Johann Strauss, Father and Son
A Century of Light Music
by H. E. Jacob
Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
translated by Marguerite Wolff
Crown: New York, 1939; 385 pages
Johann Strauss und das neunzehnte Jahrhundert,
die Geschichte eines musikalischen Weltherrschaft (1819-1917)
Querido: Amsterdam, 1937
438 pages December 2001

The round-dance of revolution

Johann Strauss, Father and Son: A Century of Light Music is a thorough and quite entertaining history of the Strauss family and of the development of waltz music. Heinrich Eduard Jacob starts with the European background in the basic forms of the stamping dance and the round or turning dance — both of which forms had been ruled illegal in different parts of Europe in earlier centuries, the former because it excited peasants to rebellious emotions, the latter because of its

shameless "turning" of women by men. The love pantomime inherent in the round dance was the real trouble. Dancing was to consist only of "steps"; the figures might represent wooing, but never the conquest of the girl by the man, by the hunter. ...

Here too we may observe the will to protest. It became a democratic dance because its principal content, the whirl, was strictly forbidden by aristocratic standards [before the French Revolution in 1789].

But in Vienna there was no ban on round dances. Waltzing already was popular in Vienna before Lanner and the elder Strauss appeared on the scene. It became a dance craze to the background of the Napoleonic Wars. There was a lack of revolutionary bitterness in Austria; apolitical Vienna avoided the political turmoil that gripped revolutionary Paris. In 1809 when the first pair of our five musical geniuses were small children,

Reichhardt reckoned that the number of waltzers in Vienna on a single evening — including, besides the Apollo Palace, the greater and the smaller Redoutensaal and the other resorts — amounted to about 50,000 people. As at the beginning of the century Vienna had only 200,000 inhabitants, every fourth person was to be found in a ballroom.

Fifty thousand out waltzing on any given night! Now that is popular music! (Surely it isn't too much to hope that in much larger American cities of today, with many thousands in each city more or less attuned to classical music, or to some forms of dance, or even both to waltz music and dancing — we might have several hundred to dance Viennese waltzes once a week?)

Our glorious Viennese waltz composers

And then came Lanner and the first Strauss. There are five people in two generations in Vienna that form the heart of the story:

  • Josef Lanner (1801-1843)
  • Johann Strauss I (1804-1849)
  • Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) — the "Waltz King"
  • Josef Strauss (1827-1870)
  • Eduard Strauss (1835-1916)

All were violin virtuosos, composers, orchestra conductors. Lanner and Strauss began as gypsy-like street musicians playing to Viennese passersby for coins. The playing, composing, and conducting is a rich tale, which Jacob tells in detail while also spreading much of the musical tapestry of the times before us. (There is a handy online overview of the Strauss family with a biographical paragraph for each at The Johann Strauss Society of Great Britain, which also has pages for other important waltz composers.)

The whirling dance of romanticism

Jacob ranges from lofty historical and cultural overviews to personal and musical detail — not forgetting love-affairs and scandals. But whence the embrace of the newest round or turning dance, why the waltz, why its triumph in the realm of dance? Surely that composer-philosopher, the anti-political Friedrich Nietzsche who rhapsodized on dancing, was not far from Jacob's mind in writing this:

How did it come about that the three-quarter rhythm acquired its universal domination? There were other dances in the world besides the waltz. In Paris they danced the quadrille. And in Elbeteinitz, near Prague, a beautiful peasant girl with a folded kerchief on her head and a great many pleated skirts, had just invented the Bohemian polka, the national dance of the Czechs to which all composers, including Strauss, had already made their obeisance. Then there was the Polish mazurka. It seemed that the nations that were not allowed to express themselves in politics were beginning to find an outlet in the dance.

But there could be no question that the waltz ruled supreme. Viennese at first, it became German in general and finally European.

Perhaps it was because it was the only thing that satisfied the two opposite poles of the epoch. The waltz was both civic and romantic and harmonized these contrasting qualities.

The waltz was the dance of romanticism. The very earliest German romanticists, the brothers Schlegel, had pronounced infinity to be the aim of art. That was a challenge to classicism, which was essentially rational. As in life, so in art, the finite sufficed for enlightened classicists. But not for the romanticists — they sought the infinite.

In mathematics the infinite is symbolized by a recumbent figure eight, a winding noose which flows back upon itself. Whereas the minuet, the dance of enlightenment and classicism, began and ended with the dancers in a prescribed posture, the waltz had no true beginning or end. It flowed back on itself like a circle, a globe, a cylinder. The act of dancing a waltz was infinite and gave the dancer a taste of infinity. ...

Anyone looking on at a perfectly danced waltz receives two contrasting impressions. The first is that of a centrifugal force generated by rotation and threatening to hurl the dancers into space. The second counter-balances it by convincing the onlooker that the support given by each partner to the other is so strong that there is no danger in their joyous abandonment. In other words, no dance draws man and woman so closely together as the waltz, and this is its attraction for the bourgeoisie.

Popular acclaim, critical dismissal

The reader of Johann Strauss, Father and Son may be disappointed to find that personal favorite compositions are touched on only briefly or not even mentioned. But there are too many; not a lack in the book but an overflowing wealth in its subject. Just take the Waltz King, as exemplar:

When he was over seventy, Strauss wrote ... "The melodies gush out like fresh water." He could not have expressed himself more modestly. He did not educate himself, he did not spur himself, he did not construct some great hydraulic engine to pump up melodies from the wells in his unconscious as greater musicians have done; he could even speak of his melodies rather oddly as "fresh water." But they flowed for seventy years. Like the jet from a fountain quietly dropping into a hollowed tree trunk the shape of which is eternally changing, Strauss' volume of melody, his light dance music which changes every second, takes shapes which resemble each other but are never quite alike. His jet of music sways hither and thither and never ceases.

A Century of Light Music? Yes, this was mere dance music for popular pleasure, not to be taken seriously. Waltz music had a difficult climb to acceptance by professional musicians. Popular fame came first, starting in Vienna, spreading to the South German cities, Hungary, North Germany and on to Paris and London and St. Petersburg, and eventually in the second Strauss generation, to America.

Jacob gives us Byron's poetical attack on the waltz, which did no lasting harm. After Johann Strauss I with his orchestra had conducted waltz concerts across Europe, their high-speed gypsy touring took them to England in 1838 for the Coronation Ball of young Queen Victoria. Waltz music was appreciated in Britain too; the Princess loved to waltz. The music for the ball was fondly remembered by the Queen who praised it to Eduard Strauss fifty-six years later. Each of the group, Lanner and the Strausses, conducted dance concerts as well as composing music, sometimes composing a piece in a day for a concert to be given that evening.

At one time [Lanner] conducted in public seven evenings a week as well as at numerous private balls.

But in the beginning the two waltz composers and conductors were not appreciated by their fellow professionals in Vienna:

In the case of Josef Lanner, the Association of Viennese Musicians had gone so far (in 1830) as to reject him as a member "because he was occupied with dance music."

And for Johann Strauss I:

As late as 1836 the National Encyclopedia of the Austrian Imperial State, though it mentioned his fame had disparaged it. ("Through the ever-ready enthusiasm of correspondence and journalists the acclamation of J. Strauss soars to ridiculous dithyrambic heights.")
On the Beautiful Blue Danube

Popular enthusiasm could be fickle as well, even during the high plateau of the waltz and of almost automatic joy at everything composed by the Waltz King and his brothers. "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" had only two performances at its introduction in Vienna in early 1867; unfortunate lyrics by a Viennese poet had been forced onto the lovely music; the choir hated it, and the waltz was rated a failure. Fortunately Strauss was busy, as always:

At a ball the evening before, that is on February 12th, at the festival of the Viennese "Concordia," Strauss had had his Telegramme performed; and only five days later he brought out his wonderful Künstlerleben ["Artist's Life"]. He had neither the wish nor the time to concern himself greatly with the fate of one particular waltz. He is said to have shrugged his shoulders and to have observed to Josef, "The devil take the waltz, I am only sorry about the Coda, I could have wished success to that."

Nothing then indicated that the Blue Danube would become the greatest popular success that has ever been the lot of a piece of music in the whole of musical history.

In France the moment was right. Shortly at the World Exhibition in Paris in Spring 1867, all the cultural, political, and publicity elements were at their perfect settings. At a fancy dinner in Strauss' honor,

... the conversation touched on the waltz called Le Beau Danube Bleu. Someone inquired whether it was a national hymn. It was played, this time unaccompanied by the singing of a wrathful choir. The reaction of the audience was such frenzied applause that Strauss was taken aback. He telegraphed to Vienna to his mother and brothers. Jules Barbier wrote [new] words to the melody and from then on whenever Vienna was mentioned in Paris the whole city would begin to hum ...

The acceptance by the musical professionals that came to the second generation of musical Strausses was striking. Jacob cites as examples Wagner and Brahms:

Richard Wagner requested an amateur orchestra conducted by Anton Seidl to play him Strauss waltzes. It was his sixty-third birthday. The most successful summer of his life lay behind him. The decisive, busy August of 1876 had come and gone, the great festival theater in Bayreuth had opened its doors; the world had made its pilgrimage thither, by railway, by carriage and on foot. Over and above the anonymous crowd that climbed the hill of Bayreuth there had been present the German Emperor, the King of Bavaria, the Emperor Pedro of Brazil.

Now the summer was over and Wagner was wearied to death. He wanted nothing but "to be free and play." He was drawn by the bubbling lightness of the Strauss dances. Next to him sat his life companion Cosima, the daughter of Liszt. Suddenly he flamed and took the baton from Anton Seidl's hand. He stood up in front of the musicians and conducted Strauss' Wine, Woman and Song. The supreme master of problems played the unproblematic music of release.

Twelve years later Brahms sat at the piano, exulting in the same rhythms. Again and again he wanted to transpose the Sinfonietta Wein, Weib and Gesang for the piano. But it was meant for orchestra. It grew out of the quartet, like everything good. It was a proof of Strauss' mastery of orchestration. Though Strauss has been called thoughtless and heedless, here he had shown a firm hand. The ponderous Brahms envied him for his lightness and one day he inscribed the fan belonging to Strauss' third wife Adele with the first bars of the Blue Danube waltz, adding "Unfortunately not by Brahms."

The beloved opertettas

Johann Strauss, Father and Son - Jacob (cover) I trust I have conveyed that Johann Strauss, Father and Son: A Century of Light Music is a warm and engaging book. It is finely written, and well translated by Marguerite Wolff. H. E. Jacob gives us an empathetic multiple biography, embedded in a thoughtful cultural history of what makes popular taste in music, sparkling with a wealth of subtle insights into the evolution of dance music and of the operetta or comic opera. In addition to Lanner and the Strausses, the names of Offenbach and Schubert and Liszt, Mozart and Weber and Beethoven occur frequently; and then Jacob looks beyond the Strauss era with Lèhar and Sousa.

After thoroughly setting Europe a-whirl to waltz music, Johann Strauss II turned to operettas. Jacob follows, in line of dance as it were, with two detailed chapters on operetta: "The World of the Fledermaus" and "The Path to the Zigeunerbaron". Strauss the Waltz King continued to grow, even ventured to America for a series of absolutely giant concerts, to Russia again, and Jacob makes these parts of the story fascinating too.

Strauss the fountain of melody had little ear for lyrics, and Jacob says that it was largely luck whether or not Strauss had a decent libretto for each operetta. In Nacht in Venedig (Night in Venice), the smooth "Lagunenwaltzer" ("Lagoon Waltz") was cursed with lyrics about meowing cats, which the audience echoed in cat-calls, causing a "theatrical riot". While there are good or great elements in most of Strauss' operettas, for the Fledermaus and The Gypsy Baron everything came together divinely, the spirit of music laughing sweetly while she breathed inspiration into Strauss.

In the course of his loving analysis of Die Fledermaus, Jacob says:

The invisible hero of this musical comedy is champagne. As other tonal works may be said to be governed, some by air (Weber's Oberon for example) others by water (Der Fliegende Hollander, Das Rheingold) so the governing medium in the Fledermaus is champagne.

Yet this did not intoxicate Vienna at once; again another city came to the rescue:

Fledermaus had been a failure in Vienna; sixteen continuous performances before it was taken off meant nothing at all. Hanslick thought it commonplace. That had been in April [1873]. Berlin's ear was better trained. From June onwards the Berlin Fledermaus was performed a hundred times. Not till then did the Viennese begin to take notice. In the Autumn, Director Steiner ventured its reinclusion in his repertory. From then on it became the standard operetta, by which all others were measured. This was unjust to Offenbach.
The inspiring flood of music

Jacob discusses the French and Italian musical influences, the Hungarian and gypsy influences, that Strauss drew on for operettas. I doubt that a contemporary American can appreciate the shocking dissonance, to a Nineteenth-Century European born and bred to social stratification, in the combination of the two terms gypsy and baron. But Strauss combines them, makes the clash sparkle into music in The Gypsy Baron:

On October 24, 1885, the night before his sixtieth birthday, the Zigeunerbaron had its premier before a full house. There was a "Carmen" atmosphere in the theater. The public was tense with anticipation. Half a century of Magyar mania had prepared the way for this. When it was over the audience sobbed, raved, screamed. Only the stage is really plastic; it was the stage, and not Liszt that completed the victorious campaign of the Hungarian milieu.

And still to come was the "Kaizerwalzer" ("Emperor Waltz"). What a great flood of music from Lanner and the Strauss family, starting as gypsy-like street musicians and by the end of the century reaching imperial heights with their inspired music. Hundreds of waltzes; hundreds of marches, polkas, and other pieces.

The waltz era gave us a great burst of romantic joy in its most classical musical expression. If the waltz perhaps is not quite the birth of gaiety from the spirit of music, certainly the waltz embodies, in its most beautiful form, the whirl of classical gaiety on the romantic dance floor.


© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

J. B. Berlin's bibliography of
Johann Strauss, Father and Son:
A Century of Light Music
by H. E. Jacob

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