JOHANN STRAUSS II
BLUE DANUBE WALTZ
JOHANN STRAUSS ORCHESTRA
ANDRE RIEU, CONDUCTOR AND VIOLINIST
Elegance from a time gone by…
Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) was an Austrian composer of waltzes, polkas, operettas, and other “light” music. His father had also been a composer, but had adamantly opposed his son going into music. When, as a young boy, Johann was caught practicing the violin, his father severely whipped him, saying he would beat the music out of the boy. He wanted his son to be a banker, to have a better living than he himself had accomplished.
Fortunately—for the world—Johann junior persevered and by the time he was in his mid-twenties, he had eclipsed his father’s fame and become the “waltz king” of Europe. He wrote over 400 waltzes, which were danced to in every large city in central Europe as well as in England, Russia, and the U.S. (where he toured with his orchestra in 1870’s.)
The original title of the waltz we have come to know as the “Blue Danube” is actually a little longer than that—“On The Beautiful Blue Danube.” It was written in 1867. Perhaps there was, in 1867, actually something blue about the Danube at the point where it flows through Vienna—unlike the dirty brown of today! After its performance at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair, the popularity of the waltz was assured and it has never left the “mainstream” of all waltzes.
The title—Blue Danube—is, of course, superfluous, only the music matters. Strauss had a particular gift for writing waltzes that were both danceable and quite interesting as music. He was truly a very capable composer–anything but a hack. The time he would take, in a waltz, before introducing the main theme, and then the way he would develop that theme and then introduce a secondary theme, were composition techniques that he accomplished with the greatest of ease.
Johannes Brahms and Strauss were good friends who greatly admired each other. Strauss dedicated one of his waltzes to Brahms. Strauss’s wife reputedly approached Brahms to autograph her fan one day—something that I guess was customary in those days—and on the fan, Brahms scribbled out the main theme of the Blue Danube and wrote underneath it, “Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms.”
For me, listening to Philadelphia Orchestra playing the Strauss Waltzes was the height of sophistication at the age of eleven. I cannot remember how that particular record album made its way into our house, but I am so glad to this day that it did. And, anyone who saw the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film, 2001 A Space Odyssey, will never forget the use of the Blue Danube as a sonic backdrop to the absolute silence of space as portrayed in the space station high above earth. For me, that is still a great moment of cinematic history.
Strauss Waltzes, and similar Viennese fare, now form the backbone of New Year’s Eve concerts all over the western world. Andre Rieu is the Dutch violinist and conductor of the Johann Strauss Orchestra who has done more in our time to promote this music than anyone else. His obvious theatricality and flare for the dramatic have equally endeared and alienated him within the music world. Music critics pounce on his having turned classical and waltz music into staged spectacles, rivaling pop and rock music acts for popularity and ticket sales. Audiences love him. Whatever opinion of him one holds, there is no denying that he has become a phenomenon, selling out venues worldwide and recording 59 best-selling albums over a 30-year period. His rock-star demeanor has definitely gone far in promoting waltz music. He is the master promoter, not only of himself, but of the music he loves.
There could hardly be a more Viennese setting than is captured in this video clip—at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, everyone dressed to the hilt, graceful ballroom dancers, glittering jewelry everywhere. Real old-world elegance, a step back in time. The sound is extremely well-recorded.
Lucky guy, Rieu also plays a 1667 Stradivarius violin.