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No one made dance music more fashionable than the Strauss family of composers and bandleaders. Starting in the early 19th century, their waltzes took Vienna by storm and went on to conquer Europe, even into the era of gramophone records.
The foundations of the Strauss musical dynasty began with Johann Strauss I, born in Leopoldstadt, Vienna. Orphaned by the age of 12, the young Johann was apprenticed to a bookbinder while taking lessons in the violin and viola.
Johann Strauss I eventually managed to secure a place in a local orchestra leading to his joining the popular Lanner Quartet formed by his would-be rival Joseph Lanner. Together they popularised Viennese waltzes and rustic German dances.
Joseph Lanner was one of the earliest Viennese composers to reform the waltz from a simple peasant dance to something that even high society could enjoy. His Quartet expanded into a small string orchestra in 1824 and Lanner went on to be just as famous as his friend and musical rival Johann Strauss I.
Lanner placed Johann Strauss I in command of a second smaller orchestra which he formed as a result of the success of the parent orchestra. In 1825, Strauss realized he could emulate Lanner’s success as well as putting an end to his financial struggles. He formed his own band and began to write music.
Strauss married Maria Anna Streim in 1825 in the parish church of Liechtenthal in Vienna. The marriage was relatively unhappy because of Johann's prolonged absences caused by frequent touring abroad that led to a gradual alienation and divorce.
Strauss became one of the best-known and well-loved dance composers in Vienna. He toured with his band to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain, where he was invited to provide the music for the opening state ball on the occasion of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne, and later her coronation.
Johann Strauss I’s most famous piece is probably the 1848 Radetzky March – named after Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, written to commemorate Radetsky's victory at the Battle of Custoza. When it was first played in front of Austrian officers they spontaneously clapped and stamped their feet when they heard the chorus. This tradition is kept alive today when the march is played in classical music venues in Vienna.
Strauss demanded that none of his sons pursue careers in music, despite their obvious talent. Johann II was meant to study banking, for his brother Josef a military career, and Eduard was expected to join the Austrian consulate. Defiantly, they all became musicians.
Johann Strauss II wrote more than 400 waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, and other dance tunes, as well as several operettas and a ballet. In his lifetime, he was known as "The Waltz King". Some of Johann Strauss II's most famous works include The Blue Danube, Kaiser-Walzer, Tales from the Vienna Woods, and the Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka. Among his operettas, Die Fledermaus and The Gypsy Baron are the best known.
Johann Strauss II’s success and popularity eclipsed his father’s. But the son often played Johann Senior’s works and openly declared his admiration of them, although it was no secret to the Viennese that their rivalry was intense, with the press at that time fueling it.
Josef Strauss joined the family orchestra, along with his brothers, Johann II and Eduard in the 1850s. His first published work was called The First and the Last. When Johann Senior became seriously ill in 1853 Josef led the orchestra for a while. His early compositions went down well with the Viennese so he decided to continue in the family tradition of composing dance music. He wrote some 283 pieces including many waltzes.
Johann Strauss I died in Vienna on September 25, 1849 at the age of 45 from scarlet fever. Hector Berlioz himself paid tribute to the 'Father of the Viennese Waltz' by commenting that "Vienna without Strauss is like Austria without the Danube".
Eduard Strauss did not attempt to emulate the works of his other brothers or his contemporaries, all of whose popularity overshadowed him. He was primarily recognized as a dance music conductor rather than as a major composer.
The son of Eduard, Johann Strauss III was unofficially entrusted with the task of upholding the family tradition after the dissolution of the Strauss Orchestra by his father in 1901. Johann III was primarily a conductor who saw the dynasty into the gramophone era by recording works by his family for Deutsche Grammophon.
Andre Rieu created the modern day version of The Johann Strauss Orchestra in 1987. Following six months of rehearsals, they gave their first concert on 1 January 1988. The orchestra began with only 12 members, but now there are 50, sometimes even 60 on very large stages.