Johann Strauss II, also known as 'Johann Strauss the Younger' or 'Johann Strauss Junior', was born in Vienna in 1825. His father, Johann Strauss the Elder (1804–1849), enjoyed great success at home and abroad for his popularisation of the waltz on a grand scale - a tradition that both his son and his grandson, Johann Strauss III (1866–1939), would uphold. Of the Strauss dynasty, it is Johann II whose music has enjoyed the most enduring success and his Blue Danube, Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka and Tales From The Vienna Woods rank amongst the most famous classical works of all time.
During the 19th century, Vienna was first the capital of the Austrian, and subsequently, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This European superstate was not only geographically huge, but enormously culturally significant too. Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, later styled 'The First Viennese School', were followed by a long list of composers compelled to make Vienna their professional home. The cultural tradition both enabled and sustained the Strauss family's musical success and Vienna is, even today, renowned the world over for the quality of its music-making.
Had his early passion for music been encouraged by his famous father, Johann II's road to fame may have been smoother. His father, however, forbade him to pursue a career in music, favouring instead the banking profession for his son. Johann disobeyed him and, aided by his mother, had secret violin tuition from the leader of his father's orchestra, Franz Amon. When his father deserted the family to run off with his mistress, Johann was able to further his musical education. His debut, conducting his very earliest works at Donmayer's Casino in 1844, was received well by the press. A critic for Der Wanderer noted that, 'Strauss' name will be worthily continued in his son', but Strauss the Elder displayed no signs of pride or joy - in fact, he refused to perform at Donmayer's Casino again.
Rivalry between father and son deepened with the onslaught of the European Revolution of 1848 which shook the Austrian Empire. The younger Strauss' decision to side with the revolutionaries deprived him of royal appointment to the post of Music Director of the Royal Court Festivities and led to his arrest for playing the revolutionary La Marseillaise. In stark contrast, his father remained loyal to the monarchy and wrote his most famous work the Radetzky March.
Following his father's death in 1849, Strauss was able to advance his career. He merged their orchestras and toured Austria-Hungary, Poland and Germany. He wrote a number of patriotic marches in dedication to the new monarch, Franz Josef, and in 1863, his application for the royal music director position was finally successful. He was able to export the Viennese waltz worldwide, taking his orchestras as far as St. Petersberg and America.
After his death in 1899, his two brothers vowed that whichever of the two outlived the other would destroy the Strauss archives to prevent other composers claiming the works as their own. In 1907, Eduard Strauss destroyed much of the music in a furnace factory, and it is for this reason that many of Strauss' original orchestrations are lost.
Strauss' most popular waltzes (of which he wrote over 500) were written in the 1860s and 1870s. (On The Beautiful) Blue Danube is his most famous work and one of the most popular pieces in today's classical repertoire. When Strauss' stepdaughter, Alice von Meyszner-Strauss, asked the composer Brahms to sign her autograph-fan, he wrote down the first bars of The Blue Danube and added, 'Alas! not by Johannes Brahms'. Though it has since become an unofficial Viennese national anthem, it met with faint praise at its premiere on 13 February 1867. Strauss is believed to have said, 'The devil take the waltz - my only regret is for the coda - I wish that had been a success!'
In 1866, the year of the work's composition, the Austrian army was bitterly defeated in the Battle of Königgrätz. Balls and festivities were cancelled and Strauss had a hard task to lift the nation's mood at the Vienna Carnival Fasching of 1867. He succeeded, however, in presenting some dazzling new works including the polka-mazurka Praise Of Women and An Artist's Life. The latter, tinted with melancholic melodies and peppered with dramatic interruptions, became known as the 'twin' of The Blue Danube.
Other popular waltzes include Tales From The Vienna Woods, composed in 1868 and one of six waltzes by Johann Strauss II to feature a virtuoso part for zither. Wine, Women And Song shows off Strauss' orchestration at its best, and was admired by Richard Wagner.
The Viennese Blood Waltz, written to celebrate the royal wedding of Emperor Franz Josef's daughter in 1873, is packed with grand, triumphant melodies. This momentous occasion sparked Strauss' debut with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, who up until this time had refused to perform his music. The Emperor Waltz, composed in 1889 for a toast made by the Emperor Franz Josef on his visit to German Kaiser Wilhelm II, is the epitome of pomp and majesty, and further testament to how well Strauss' music reflected the grandeur of the Viennese Court.
Voices Of Spring was written in 1882 with a solo voice accompaniment inspired by the famous coloratura soprano Bianca Bianchi, who sang with the Vienna Court Opera. The waltz glorifies spring with imitations of birdsong in the flute and evocations of pastoral scenes. It remains one of Strauss' most famous waltzes.
In the 1870s, Strauss had begun to turn his attention away from the ballroom and to the stage. His operetta Indigo And The Forty Thieves, based on the traditional tale 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves', was well received by the Viennese public at its premiere in 1871. The press, on the other hand, were divided with some thinking it a blot on Strauss' reputation.
Strauss would write over 15 operettas in his lifetime, but only two of them are regularly performed today in their entirety - Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron), rich with Hungarian themes, and Die Fledermaus (The Bat), which enjoyed immediate success following its premiere in 1874 and has become Strauss' most famous stage work. The overture is hugely popular and has five of the operetta's most memorable themes woven through it.
Strauss was keen for the memorable melodies from his stage works to survive and he made a shrewd move in arranging individual orchestral works from them and also piano editions which helped to bring his music into the home. This includes the waltz A Thousand And One Nights, with its distinctly Arabian feel, based on material from Indigo and the Forty Thieves and Take Care In Whom You Trust!, based on melodies from his operetta, Waldmeister.
Roses From The South is a waltz medley drawn from the operetta The Queen's Lace Handkerchief and remains one of Strauss' most popular waltzes today. The overall character of the piece is rather pensive, but it draws to a close with gusto and joy so typical of the composer.
The Kiss Waltz, composed in 1881, was dedicated to his second wife, Angelika Dittrich. It comprises melodies from his operetta The Merry War, including the Act Two aria, Nur für Natur, which was a hit when first performed.
Pizzicato Polka was written in collaboration with his brother, Josef, and is so-called because all the string instruments are plucked (pizzicato) throughout.
Strauss' death from pneumonia in 1899 was greatly mourned by the Viennese public and his music remains a celebrated part of their cultural heritage. Richard Strauss, (unrelated to the Strauss family), when writing his Rosenkavalier waltzes, said of Johann Strauss II, 'How could I forget the laughing genius of Vienna"' - a fitting tribute to the cherished 'Waltz King'.
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