The Strauss Family

The Rise of the Strauss Family

The rise of the Strauss family can hardly be described as meteoric since it was not until after many years of patient labor that attention was first drawn to the fascinating music of the Vienna court which kept all the members of the famous family in public view for nearly a century. Many contend that it was the waltz that carried the elder Strauss into such great favor, but his innate musical ability is evident in so many of the things that he did that it is difficult for one to put a finger upon just what it was which made this famous coterie of musicians world renowned.

The waltz is said by the French to have been derived from a dance known as the Volta or Ravolta, known even in the days of Good Queen Bess. The Germans, however, are anxious to claim the dance and point to its similarity with the German word waltzen. The dance in some parts was solemn and stately and in other parts it was so coarse and uproarious that cities like Nuremburg and Amberg published edicts against it. About the time of our Revolutionary War the modern waltz apparently came into existence and the tune to which is was danced was “Ach du Lieber Augustin.”

This was the first heard in Bavaria, Bohemia and Austria as a tune for the modern dance. Gradually it made its way from European capitals to England, where the storm of objections which greeted it naturally advertised the dance to the utmost. Even Lord Byron, the author of Don Juan, and a gentleman of none too lofty piety, wrote a diatribe in verse upon the iniquitous dance. The Puritans foresaw the downfall of the nation under the gliding heels of the dancers. Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart were not above penning music which might be used for the dance. At first these alluring dances consisted of two sections of eight measures of three quarter or thee eight time. But our modern form came when a number of sections of sixteen measures in length were played one after the other in fitting order with the addition of sections called introduction, trio and coda. The first of these is said to have been a waltz by Hummel issued in 1808.

The waltzes of Schubert have great charm and character though they are not used to any extent for dancing. Strauss and Lanner usurped the waltz field so completely that few others found room for their works. Weber in his Auforderung Zum Tanz introduced the waltz to the concert hall and made way for the wonderful works of Chopin and other composers. But it is not with this phase of the waltz which we have particularly to do, but rather with the waltz which brought such peculiar renown to the name of Strauss.

Johann Strauss the First

The parents of the first Johann Strauss were not professional musicians. They kept a small inn in Vienna and were determined not to have their son become a musician. The boy showed wonderful natural talent and as his own son later to become so famous as a composer of light music expressed it: “Father was a musician by Grace of God. He had not been guided by an inner irresistible impulse, the difficulties which confronted him in his youth would have pushed him into another path.” The parents of Johann Strauss, Sr., made the fatal error of encouraging the boy in his childhood – fatal in so far as their scheme of preventing him from becoming a musician was concerned but most fortunate for that great part of mankind who revel in light music.

When the boy was fourteen his musical tendencies were looked upon with great seriousness by his parents who wished to spare their son from what they thought a life of ignominy and poverty. Accordingly he was apprenticed to a book binder. This life was unendurable to the impressionable youth particularly because the master was severe and had strict instructions to keep his apprentice from playing the fiddle. One might the boy packed up his precious fiddle and putting the remainder of his earthly possessions in a little bag he slipped softly away from trade forever.

A friend induced him to return to his parents whose harshness had softened by this time. They consented to having him trained musically and he was placed under local masters among whom was the violin teacher Polyschausky and the theory teacher Seyfried. He played occasionally at private homes and at Summer Gardens. In this way he chanced to meet another performer of his own genre in the person of Josef Lanner.

Lanner’s Influence Upon Strauss

Josef Franz Karl Lanner was born at Oberdobling, near Vienna, April 11, 1801. He was largely self-taught, and owing to his unusual initiative he succeeded in organizing a little coterie of musicians which soon became famous in Vienna. Many give him the credit of being the first to give the great impulse to the then so-called modern dances – the waltz, the gallop, the quadrille, the march and the polka. He was only four years older than his great contemporary Strauss, but was fairly well established in popular favor when Strauss came to him with an application to play the viola part in Lanner’s famous quartet. Lanner grew and grew in popularity. His music, now a little played, was the talk of the hour and people actually fought for the privilege of retaining his services. With the great and increasing demand for music of the Lanner type the leader saw the possibility of making two bodies of players, with himself at the head of one and Strauss at the head of another. The success amazed them both. When Strauss first joined Lanner’s quartet it was the duty of the young violinist to go around hat in hand to the different patrons of the cafes and summer gardens where they played. The superiority of their playing, however, soon placed them in positions to ask high prices for engagements.

In 1826 Strauss separated from Lanner, and with an orchestra of only fourteen players, appeared in an amusement resort known as “The Swan.” After only a few performances the people flocked to The Swan to hear the music of the little band that set one’s very nerves dancing. His first composition was the Tauberi-Walzer. This was an immediate success and the public demanded more and more. Although many of these early waltzes are known now by name only they created veritable furors at the time. His next engagement was one of six years at another resort known as the “Sperl.”

The Music of the Court Balls

It was not long before Strauss was in such great demand that he was made Capellmeister of the band of the Burger-regiment. This required his services all court balls and the elaborate fetes given by the opulent Austrian Court of the day. It often happened that he had many engagements in one day and therefore it was necessary for him to increase his band until he had 200 musicians constantly employed. As his fame increased he raised the character of many of the numbers upon his program so that before long his musicians were playing famous works with a new verve and life that commanded the attention of serious minded musicians. His fame spread so that before long he was compelled to take his picked orchestra on tours and during the years from 1833 to 1838 he visited almost all parts of Germany and Austria, Holland, Belgium, England, Scotland and France. Everywhere his orchestra was greeted with much applause. He reached England at the time of the coronation of Queen Victoria and played literally hundreds of engagements private and public.

The Heyday of the Dance

How much of Strauss’ popularity at the time was due to the great dance furor is impossible to estimate. He was feted everywhere. When he appeared in Vienna after a long absence the occasion was made a kind of public fete. In Berlin, the King attended his performances in person and invited him to play at the Royal Palace. The Crown Prince of Prussia, who later became the famous Emperor William I, of Germany honored Strauss by ordering a special concert of 200 bandsmen. When Strauss left Berlin there was a special torchlight procession and serenade given in which he was honored by many citizens. A similar distinction was shown to him when he left England in 1849. His concerts were hugely successful in London, and upon his departure he was followed down the Thames with numerous boats filled with enthusiastic admirers. One of the boats contained a band which played until the steamer put out to sea.

Upon his return to Vienna he was received again with his old time favor, but in September of 1849 he was taken with scarlet fever and died after only four days’ illness. His funeral was attended by immense crowds and a Requiem Mass was given in his honor by his own band accompanied by a great number of the leading singers of Vienna.

Fortunately he was able to leave a successor who was destined to attain almost as much fame as himself. By a marriage with Anna Streim, the daughter of an innkeeper (in 1824), Strauss became the father of five children, Johann, Josef, Eduard, Anna and Therese. Of these, three sons became well known in the musical world.

Strauss’ methods of conducting were the subject of much comment in his time. Many felt that he exaggerated to the extent of becoming a charlatan but others saw in it a style which was in turn followed by his three sons and became identified with the family. Naturally quiet he seemed to become electrified under the influence of music. Again this apparently made some sort of an emotional impression upon his orchestra so that every member was in an intense state of musical excitement. Indeed from what the critics of the time had to say of his work in this direction, his whole organization seemed to be synchronized with hos won spirits and emotions. He almost invariably conducted with his own violin in hand, occasionally conducting with the bow but rather leading his men by the nuances of his own playing. He stood most of the time with his back to his players, rarely referring to the notes of the composition he was conducting.

Appreciation by Serious Musicians

Although Strauss’ compositions are really more ambitious than the ball room it is quite astonishing to note how willingly composers of more serious intentions have been ready to recognize their claims as artistic pieces of music. The late Anton Seidl delighted in putting a Strauss waltz on his programs. Once, in speaking to a friend, he said, “Strauss is the musical synonym of life.” Wagner was known to have admired Strauss, as did Mendelssohn, Cherubini and Meyerbeer. His works and also the works of his famous son Johann are so spontaneous in parts that when properly played they have an almost intoxicating effect. Drummed upon the piano they lose all their sensitive quivering emotional life. In 1800 the works were considered worthy of a complete edition issued in the famous series by Breitkopf and Hartel.

The Gifted Sons

In 1825 (Oct 25th) Johan Strauss Jr., was born in Vienna. Perhaps on account of bitter experience in making music his profession Johann Strauss, Sr., solemnly and deliberately determined that none of his sons should follow the musical profession. Why it is hard to say since he had been wonderfully fortunate in everything he did. Johann, Jr., was accordingly given a very liberal education at the Polytechnic and the Gymnasium. Thereafter he became a clerk in a savings bank. But what father proposes, mother disposes and the boy had secret lesson in violin playing for years, thanks to a mother’s willingness to gratify her boy’s wishes. In 1844 he made his first appearance as a conductor playing compositions of his own. A very fortunate turn this was, for when his father died in 1849 the son was able to unite his own orchestra with that of the father and thus continue what was at least a very valuable family possession which might otherwise have been lost.

For a time he toured Germany and Austria and then spent a short season as conductor at St. Petersburg. In 1863 he became conductor of the famous court balls and resumed the brilliant work done by his father.

Happy, bright, full of swing and the joy of youth, his music made immediate conquests wherever it was heard. It must not be thought that all of his four hundred or thereabouts waltzes are equally good, but there are a number fully as enchanting as An der schonen blauen Donau (Blue Danube).

In later years Strauss made important appearances with his orchestra in Italy and in Paris but he had found a new field and this was that of light opera. In 1871 he produced Indigo and the Forty Robbers, the first of a long series of successes which made the Theater an der Wien world famous. Among these were Die Fledermaus, Prinz Methusalem, Zigeunerbaron and others. The Fledermaus is still given in the great opera houses of the world. At the Metropolitan a few years ago it was presented with a famous cast with great enthusiasm upon the part of the audience. The music and part of the plot formed the base of The Merry Countess, a comic opera recently given in all parts of the United States.

Strauss worked continually up to the time of his death in Vienna in 1899. How well his works were regarded may be judged by an appreciation by Wagner which runs:

“While the Strauss waltzes are not deep in style yet one Strauss waltz often contains more charm, more delicacy and more real musical worth than all the toilsome, constricted, factory made musical products of some countries which to me are as inferior as lamp posts of Paris are to the towering spire of St. Stephen’s at Rome.”

The names of the most famous waltzes by Johann Strauss, Jr., are Wiener Blut, Man Lebt Nur Einmal, Kunstlerleven, Tausend und eine Nacht and of course the ever vernal Blue Danube. No one need have any artistic compunctions about playing a Strauss waltz. The present writer knows many world famous pianists who delight in performing them, not only in the elaborate paraphrases of Tausig, Schulz-Eyler or Schutt but in their original form for the sake of the enchanting tunes. Just as our own Sousa has written incomparable marches of a certain type so has Strauss composed waltzes that very few if any have approached.

Josef Strauss

Josef Strauss was the second son of Johann Strauss, Sr. He was born in Vienna, August 22nd, 1827. His father determined that he should become an architect. The story runs that the elder Strauss was so busy with his innumerable professional engagements that he was obliged to live apart from his family for the most of the year. He paid little attention to his sons. While he did not want them to become musicians they took piano lessons through the connivance of their mother. One day a friend met the father in the street and congratulated him upon the splendid progress his sons were making in music. The father called the boys in and after a good scolding ordered them to play a duet for him. He saw that they had not only studied their music but had also studied all the mannerisms of their father. All his own peculiarities of style were mirrored in the playing of the sons. When they had finished he said in the Viennese dialect “Buben, sass speilt Euch niemans nach” (Boys, no one can beat you at that). Nevertheless the father still withheld his consent to a musical career. Josef made numerous tours and wrote voluminously but cannot be said to have attained the great success of his brother or his father. He died July 22, 1827.

Eduard Strauss

The youngest of the Strauss brothers, Eduard, was born at Vienna, February 14, 1835, and educated at the Gymnasium. His father died when he was fourteen years old and consequently he was permitted to have a systematic musical training. In 1870 he became conductor of the court balls, a position held by his father and his brother Johann. His orchestra made extensive tours of Europe and visited America twice. While not so fecund as his brothers he published a number of compositions. It is fair to estimate that the Strauss family produced more good popular tunes than came from any other source during the last century. Upwards of 1000 published compositions of varying degrees of merit stand to their credit.