On the Beautiful, Blue Danube, op. 314

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            Johann Strauss the elder and Joseph Lanner are responsible for turning the modest waltz—of humble Austrian, rural origins—into the celebrated Viennese Waltz.  For over a century and half the Viennese Waltz has attained a status as the acme of sophistication, beauty, and elegance.  What would New Year’s Eve be without visions of swirling dancers in gowns and tailcoats accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic?  The tradition is founded upon the incredibly active musical entertainment tradition in Vienna’s cafes, gardens, salons, palaces, and annual carnival.   There was money to be made in popular dance music, and in the second quarter of the nineteenth century Lanner and Strauss the senior brought their considerable talent and entrepreneurship to the scene and dominated it.   Strauss went on to build a career around frequent and peripatetic touring with his 28-man ensemble and became the toast of Europe from Budapest to Glasgow, all built upon a foundation of high musicianship as conductor and composer, and a remarkably astute business sense.

            And all of this may largely be said of his son, Johann the younger.  Whatever his father did, the son took inspiration and did more.   Our favorite Viennese waltzes today, are predominately those of the son, and his gift for melodic invention, harmonic grace, and rhythmic verve was recognized early on by the world’s great composers.  He garnered the sincere praise of men known for more “sophisticated” careers.  There is a special gift given to certain artists who excel in the modest genres, and that is as true of Strauss in the waltz as it is of Sousa in the march.  Some write War and Peace, and some write haiku.  Brahms supposed once wrote of the “Blue Danube,”  “.  .  .  unfortunately, not by Brahms.”  Strauss composed not only the waltzes that practically have come to define the genre for the world, but was also a highly successful composer of polkas, marches, gallops, quadrilles, and other works, included the beloved operettas, Die Fledermaus, Die Zigeunerbaron, and A Night in Venice—hundreds of works, in all.

            A typical Strauss waltz is not just one “tune,” although the public tends to remember the composition by the opening melody.   Rather it is a series of waltzes—commonly five or six--chained together in a succession in which unity is achieved by subtle connections of stylistic elements.  It all seems to roll along in a developing wholeness that makes each new waltz in the chain the apparent logical successor to the previous.   There is often a little prelude or introduction, and a coda to wrap the whole thing off with an almost symphonic whole.

            All of this may be said for perhaps his most famous waltz, “The Blue Danube,” written in 1867 for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association.  It began life, therefore, as a choral work, only later to gain popularity as a purely instrumental work.  Opening with the now-famous tremolo strings and languid horns intoning the main theme, this “sunrise on the river” soon gives way to the inimitable succession of great waltzes, complete with recap and coda at the end—an aural delight that really has few equals in dance music.  The real Danube may be dirty brown, but in our musical imagination, Strauss’ version will always be the fantasy vision.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan