The Story Behind The Blue Danube

If you feel sorry for shop assistants forced from November onwards to listen to Christmas music, spare a thought for the citizens of Vienna. All year round, in restaurants, shops, and hotels, there is no escaping The Blue Danube waltz.

It is the most famous waltz ever written – actually not one waltz but a chain of five interlinked waltz themes. It is Austria’s second national anthem. It is the inescapable conclusion to each New Year’s Day concert in Vienna. But how many of us have ever heard Strauss’s original version? 

In 1865, Johann Herbeck, choirmaster of the Vienna Men’s Choral Society, commissioned Strauss to write a choral work; due to the composer’s other commitments the piece wasn’t even started. The following year, Austria was defeated by Prussia in the Seven Weeks’ War. Aggravated by post-war economic depression, Viennese morale was at a low and so Strauss was encouraged to revisit his commission and write a joyful waltz song to lift the country’s spirit. 

Strauss recalled a poem by Karl Isidor Beck (1817-79). Each stanza ends with the line: ‘By the Danube, beautiful blue Danube’. It gave him the inspiration and the title for his new work – although the Danube could never be described as blue and, at the time the waltz was written, it did not flow through Vienna. To the waltz, the choral society’s “poet” Josef Weyl added humorous lyrics ridiculing the lost war, the bankrupt city and its politicians: “Wiener seid’s froh! Oho! Wieso?” (“Viennese be happy! Oho! But why?”). 

The premiere of the Waltz For Choir at Vienna’s Dianabadsaal (Diana Bath Hall) took place on February 15, 1867. Considering its subsequent popularity, its reception was somewhat muted (apparently it received only one encore, which in Strauss’s terms equalled a flop). This may have been due to the fact that both the choir and the audience hated the words. But when, later that year, Strauss introduced the waltz in its orchestral garb to Paris at the World Exhibition, it created a sensation. 

It’s said that Strauss’s publisher received so many orders for the piano score that he had to make 100 new copper plates so that he could print over a million copies. Twenty-three years later, Franz von Gernerth, a member of the Austrian Supreme Court, composed a more dignified text for the melodies of the waltz: "Donau, so blau, so blau" ("Danube, so blue, so blue").

Hear It On 

J Strauss II: The Blue Danube
Among many fine accounts (including Reiner, Boskovsky and Kleiber), Karajan’s live 1987 performance at the New Year’s Day Concert in Vienna takes the palm.
DG 419 6162
Should you want to hear the vocal version, try the disc of Strauss vocal waltzes on Marco Polo (8.223250-2). 

Did You Know? 

J Strauss II made his American debut in Boston on June 17, 1872, conducting The Blue Danube for the World Peace Jubilee. For the occasion, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, an Irish bandmaster, assembled an orchestra of 2000 and a choir of 20,000.