Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Music of the Great Composers – Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899)

We're breaking the near four year hiatus in this project; the truth of the matter being that I wasn't sure at this time in history that the subject this post is about, hasn't slipped from the “greatest” column into the “almost greats,” for you see, except for in Austria and often now only during the New Years' celebrations that happen there, this music is all but forgotten these days. Indeed, of all the classical music there is, perhaps the Viennese waltz is the most “dated” of the forms. But we will include him nonetheless: we now come to a composer whose story requires some recognition of his musical family, and the unique circumstances that produced the “Waltz King.”

First, the Vienna of the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars that shattered Europe, something the like would happen a century later. Then, the slow but steady advances in availability of music to wider audiences. There was no recording equipment in use then of course, so printed music became the main means of transmission of music from place to place. Inevitably the able and talented banded together to play popular music of the times, much of it dance music and much of it from Vienna.

In an old book about the Hapsburg Monarchy by the Englishman, Henry Steed, who spent some years there near the turn of the 19th century, he wrote just prior to the outbreak of the Great War: “The Austrians, and especially the Viennese, prefer to jog along comfortably and to let the State manage their affairs for them. They grumble and carp, but their grumbling is rarely serious. Earnestness bores them. The artistic temperament of the people and the efforts long and consistently made by the Government to encourage "amusements" and to discourage interest in intellectual pursuits and in questions of public import, have combined to produce a sceptical indifference that still seems to preclude sustained effort or action.”

At the time of this account, Vienna and much of the Hapsburg Empire had gone on like this for fifty years, among some advantaged classes for far longer. Austria-Hungary was much like our own globalist empires; multi-cultural and diverse, held together by a belief that the monarchy, the dynasty really, sheltered them all. But effort and action in Vienna it seems were the peculiar provinces of talented musicians, who were attempting to keep a valued tradition alive.

That great diverse central European empire, with its elegant multilingual capital, a haunt of the high and mighty on diplomatic missions from foreign powers, with all its society, gaiety, music and art, dancing and merry-making, with all its advantages and disadvantages for the people and for music, managed to survive into the 20th century, until the war destroyed them all.

After 1825, on public and private stages alike, the same period marked the beginning of the grand advance of the piano, a product of the industrial revolution then taking place throughout western Europe and its influence spreading eastward into Russia. For the Strauss family, their ability to play the violin attracted entire generations of young people with musical aptitudes and ambitions with the desire to acquire violins and play them everywhere. The guitar was making steady headway as well, but was less popular. The notion of forming small ensembles of string players, string bands, which had been another established tradition as far back as the 17th century throughout central Europe, was given greater impetus by the demand for dance music, the waltz and eventually the polka.

Europe took nearly 50 years to recover from the effects of war, but by the mid 19th century Vienna and its music were at the peak of their power and influence with the various three quarter timed dance forms invented decades before, now flowering and disseminated everywhere. The nineteenth century Vienna waltz really became the very first popular music of any claim to mass international appeal. Franz Liszt had become the first international touring superstar after Niccolò Paganini had inspired him of the possibilities for fame and fortune. But, by the time Johann Strauss Jr. reached his greatest success, everyone would know who he was and what his music sounded like. He would become so famous and so associated with the waltz that even waltzes by his father and others would automatically be mistaken for his.

Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899) the future "waltz king" was the son of a father with the same name who also wrote music, much of which is still available and some of which is still regularly performed. In fact by the standards later set by his son, the father was certainly no slouch. He would have preferred his son to enter the banking profession rather than follow his example, which was that he had started out orphaned at 12, engaged as an apprentice at a bookbinders' while he became first a competent violinist and then the member of various ensembles until he was working with dance orchestras, essentially string bands that played dance music. 

Dance music: this is a kind of European music that has largely faded away, that during the 19th century was played everywhere. Visitors to Vienna at New Year's or along the Danube in summer may sometimes catch some grand waltz strains, but now it is mostly a fading memory.

However, before backing away from it all as merely musical cliché, let's re-examine why the waltz phenomenon, and later the polka craze, became the first most successful mass musical wave in western history to that time. The father had three sons, Johann Jr., Josef and Eduard. They would all take to writing dance music and the style each used is practically indistinguishable form that of their brothers. Together, all of them combined would churn out so much published music that the stack of their published works would tower over those of the comparative mere piles contributed by the greater composers; you could conceivably carry all of Chopin's music under one arm. One doesn't usually go to this much effort and expense if there weren't someone buying the printed music and playing it elsewhere, and they were. By the 1870's the Viennese dance music craze was certainly going international, to North and South America, China and Japan.

This dance craze was happening all over a war weary Europe that wanted more leisure entertainment, was temporarily content to be ruled by mostly aristocrats (who employed tremendous bureaucracies that slowed down everything imaginable), nobles, and others of means, who threw lavish parties and spillover occasions for the general public. In addition it was a time of new opportunities for industry, business and trade which was feeding more, always scarce, money into the general economy.

Considering old European dance music as merely a prop to the pomp of some of the ceremonials of bygone times would be to date it more than it already is, but even as retro fashions sometimes receive a comeback, so too might a few more of these dried roses reveal their haunting scent. Recall also that this was the romantic era, by which we come to understand a time when there were no radios or televisions certainly, but a time where circulating novels (fiction), romances and staged dramas (and operas) served the same purposes, and where the music was often called upon to support the themes in this fictional literature.

Before leaving the father, it is well to remember him for perhaps his best known work, the Radetzky March, Op. 228. The father and son developed quite differently over the years, the son favoured more liberal democratic politics, while the father preferred the nobility and wrote this march, which is still played with Austrian national fervour, as it was again in 2008: 

RADETZKY  MARCH  -2014-Wien, New Year's Concert

The father's waltz output also serves as a basis for the later development of these dance forms by the sons. Here is one of his biggest waltz productions for the coronation of Queen Victoria in April, 1837. Strauss Sr. who was 33 at the time, was as usual touring away from his family and actually did manage to cross over to London and perform the premiere of this waltz there, later at the newly refurbished Buckingham Palace:

Johann Strauss I -Homage to Queen Victoria Waltz Op. 103 
Conductor: Christian Pollack - Orchestra: Slovak Sinfonietta, Zilina

The father, did not want his sons to have to come up the hard way as he had; they were to be anything but musicians. So what was it that attracted them? For one thing they must have been relatively speaking naturally gifted violinists, all of them. They would also have had more than the usual rudiments of music notation as it pertained to writing for strings. Beyond that, it's a matter of practise and play as much as possible and write it down between shows. That's how pop music was produced at the time and everyone in Vienna liked and sponsored music as an ongoing civic tradition, led of course by the aristocratic families. Much the same was going on in other European capitals at the time.

Johann Strauss Jr. entered the world late in 1825 in a town near Vienna. He was the first and his father was just 21. His father was playing dance music in Vienna and certainly continuing to compose. Three years later he would have a larger ensemble to work with so things were looking up. Nineteen years would pass and the son would study on the sly with the aid of his mother who was eventually separated from his father. Johann Jr. would learn to play the violin, to write music and to lead a string band and he would debut with his own string band in a place that had formerly seen many of his father's successes. His father, now forty years old, was so furious with his son for his disobedience, that he had already beaten him once over music, that this time his father vowed never again to play in that place. Of course the father couldn't give up music either and now was beginning to be in competition with his own son!

They didn't just write waltzes as we have already seen. Here's Under Thunder and Lightening (Unter Donner und Blitz) played by the Bavarian State Orchestra on tour, May 19th,1986 at Syowa Women's Univ. HITOMI Memorial Hall, Tokyo, Japan conducted by the redoubtable Carlos Kleiber.

We'll pick up the story here:

From the 1934 movie: Waltzes from Vienna,  directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

From Johann Strauss Jr's operetta Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) which premiered in 1885, let's listen to a vintage 1938 recording of young Jussi Björling and Hjördis Schymberg: Björling and Schymberg- Wer Uns getraut? (in Swedish)

For any more of Johann Strauss Jr's tremendous output, the best thing perhaps to do is listen to a playlist of his waltzes. Many of them you should recognize right away.

Strauss & Brahms

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