|Johann Strauss, Father and Son
A Century of Light Music
by H. E. Jacob
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
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?)
And then came Lanner and the first Strauss. There are five people in two generations in Vienna that form the heart of the story:
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.)
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:
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:
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 acceptance by the musical professionals that came to the second generation of musical Strausses was striking. Jacob cites as examples Wagner and Brahms:
The beloved opertettas
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 . 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
Queen of Dances
Germany at Troynovant
Music at Troynovant