Friday, October 2, 2009

This Day in Classical Music History (Johann Strauss Jr. Takes Over Dad’s Orchestra)

October 2, 1849—One week after the death of the father who had tried to quash his musical ambitions, Johann Strauss Jr. merged his dad’s orchestra into his own to become the undisputed “Waltz King” of Vienna.

No composer’s waltzes have been heard as much as the younger Strauss—unless, like American Songbook DJ Jonathan Schwartz, you regard many of the show tunes of Richard Rodgers as waltzes. Well, we won’t quibble. Let’s just say that, in 19th century Vienna, where such composers as Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, and Mahler lived, no music was bigger than the waltz—and that nobody was more popular than the Strausses in creating this wildly popular form.

A strong-willed father trying to steer his son away from the arts and into something hopelessly bourgeois, like banking—it sounds like something out of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, doesn’t it? All the greater surprise I felt, then, to learn that these were the plans of Johann Strauss Sr. for his son.

I’m not sure why Strauss pere felt this way. Was it the horror sometimes felt by parents who are entertainers who hope that their children won’t have to endure the absolute capriciousness of their profession?

Whatever the case, Johann Strauss Sr.—who was already making a name for himself as a violinist, composer and leader of dance orchestras when his son came along—wanted little Johann to have nothing to do with music. This went against the boy’s natural instincts—like Mozart, he was showing promise at an early age of taking after his old man, even writing waltz music at age six.

(These child prodigies kill me, by the way. At age six, I was just learning how to write letters, never mind something as complicated as musical notes. Quite a number of people who’ve received samples of my writing over the years believe that those early lessons with the Palmer method—well, didn’t quite take hold.)

So young Johann had to take violin lessons surreptitiously, with the connivance of his mom. As it turned out, these two weren’t the only ones doing things in secret in the family.
Johann Sr. already, by necessity, had some practice with this, deciding, in the anti-Semitic society of his time, that it was better to conceal his Jewish parentage. His family could understand that, but not the other surprise he had in store: leaving his wife and six children to take up with a young seamstress.

(That Johann Sr. was one very, very busy guy, the way he waltzed into women’s hearts. He only had seven more years of life, but in that time he sired seven more children with the seamstress. Talk about being prolific!)

The way was now open for Johann Jr. to do what he wanted, and he didn’t waste any time. The same year his father abandoned house and family, the son started studying music intensively and freely for the first time. Two years later, he’d become so proficient that he’d set up his own band in Vienna.

Johann Sr. now had only one serious rival as master of the waltz in Vienna. Bet you can’t guess who that was?

The familial rivalry didn’t last long. Johann Sr. caught scarlet fever from one of the children in his new family, and died. Johann Jr. quickly went about consolidating the two orchestras.

The waltz might have been the great cultural product of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but at its heart it was a democratic cultural force. Unlike earlier forms of music, played primarily for church or royal/aristocratic patron, the waltz started with the rural peasantry, then came to be embraced by the growing bourgeois class of Europe and America, often in summer “promenade” seasons featuring light music.

Already an adept violinist and bandleader, Johann Jr. soon demonstrated that he was a virtuoso at composing, too, producing 160 waltzes alone—ones geared toward the ballroom as well as those of a more complex, symphonic variety that lent themselves to the concert hall.

Unlike his father, he didn’t mind keeping music all in the family. When he suffered a nervous breakdown in the 1850s, he had one of his brothers take his place at the podium, wielding the baton.

In one way, Johann Sr. might have chuckled at how his son’s life turned out. After marrying two women from the arts (the first, a singer, died; the second, an actress, he divorced), Johann Jr. wed the widow of a banker—which meant he had all the wealth and stability of the profession (remember, this was before 20th-century go-go capitalism) without getting stuck in some dull office all the time.

By the time he died in 1899, Johann Strauss Jr. had spread the popularity of the waltz around the world, even touring the United States. American fans had to overlook some of his opinions of the New World. He conceived a real dislike for Boston, for instance, finding the city hopelessly provincial and without luxury, and—perhaps just as important for the son of a ladies’ man who had an eye for women himself—he told an interviewer that he found Beantown women “homely.”

But the worst thing he had to say about America dealt with something else entirely. According to Joseph Horowitz’s sweeping Classical Music in America, Johann Jr. was quite dismissive of one particular American industry: “There is one thing that is very poor here, the beer. Oh! In that respect this country is very deficient, very.”

H.L. Mencken, as much an aficionado of music as beer, had this to say about the waltz—and, implicitly, its grandmaster, Strauss Jr.: “There is something about a waltz that is irresistible. Try it on the fattest and sedatest or even on the thinnest and most acidulous of women, and she will be ready, in ten minutes, for a stealthy smack behind the door-nay, she will forthwith impart the embarrassing news that her husband misunderstands her and drinks too much and is going to Cleveland, O. on a business trip tomorrow.”

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