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)
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.5 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.
Strauss’ 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.
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 start. Below 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
VIEW COMPLETE LIST OF STRAUSS’ WORKS
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?
RECOMMENDED for FURTHER STUDY:
The Gift of Music by Smith & Carlson, pp. 81-85 – “The Strauss Family”
Classical Music by Phil G. Goulding, pp. 508-514 – “Johann Strauss”
- Source: The Gift of Music, page 83
- Source: The Gift of Music, page 83
- Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Strauss_II
- Source: The Gift of Music, page 83
- Source: Classical Music, pp. 508
- Source: http://www.classical.net/music/comp.lst/straussj.php
- Source: Classics for Kids: Johann Strauss, Jr.
- The quadrille is a precursor to traditional square dancing.
- The galop is a lively country dance.
- Strauss openly attributed Vienna with the entire credit for his creativity.