Johann Strauss II: A Life

The Strauss family led Europeans a merry waltz in a repressive age. But what was the secret that kept Johann II, the greatest Strauss, from dancing himself?

If any composer could be said to have discovered the secret of eternal youth, it was Johann Strauss II. For more than 40 years, he directed the finest salon orchestras of 19th century Europe with a violin in one hand, a bow in the other, and inspired a dance craze to rival anything in nightclubs today. The social morals of a sexually repressive age were suspended as entwined couples swirled and chased around the dance floor, their high spirits intensified by the intoxicating flow of champagne and Strauss’s indelible melodies. 

Strauss quickly became an icon, the widely adored Peter Pan of the ballroom scene. A famous photograph, taken on his veranda in 1894 alongside his friend and admirer Brahms (see page 37), speaks volumes. Brahms at 61, with his long grey beard, is every inch the ageing grandee. The charismatic Strauss, with a full head of swept-back, jet-black hair still looks youthful – remarkably he was nearly 70. 

For many years, the music of Strauss was dismissed as “lightweight” and not to be taken seriously. Yet it was widely admired at the time – not only by Brahms, but also by such musical heavyweights as Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss (no relation) – and is still popular today, as we prepare to dance Christmas and the New Year away. Even Vaughan Williams, who had little time for salonesque miniatures, grudgingly conceded that “a waltz of Johann Strauss is good music in its proper place.” 

Time has been altogether kinder, and in recent years record label Marco Polo has completed the Herculean task of presenting all of Johann II’s music on CD, while Bärenreiter is gradually publishing the complete works – over 600 pieces in total – exactly as Strauss originally intended them. 

The most remarkable thing about Strauss’s prodigious musical output is the breathtaking variety he achieved within narrow parameters. He inherited the waltz form as developed by his father, Johann senior, and Josef Lanner – a short introduction, usually followed by five waltzes and a coda – and gave it symphonic coherence and heady nostalgia. In so doing, he elevated this outwardly simple dance style from its relatively humble beginnings to mini-masterpieces worthy of the concert hall. 

Not even the likes of Lanner, Emil Waldteufel, Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán – not to mention Strauss’s father, and his younger brothers, Eduard and Josef – matched the sheer consistency of Johann II’s invention. No wonder his music has become the focus of New Year celebrations the world over, especially in his hometown of Vienna. 

It soon became apparent that Johann II would become a serious musical rival to his father. Johann senior, who is principally remembered today for his Radetzky March, wrote a published 251 opuses, including 152 waltzes. He had established a phenomenal reputation with his own dance orchestra, for which he was rewarded in 1846 with the directorship of the court balls in Vienna, a post he held until he died. By this time, the 21-year-old Johann junior was composing fluently and, much to his father’s disapproval (he did not want his son to go into music) had achieved some success directing his own ensemble of local musicians. 

In 1849, Johann senior died. His son, Johann II, merged his father’s orchestra with his own to form one super-virtuoso outfit, and went on to wow Austria, Germany, Poland and Russia in quick succession. In 1863, he took over as director of the court balls, eventually handing over the baton of responsibility to his younger brother Eduard in 1871. Eduard also became responsible for running the Strauss family orchestra, and kept it going until disbanding it in 1901. In addition, he notched up some 300-odd works, although nothing he composed seriously rivalled his brother’s output in popularity. 

Absolved from the responsibility of running the court balls, Johann II accepted an invitation to conduct a series of “monster concerts” in Boston during 1872. For one memorable performance he directed an orchestra of 2000 and a 20,000-strong choir, with the help of 100 assistant conductors who valiantly attempted to keep the whole thing under control. But it nearly went badly wrong. Strauss later recalled that as his specially illuminated baton came down to set The Blue Danube in motion, there arose “an appalling row, such as I shall never forget’.” To his great relief, the 100,000-strong audience lapped it up. 

It was around this time that he was at last persuaded by his first wife, the noted mezzo-soprano, Jetty Treffz, to try his hand at operetta, like Suppé and Offenbach. At only the third attempt, Strauss hit the jackpot in 1874 with Die Fledermaus. He was not entirely comfortable working in the medium, but a first-rate libretto by Richard Genée (himself a talented composer) and Strauss’s ability to produce an inspired tune meant it soon established itself as the most popular operetta ever. 

In 1878, Jetty died following years of painful illness. Only a few weeks later Strauss remarried, this time to the actress ‘Lili’ Dittrich. This less-than-happy arrangement survived only four years – Lili eventually went off with Franz Steiner, a theatre director. But undeterred, the 53-year-old composer quickly took up with a recently widowed young admirer, Adèle Strauss (no relation). Such was his devotion to her that he renounced his Austrian citizenship in order to have his divorce from Lili officially recognised by the Catholic Church. For her part, Adèle remained utterly faithful to him. 

Meanwhile, the hits kept rolling in despite Strauss’s lifelong battle with ill health. And far from showing any slackening of invention, his later work remains amazingly fresh. Der Ziguenerbaron (The Gipsy Baron), for example, finds Strauss almost reinventing the operetta genre by embracing the popular Hungarian and Viennese styles. His irresistibly frothy concoction, featuring a band of gypsies, hidden treasure, an inheritance, and a number of mistaken identities, is served up with lashings of chutzpah from the orchestra pit. 

During 1894, Vienna honoured the 50th anniversary of Strauss’s professional debut with several days of celebrations, while letters and telegrams of congratulations poured in from all over the world. His final operetta, Die Göttin der Vernunft (The Goddess Of Reason) was premiered in March 1897. Sadly, Strauss was too ill to attend – he was already suffering from the bronchial ailment that would eventually kill him. However, the terminally ill Brahms struggled along to see it; three weeks later he was dead, while Strauss survived another two years.

 Johann’s youngest brother, Josef, had died years before in 1870 at the age of only 43. He collapsed on the conductor’s rostrum, probably from an inoperable brain tumour, but he had made a deep musical impression. Indeed, many aficionados think he was more talented than Johann II, an opinion his more famous brother shared. Josef was an artistic all-rounder, inventor, architect-designer, and conductor of the family orchestra when Johann II was indisposed. 

Among Josef’s 283 opuses are The Music Of The Spheres, and the unforgettable Dynamiden, which Richard Strauss later adapted for his operatic pasticherie, Der Rosenkavalier. Josef and Johann II also collaborated on four pieces, including the popular Pizzicato Polka. 

The only sibling left alive, Eduard now resolved to honour an extraordinary private contract drawn up years before with Josef. There was an agreement that, if Eduard ceased to be directly involved with the orchestra, the family’s musical archive would be destroyed to guard against plagiarism and unsolicited arrangements. So, in October 1907, he put this priceless treasure trove to the flame. It is only thanks to the devoted efforts of societies and admirers the world over that much of it has been painstakingly reconstructed from existing performing parts.

And yet the author of so many of these works, Johann II, hid an extraordinary secret – he was, in fact, a terrible dancer.

“That’s why," he confided to a friend during one of his early Russian concerts, “I have to give a firm ‘no’ to the many tempting and alluring invitations to the dance.”