfather tried to steer young Johann away from a career in music and into an apprenticeship in either bookbinding (or bookkeeping depending on who you read). Strauss loved music, though, and managed to learn how to play the viola well enough to abandon his apprenticeship at age fifteen and join an orchestra at a restaurant. Back in those days in Vienna, cafes, beer gardens, and other restaurants sponsored their own orchestras or band, much like the concept of the modern “house band.” By 1819, Strauss and his friend Josef Lanner were ready to go off on their own and start their own orchestra led by Lanner. They played at inns, ballrooms, and dance halls besides the usual cafes and beer gardens, and they became so popular around Vienna that they formed two orchestras, one led by Strauss, and the other by Lanner.

So you see, young man on the bus, these Strauss waltzes and marches and polkas were meant to be entertainment, light music, played by a small orchestra that would fit in a restaurant or ballroom. This was music created to add joy to the lives of the people of the greater Vienna area and inspire them to dance. Johann Strauss was an innovator, really, taking the idea of this new dance step and transforming it into an iconic musical form.

The inevitable happened. Strauss and Lanner had a tiff (creative differences, maybe?) and Strauss began his own orchestra. Around this time he had started composing waltzes which became popular, and in 1830 his band secured a gig at a beer garden and dance hall in Leopoldstadt called Sperlsaal, or ‘Sperl’ for short. Sperl was a destination for foreign travelers, and soon word of Johann Strauss and his waltzes spread beyond Vienna and even Austria, and Strauss took his orchestra on the road. He continued to compose waltzes, marches, and polkas along with other short dance forms and built his fame, fortune, and confidence.

Just before the orchestra’s popularity took off, in 1825, Strauss married a woman named Anna Streim. By all accounts, she was a good partner for him and encouraged his remarkable musical career, both as a performer and a composer. Three sons appeared on the scene: Johann II in 1825, Josef in 1827, and Eduard in 1835. All three showed musical promise, but Strauss the father did not want musical careers for them. Johann the younger wrote his first waltz at age six and wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. He secretly took violin lessons from a member of his father’s band, but when he became of age found himself in a bank job thanks to Johann the father. The son Johann was miserable, but opportunity presented itself in the most unusual way.

Remember how we believed Johann Strauss the elder when he said he was off touring with his orchestra in other parts of Europe? That was partly true, but he was also leading a double life with a mistress and their five children together! He left Anna to live in comfort with Emilie Trampusch, a wealthy widow, while his first, legal, family lived a meager existence. Johann the Younger saw his opening, appealed to his mother, the deserted and devastated Anna, and she set him up with proper music lessons. By age 19, he formed his own orchestra which debuted at Dommayer’s Restaurant in Heitzing. His program included one of his father’s waltzes, Strains of the Lorelei and the Rhine, and a new waltz of his own. Johann the Elder could not attend because he was ill at his ladyfriend’s house, but word of his son’s triumph made it back to the father. Johann the Younger’s fame spread rapidly as his orchestra and original compositions were even better than his father’s. (Sometimes Johann I got carried away trying to thrill audiences with fancy violin stunts that did not fit the purpose of the dance music.) The son is the Johann we recognize today as “The Waltz King,” not the father.

There was not to be a reconciliation of the Johanns but there was a reconciliation of the orchestras. Johann the Elder died from scarlet fever in 1849 with Johann the Younger at his bedside, and was laid to rest in Vienna with thousands attending his funeral. Johann the Younger, The Waltz King, combined the two orchestras and toured extensively in Europe.

So my question remains: why all the traditional negativity towards the Strausses and the waltz? Even on our cruise ship, while the program director was presenting a brief program on another Austrian son, Mozart, the director’s narration bumbled over to Johann Strauss, The Waltz King. “I really don’t like Strauss, though. I do like another Viennese composer named Gustav Mahler.” How can a cruise professional on a cruise named “The Danube Waltz” stand there and profess a distaste for the musical innovator who made the waltz a Vienna institution? This prejudice can’t be simply because the waltz is a shorter form and geared toward dancing. Could it possibly be because there was some scandal surrounding this new dance? Some straight-laced Viennese were shocked at how close the couple stands and how the man was expected to put his arm around the lady’s waist. Nonetheless, the scandalous waltz made its way into serious concert literature, either as a standalone such as Ravel’s La Valse or Chopin’s and Brahms’s waltzes for piano, and as a popular choice for symphonic movements (Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique!). Maybe it was the Strausses themselves who, in spite of their raging popularity in Vienna, caused societies influenced by England’s strait-laced Queen Victoria to gasp in horror. Queen Victoria’s reign began in 1837.

Maybe I have something there. Johann Strauss the Younger had his own romance and marriage problems. Somewhere in his early romantic career, there was an affair with Olga Smirnitskaya, a Russian noblewoman. He met her during the summers he spent near St. Petersburg. His Waltz Reiseabenteuer tells the story of their relationship. He quoted vignettes from it in letters he wrote to Olga. (His letters survive, by the way, but hers do not.) Their love was doomed because her parents did not approve. That was that.

During his marriage to his first wife, Henriette Treffz, Johann II cut down on the touring and only did a few very special concerts. Jetty, as she was known, was an operatic mezzo-soprano who had been the mistress of a wealthy businessman named Eduard Todesco. She had seven children out of wedlock, and they were not all necessarily Todesco’s. She was seven years older than her husband, but as we’ll see, age is just a number to him. During Jetty’s marriage to Johann Strauss the Younger, she insisted that he tour less and compose more. He did exactly that in the 1860s and early 1870s. Bluette Polka Française , Op. 271 from 1862 was dedicated to her. She exposed him to theater music, especially opera and operetta. Jetty died of a heart attack in 1877. I visited the apartment where the Strausses lived. Inside those high-ceilinged, dark-wood-paneled rooms, Johann and Jetty could look out on the fashionable boulevard called the Praterstrasse and watch the pedestrian and carriage traffic. Today the apartment showcases Strauss’s piano, violin, dance cards, a lock of Jetty’s curly dark hair, and scores of scores and newspapers.

After Jetty died, Johann the Younger married Angelika Dittrich (“Lili”), a young actress twenty-five years younger than himself. The age difference was one problem, but Angelika was an embarrassingly loose woman during their marriage, referred to even as a strumpet! (When was the last time you heard someone called a strumpet??) Johann divorced her after five years of turmoil, sort of. The Roman Catholic Church would not give him a divorce, so he and wife number three became Lutherans. Before things got rotten with Lili, he dedicated the Kuss-Walzer, Op. 400, (The “Kiss Waltz”) to her.

Adèle Deutsch became Johann’s third wife. Although thirty-one years younger, she was a companion and inspiration to him. She encouraged his composition and was rewarded with a dedication for her thirtieth birthday, the Adèlen-Walzer, Op. 424.

There’s a painting in the lobby of Vienna’s Johann Strauss Hotel that catches my eye every time I walk by it. It is a portrait of Johann Strauss the Younger in formal white tie. His prominent black mustache is wider than his face and almost wider than his dyed black hair. (Multiple sources agree that he dyed his hair black to retain a youthful look.) His dark eyes stare back at the viewer with a kind gaze, and multiple couples waltz behind him. It’s the same recognizable face one sees all over Vienna. Imagine how difficult it would be for a musician to attain that distinction in this musical city, known as the home of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg.

Strauss would ultimately compose over five hundred dances and sixteen operettas (including Die Fledermaus, A Night in Venice, and Carnival in Rome) which dominated his later years. He’s credited with moving the spirit of the waltz from the country beer garden to the sophisticated city concert hall as a brilliant, expressive musical form.  So I guess the young guy on the bus was right about the early waltz, but probably doesn’t realize that other composers carried it forth into more recent literature.

There’s more to the Strauss Family story. Josef Strauss, the middle brother born in 1827, was a quiet, intelligent kind of kid. His father wanted him to go into the army, but his ideas didn’t fit with that. He studied to become an engineer instead. He was content with his engineering career, playing in amateur musical groups on the side, until brother Johann became exhausted and needed a substitute. Josef hesitated to leave his comfortable existence as an engineer, but consented to temporarily take control of the Strauss orchestra. He became popular in his new role and would compose over 280 waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, and quadrilles (all dances).  He died young, at age 43. Some writers say his compositions had more depth and emotion than Johann’s.

Eduard, the baby brother born in 1835, debuted as a conductor at age 24. He also composed, but excelled as a conductor. He and Josef took over the conducting work for Johann when Johann was married to the demanding Jetty. When Josef died in 1870, Eduard (known as Edi) took the Strauss Orchestra all over the world including to American centenary celebrations. The Strauss brothers often collaborated on their compositions, borrowing each other’s ideas to develop and revise. The Trifolien Waltzer and Schützen Quadrille are two examples of Strauss collaboration.  Have you been to a grade school orchestra concert lately? The Pizzicato Polka, frequently featured on such programs in a watered-down version, started its life as a collaboration between Johann II and Josef.

The death of Johann in 1899 brought on the end of this waltz era. The orchestra disbanded soon after in 1901. The sometimes-harsh music critic Eduard Hanslick said in his obituary for Johann Strauss II, “Along with him we have lost the most original musical talent of Vienna.” Knowing all of this, who would disagree? Hanslick continued: “His melodic invention flowed as delightfully as it was inexhaustible, his rhythms pulsated in lively exchange; harmony and form remained pure and straightforward.” Johann Strauss’s death mask is on display in the apartment on the Praterstrasse. Approaching it, I felt an uncomfortable chilly feeling, probably because I was in the midst of my study of the man and his career. That chill intensified as I noticed his teeth were visible beneath the famous mustache (teeth don’t usually show in a death mask, do they?), and oh, his right eyelid is slightly open. I looked away. I looked back. I looked away, and finally returned my gaze to this mask of the maestro’s face. I was fascinated.

Strauss the Waltz King was an original, and musicians appreciate him still, especially in Vienna. Scholarship on the Strauss legacy is centered at the Wiener Stadt- und Landesbibliothek, or Vienna City Library, the home of the world’s largest Strauss archive. Initiatives there and in conjunction with those musical professionals include:

·         a definitive multi-volume set of the collected works of Johann Strauss II,

·         the Strauss – Elementar Verzeichnis, a three-volume reference catalogue listing Strauss’s works by genre and opus number,

·         a scholarly journal named Der Fledermaus.

This scholarly activity would seem to give the Strauss family, especially Johann Strauss II, some credibility and gravitas. But the Strauss saga is not over; there are more scandals to come. Most of the musical works in this archive are sketches and notebooks rather than complete works. It seems Eduard Strauss had custody of the Strauss Orchestra’s archive since 1870 and he had much of it burned! We don’t know why for sure, but some experts believe he resented not being mentioned in Johann II’s will. Other scholars suggest that Eduard and Josef had a pact to burn the works of whoever died first. Eduard did this, mostly, but saved a few pieces that he really loved. By now, some were already in print and preserved for the future.

And then there’s this not-so-well-kept secret: not every note of Strauss music was written by the Strausses. During the time of Johann Strauss I, it was a fully accepted practice to engage in teamwork when putting together light concert music. Guys in the band would contribute ideas and melodies similar to how jazz musicians work today. In Johann Strauss’s milieu, this was less accepted, both because artists were more concerned with ownership, and because Strauss II was functioning on a more professional world stage. Evidently, chunks of the Die Fledermaus score in the archive is in musician Richard Genée’s handwriting. In light of my new Strauss fan girl status, I would like to think there is a reasonable explanation for this. Could Richard Genée have been picking up a few extra bucks copying for the Maestro? This was a common practice up until the days of digitally printed sheet music. I prefer to think this is the case. We will never know for sure because so many of the manuscripts were burned, but consider that Johann Strauss the Younger was the artistic leader of this waltzing endeavor, and he had high standards anyone composing would have had to meet.

No matter what the critics and scholars say, I prefer to represent the listeners: the musical dilettantes, and the ballroom dancers. The music composed by the members of the Strauss Family is a delight and representative of the Romantic Era in Vienna. It seems to sparkle during the fleeting moments it exists in the air around the listener. “What more can we ask of music?” is what I should have asked that opinionated young man on the bus and Professor Parker.



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