Johann Sebastian Bach, Part III: His Music & His Legacy


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This is Part III of my series on Bach’s life.
Read Part I Here: Bach’s Childhood
Read Part II Here: Bach’s Musical Career

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Bach’s Music

Mozart said of Bach’s music, “Now there is something from which a man can learn something.” Mozart was right. Studying Bach’s music can be a challenging exercise. Bach did not simplify his musical concepts, and his music stimulates the intellects as well as the ears of his listeners. German composer Robert Schumann said it best: “Playing and studying Bach convinces us that we are all numbskulls.”


Mini-bio series on Bach, Part 3, His Music & Legacy. #bach #music #history #biographies


Bach was an innovator, and he devoted himself to the improvement of every area of his craft. Prior to Bach, keyboard musicians played their instrument with straight fingers and no thumbs. Bach developed the technique of curved fingers and included his thumb when playing the keyboard. He was highly involved in developing the theory of harmony, and he was also active in the constantly-developing construction of instruments – old and new.

To say that he was a prolific composer would be a really dramatic understatement. The incredible depth and variety of his compositions are just another proof of his musical genius. Over the course of his life Bach wrote over 1000 pieces of music, now loved by tens upon tens of thousands around the globe.


Bach’s Legacy

In the years following his death, Bach was missed as a teacher and an organist. His incredible accomplishments as a composer, however, were largely neglected.

It wasn’t until 1829, nearly one hundred years later, that the young German composer Felix Mendelssohn resurrected Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew. This performance, conducted by the twenty-year-old Mendelssohn himself, revived an interest in Bach’s work. Over the next century and a half, a deep love for Bach’s music developed and spread across the world.

In the 1840, the German Bach Society was founded, and in 1850 the massive undertaking of publishing all of Bach’s works commenced. When this fifty-year project was completed in 1900, the Bach-Werke-Verzeichinis (abbreviated BWV and meaning Bach Works Catalogue) included all of Bach’s compositions in a staggering 46 volumes.

Mini-bio series on Bach, Part 3, His Music & Legacy. #bach #music #history #biographiesJ.S. Bach passed an incredible musical legacy to his children. Several of his sons became famous musicians and composers – Wilhelm Friedmann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian.

C.P.E. Bach devoted much of his life to spreading awareness of his father’s work. 1753 saw the publication of his own work, An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments – a musical treatise that studied the techniques and theories of his father.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a composer, a mentor, a leader, a teacher, a husband, a father, a performer, an innovator, a life-long learner, a Christian. He knew that his creativity was derivative of the One True Original, and he inscribed “Soli Deo Gloria” (trans. To the Glory of God Alone) regularly into his manuscripts. He was a master of his field but a servant to his King.

“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”  J.S. Bach

Mini-bio series on Bach, Part 3, His Music & Legacy. #bach #music #history #biographies

Mini-bio series on Bach, Part 3, His Music & Legacy. #bach #music #history #biographies



Glory and Honor: The Musical & Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach (G. Wilbur)
Bach & Baroque Music (Stefano Catucci)
Sebastian Bach: The Boy from Thuringia (Opal Wheeler)
The Story of Bach in Words & Music (Narrated CD)

LIKE The Music Blog on Facebook for more music history & mini-bios! 

Johann Sebastian Bach, Part II: His Musical Career


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This is Part II of my series on Bach’s life.
Read Part I Here: Bach’s Childhood
Read Part III Here: Bach’s Music & Legacy

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Bach’s Musical Career

Weimar, Arnstadt, Mühlhausen (1703 – 1708)

Mini Bio series on Bach. Part 2, Bach's Musical Career. #bach #music #history #biographiesAfter 3 years at St. Michael’s School, Bach – now 17 – received an invitation for a position as court musician at the Duke’s palace in Weimar.  He immediately left St. Michael’s and set out with his violin to join the royal orchestra. Though his time at Weimar was short, Bach flourished.

After only 6 months, he took a trip to Arnstadt to visit his uncle.  While there, Bach was offered the position of church organist.  He accepted the position and made the arrangements necessary to move to Arnstadt and begin a new life once again.

In addition to leading the congregation in song for Sunday services, Bach played organ for four services a week at Arnstadt.  His contract held him “…personally responsible for the use and condition of the organ.”  It also instructed him “…to live uprightly, to fear God, to love peace, and to appear promptly at all rehearsals and services.”  With this new position, Bach enjoyed a substantial amount of private time to study and create.

There was, however, an amount of friction between Bach and his superiors at Arnstadt.  Bach, absorbed in his creativity, sometimes took the liberty of improvising during church services.  This lack of protocol on Bach’s part frustrated the church leaders, and he was reprimanded.

In 1705, word reached Bach that the greatest organist of his time, Dietrich Buxtehude, was to perform in Lübeck.  He desperately wanted to hear the great Buxtehude, and he asked permission from his superiors to allow him leave to attend the concert.  They granted permission, and Bach embarked on another 200-mile walk.  He was enthralled by Buxtehude’s performances and was greatly influenced by his style.  He used the musical knowledge he gained in Lübeck well, and his music was never the same. 

Bach’s trip, however, expanded from four short weeks to four long months, and when he returned to Arnstadt, his superiors were greatly displeased with him. This new friction, coupled with previous conflicts over spiritual issues, compelled Bach to seek a new position. He auditioned for the prestigious position of organist at St. Blasius’s Church in Mühlhausen and was gladly accepted.

In October 1707, a few short months after arriving in Mühlhausen, Sebastian married Maria Barbara Bach – a cousin he had become acquainted with during his time in Arnstadt.  Barbara was also a music lover from a musical family, and she and Sebastian enjoyed a happy marriage.

Sebastian and Barbara lived in Mühlhausen for a few short months before Bach embarked upon yet another season of life – this time, Weimar.

Mini Bio series on Bach. Part 2, Bach's Musical Career. #bach #music #history #biographies.jpg


Weimar (1708 – 1717)

In 1708, Bach accepted the position of court organist for Duke Wilhelm in Weimar.  Bach was only 23, but he would keep this position at Weimar for nine years.

Mini Bio series on Bach. Part 2, Bach's Musical Career. #bach #music #history #biographies.jpgDuring this period, Bach invested much of his time at the organ, and it was here that he wrote most of his organ compositions.  Bach’s proficiency on the instrument was incredible, and it was said that with his two feet, he could play “things on the pedals that other skilled players could not play with their hands”.

In December of 1708, Bach’s first child and daughter, Catharina Dorothea Bach, was born.  His first son, Wilhelm Friedmann was born in 1710, and Carl Philipp Emanuel was born in 1714.  Bach continued to nurture his family and his music, and as the years passed, his fame grew.

In 1717, Bach traveled to Dresden to participate in a harpsichord contest with the boastful, famous French virtuoso, Louis Marchand.  Marchand, hearing Bach perform the evening before the contest was scheduled to take place, was so impressed with Bach’s skill that he fled town the following morning.  When the time arrived for the contest to begin, Marchand was nowhere to be found, and Bach found himself performing in a solo concert instead of a contest.

When Bach arrived back in Weimar, he requested leave of his position to accept an offer given to him by Prince Leopold in Anhalt-Cöthen.  Duke Wilhelm, holding a grudge against Bach from a previous disagreement, executed revenge by refusing to let him leave Weimar.  Bach continued to ask for release, and the Duke, unreasonable and angry, threw Bach in prison.  After four weeks in this state, Bach received sudden release from both the prison and his position at Weimar, and he set out with his family for a new beginning at Anhalt-Cöthen.


Anhalt-Cöthen (1717-1723)

In Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach enjoyed a personal relationship with Prince Leopold as his respected friend and traveling companion.

Prince Leopold. Mini Bio series on Bach. Part 2, Bach's Musical Career. #bach #music #history #biographies.jpgPrince Leopold was a Calvinist and held a more sober view of music in worship than Bach’s previous superiors [6].  Bach, not needing to produce the elaborate music for the services that had previously been required of him, now focused his creative energy on instrumental works.  He was incredibly productive!

During this period, Bach produced many of his famed non-church works – his six Brandenburg Concertos, part I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldenberg Variations, the French Suites, the Two-Part Inventions, his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, and his cello Suites.

In 1720, Bach accompanied Prince Leopold on a musical trip to Bohemia.  When he returned to Cöthen, he was given the tragic news that his beloved wife, Barbara, had become ill and died.  Bach, now a widow with four children, was stricken with grief, but he had to continue in his work.

One and a half years later, in late 1721, Bach married Anna Magdelena.  She was a loving wife to Bach, assisting him in his work and nurturing their children.  Anna was a professional soprano, and together she and Bach copied many of his detailed manuscripts.

Around the same time as Bach’s marriage, Prince Leopold married a young princess who had no appreciation for the arts. She made circumstances difficult for Bach.  Conditions worsened, and when Bach received an invitation for the post as Cantor at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig, he accepted without hesitation.  With Leopold’s blessing, he packed up his little family once more and moved on to Leipzig.


Leipzig (1723 – 1750)

Anna Magdalena. Mini Bio series on Bach. Part 2, Bach's Musical Career. #bach #music #history #biographies.jpgLeipzig.  The place Bach would call home for 27 years.  A period of extreme productivity.  A time of growth, but not one lacking in hardship.

When Bach accepted the position in Leipzig, his annual salary was less than what he had been lead to believe, equaling slightly over one-fourth of his previous salary at Cöthen.  With his growing family, this proved to be a struggle at times.  To alleviate the dramatic adjustment, he was given free housing, payments for heat and light, and a few additional allowances.

Bach was busy. As music director at Leipzig, Bach was in charge of the music of four city churches.  He taught at the St. Thomas’s school and gave private instruction and tutoring in his home, as well.  Selecting texts, composing, and conducting rehearsals were also a regular part of each week.

At Leipzig, Bach composed at an astonishing rate, composing almost 150 cantatas in the space of 30 months.  He also produced his two Passions according to St. Matthew and St. John, his Magnificat, part II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and his Mass in b minor.  He began his significant work The Art of Fugue while at Leipzig, but he was unable to complete it before his death.

During their time in Leipzig, Sebastian & Magdelena had thirteen children – six of whom survived into adulthood.  Bach loved his family, and spent much time with them each day in prayer and song.  He taught them to play instruments, and they often enjoyed playing ensemble music together.


Bach Family. Mini Bio series on Bach. Part 2, Bach's Musical Career. #bach #music #history #biographies.jpg


In early 1750, Bach’s eyesight weakened considerably – a condition incurred, at least in part, by the strain he had put on his eyes as a child.  He suffered from a serious illness, but he recovered.  In May, he underwent optical surgery – an effort to improve his failing eyesight.  Sadly, the operation was not successful, and his constitution was weakened from the stress of the surgery.  Although he was now completely blind, he still composed by dictating the music to those who could write the manuscripts for him.

A few months later, in mid-July, Bach suffered a stroke.  Bach, who must have realized that his remaining days were few, dictated the music for a chorale to his son-in-law – the title was “Before Your Throne I Now Appear”.

Days later, on July 28, 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach met his King.



Glory and Honor: The Musical & Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach (G. Wilbur)
Bach & Baroque Music (Stefano Catucci)
Sebastian Bach: The Boy from Thuringia (Opal Wheeler)
The Story of Bach in Words & Music (Narrated CD)
LIKE The Music Blog on Facebook for more music history & mini-bios! 

Johann Sebastian Bach, Part I: His Childhood


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This is Part I of my series on Bach’s life.
Read Part II Here: Bach’s Musical Career
Read Part III Here: Bach’s Music & Legacy

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Johann Sebastian Bach – one of the greatest and most-loved composers the world has known, considered by many to be the greatest composer of all times. But who was this man? What did he do, and what made him great?

Let’s take a look at the life, work, and legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach.


Bach’s Childhood (1685-1703)


Eisenach, Germany


It is 1685.  We are in the small German village of Eisenach, and one family has just welcomed a new baby boy into the world. His name is Johann Sebastian Bach.

Little Johann was the eighth and last child of Ambriosus and Elisabeth Bach. The Bach family was known for their musical heritage – over seventy musicians had been born into the family during the previous two hundred years.  Music was a significant part of Johann’s life from the start. His father taught him to play harpsichord and violin from his early years, and his willingness to work caused his skill at the keyboard to develop rapidly. So did his love for music.

Sebastian’s family was not wealthy, and his early years were not luxurious. But he was well-loved, and his home was happy.

When Sebastian was only nine, his mother died.  A few months later, his father also died, leaving him an orphan.  As the heart-broken young Sebastian grieved, his older brother, Johann Christoph, took him to live with his family in Ohrdruf.

Christoph was a student of Johann Pachelbel – composer of the beloved Canon in D.  A proficient musician himself, Christoph held the position of church organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf.  He gave his brother formal instruction on the clavier, and Sebastian flourished.

It wasn’t long before Christoph recognized the unusual musical abilities of his little brother – abilities which exceeded his own.  Christoph, likely moved with jealousy, limited Sebastian’s practice to one hour a day and denied him access to the music manuscripts in his library*.  Sebastian begged to use the scores, but Christoph refused.

 Bach copied out music so he could practice more difficult piecesIt is of this scenario that we hear the story of the lengths Sebastian went to have the manuscripts.  When Christoph persisted in his denial, Sebastian began sneaking into the library each night and taking the manuscripts to his room.  There, by the moonlight, he copied the scores note by note onto manuscript sheets he stored in his room.  At the end of six long months, Sebastian’s task was complete.  He delighted in studying the manuscripts and undoubtedly spent countless hours at the keyboard with his newly-acquired compositions

In time the secret was too big to keep, and Christoph discovered Sebastian’s actions. He confiscated the manuscripts again, but by this time, Sebastian had learned much.  People will argue over whether or not Sebastian was justified in what he did, but there is no doubt that this exercise sharpened his musical sensibilities, developed his understanding of theory and composition, and contributed much to his musical maturity.

After five years, Christoph could no longer support Sebastian.  In 1700, Sebastian left with his friend, Erdmann, to walk over 200 miles to St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg in the hopes that St. Michael’s would accept them into the school choir.  They were not disappointed. Both were, in fact, placed in the “Matins Scholars” – a select singing group of about fifteen members honored with more challenging music and additional performances.


At St. Michael’s School, Sebastian was, at last, able to pursue music with all of his energy, and pursue music he did.  He had free access to the school’s music library, and he immersed himself in the manuscripts.  In addition to his vocal studies, he devoted much time to practicing clavichord, playing violin in the orchestra for Sunday services, and composing.

It was here at Lüneburg that Bach first began to study organ – a skill that would become his area of expertise in his musical career to come.


Check back on Wednesday for Part II: “Bach’s Musical Career” and Friday for Part III: “Bach’s Music & Legacy”.


*We don’t know exactly why Christoph denied Sebastian use of the manuscripts.  He could have been afraid that Sebastian would ruin them (manuscripts were precious at that time) or concerned that the music was too difficult, but the likelihood is that Christoph’s jealousy got the better of him.


Glory and Honor: The Musical & Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach (G. Wilbur)
Bach & Baroque Music (Stefano Catucci)
Sebastian Bach: The Boy from Thuringia (Opal Wheeler)
The Story of Bach in Words & Music (Narrated CD)


LIKE The Music Blog on Facebook for more music history & mini-bios! 

Johann Strauss, II: Waltz King



Almost everyone has heard at least a line or two from one of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s famous waltzes, and all of us are familiar with the cheerful, lilting “oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa” rhythm that puts a bounce in our step.

But who exactly was this man – “The Waltz King?”  We know his name, but comparatively speaking, we know little of his story.


Strauss’ Early Life (1825-1844)Austria_Map

On October 25, 1825, near the glittering Vienna, Austria, a wee lad was born.  As the first son born to his parents, he was named Johann Strauss, Jr., after his father.

Like many composers, the young Johann suffered a difficult childhood, but tragically, the source of all his hardship was at hands of his ruthless father. Strauss, Sr. was a successful conductor and composer in Vienna, but he indulged most of his income on himself and his orchestra, leaving little to provide for his wife and children. He was a selfish, demanding, unfaithful tyrant, abandoning his poor family for months at a time and coming back home only to provide them with grief.

Strauss, Sr. adamantly refused to allow his children to receive any form of musical instruction, but despite the many trials little Johann endured at the hands of his musical father, he loved music and had already begun to write compositions in three-quarter time at age of six.1  Johann’s father demanded that he become a banker.  He did, but he also studied violin secretly with the first violinist of his father’s orchestra.  By the time he was a teenager, he was a proficient violinist and promising composer, as well as a banker.

When Johann was 17, his father abandoned the family for good.  Johann, with the complete support of his mother, was then able to pursue his love of music with nothing to hold him back.


Strauss’ Musical Career


Debut & Early Career (1844-1849) 

An enthusiastic Johann Strauss, Jr. set out to find someone who would help him launch his new career as a composer, but many entertainment establishments were reluctant to give the younger Strauss a contract, knowing it would sever their relationships with his father.  Finally, Deommayer’s accepted young Johann.  In October 1844, at 19 years of age, Johann gave his debut concert, conducting a host of popular pieces and including six compositions of his own.  It was a complete success!  The press and even his critics showered him with praise, but his enraged father withdrew his support from the company and refused to speak to Johann for two years.2

As a performing composer with his own orchestra, Johann now found himself in direct competition with his own father.  Hard times followed for Johann, despite his successful debut, and money was sometimes scarce.  He eventually accepted commissions to begin performing away from home, and this provided him with many wonderful music opportunities he could not yet find in Vienna.

In 1849, Strauss, Sr. died of Scarlet fever.  Johann immediately merged his father’s musicians with his own and began to tour with his newly strengthened orchestra.  That is when his fame and his career began to soar.


The Waltz King (1850-1899)

Young Strauss flourished as a composer, and Vienna embraced him with eager arms.  Johann enlisted the help of his younger brothers, Eduard and Josef, and they were soon directing additional orchestras under his oversight.  Some evenings found six Johann Strauss orchestras performing his lovely waltzes throughout Vienna, and Johann made appearances to conduct a few pieces at every performance they gave.


Strauss’ admirers were many, and Strauss himself was most sought-after composer of dance music during his time.  His schedule overflowed.  He conducted performances during the day and composed his beautiful music in the quiet hours of the night.  The abundance of mental and physical demands began to affect his health, and eventually the stress won.  He had a nervous breakdown in 1853, and his doctors ordered him to take a vacation.  During his six-month absence, his brother, Josef, took charge of his orchestra.

Once Johann recovered, he returned to his music with vigor.   In 1867, Strauss debuted his masterpiece, The Blue Danube, in Vienna.  It was a flop!  Strauss wisely decided to try again.  While on a tour, he introduced The Blue Danube to Paris, and it was an overwhelming success.  It’s popularity spread wildly, and The Blue Danube soon became what is now undoubtedly Strauss’ most famous and well-loved piece of all time.


Strauss was personal friends with Johann Brahms, and a fun story is often told of this famous composer:

Strauss’s wife Adele approached Brahms with a customary request that he autograph her fan. It was usual for the composer to inscribe a few measures of his best-known music, and then sign his name. Brahms, however, inscribed a few measures from the “Blue Danube”, and then wrote beneath it: “Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms.” 3 

Strauss continued to tour the world with his orchestra, and for twelve consecutive summers they travelled throughout Europe, visiting France, England, Austria, Poland, Germany, and – most often – in Russia.  His performance in England was acknowledged by Queen Victoria4,and his evenings of waltzes in Russia were even honored by the presence of the czars.  In 1872, Strauss was invited to Boston, where he was paid 100,000 U.S. dollars to conduct just one composition – The Blue Danube – 14 times during his tour. Thus, Strauss soon found himself and his music loved by admirers of all nationalities around the globe.


Strauss’ Family Life

Sadly, the history of Strauss’ married life is not a pleasant one.  Neither Strauss nor his spouses approached marriage with the respect and commitment that God requires of husband and wife, and Strauss experienced the consequences.  Strauss married three times, and all three of his marriages were tainted with unhappiness, indiscretion, and strife.  His last marriage, to Adele Deutsch in 1882, was the happiest of the three.


Johann_Strauss_JrStrauss’ Late Career & Death (June 1899)

Adele encouraged Johann’s creative outflow as a composer, and he was very productive during those years of his life.  At her encouragement, he handed his orchestra to his brother, Josef, so he could concentrate on composition.  He continued to write waltzes, polkas, and other forms of music, and also began work on his ballet, Aschenbrödel.

In the spring of 1899, Strauss contracted a respiratory illness that developed into pleural pneumonia.  On June 3rd of that year, Strauss died.  He was buried near the tombs of Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert6, in the place where he had spent the majority of his life – his beloved Vienna.


Strauss’ Music

After Strauss’ death, his younger brother, Eduard – who had been jealous of Johann all his life – burned all of his unpublished music.7  His Cinderella ballet, although unfinished, somehow survived this unhappy ending, but we will never know how many of his waltzes, polkas, and other unheard compositions went up in flames.

Thankfully, we still have nearly 500 of Strauss’ finished works – lilting waltzes, cheerful polkas, marches, quadrilles8, galops9, operettas, and others – to learn from and enjoy.


Not all great composers are recognized in their lifetime, but this cannot be said of Johann Strauss, Jr.  Johann Brahms declared Strauss “a master”, and Richard Wagner remarked that he was the most musical head he had ever come across.  Strauss’ admirers said of him, “Strauss can only speak in German, but he smiles in all languages.”

The Strauss Family lived during the golden age of Vienna, and Johann, Jr.’s music embodies the ideals and spirit of that era.  His music is lighthearted, energetic, and sparkling with life.  The waltz – that elegant dance of German origin, meaning “to turn” – was his main form of composition and became the work that defined him.  Strauss’ music sings with a simplistic beauty, but it is written with the ingenuity that evidences a musical master.


When it comes to listening, it can be hard to figure out where to startBelow is a “recommended listening” list to help you become familiar with the pieces that have proven to be some of Strauss’ best-written and most-loved compositions.  Enjoy listening to these charming pieces!

  • Waltzes:   The Blue Danube,  Tales from the Vienna Woods,  Wiener Blut, Artist’s Life, Emperor, Roses from the South
  • Overtures:  Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron), Eine Nacht in Venedig (A Night in Venice)
  • Polkas:   Tritsch-Tratsch, Neue Pizzicato, Auf der Jagd, Explosionen, Unter Donner und Blitz
  • Marches:   The Egyptian



Strauss’ Legacy


Spiritually, Johann Strauss was a man that none of us should imitate.  He made his own rules, lived for his own pleasure, and did not even acknowledge the Creator that gave him his exceptional gift of music.10

Musically, Strauss was an ingenuous architect. Many composers made use of the waltz before the Strauss family entered the stage, but Strauss, Jr. refined it in a way that no composer had done before him.  He developed, enriched, and perfected the waltz into an art form.

Johann Strauss, Jr. was devoted to his work.  He was creative, productive, and determined not to let the hardships of his early years define his entire life.  And now, over 150 years later, we are still enjoying the gift of his music.

Which ones of us will that be said of… 150 years from now?


The Gift of Music by Smith & Carlson, pp. 81-85 – “The Strauss Family”
Classical Music by Phil G. Goulding, pp. 508-514 – “Johann Strauss”



  1. Source: The Gift of Music, page 83
  2. Source: The Gift of Music, page 83
  3. Source:
  4. Source: The Gift of Music, page 83
  5. Source: Classical Music, pp. 508
  6. Source:
  7. Source: Classics for Kids: Johann Strauss, Jr.
  8. The quadrille is a precursor to traditional square dancing.  
  9. The galop is a lively country dance.
  10. Strauss openly attributed Vienna with the entire credit for his creativity.