Program Notes: The Danube Calls: An Evening of Waltzes

Program Notes: The Danube Calls: An Evening of Waltzes

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Full program notes:

the magic of Strauss

Sommerfest regulars know what to expect for the Viennese waltz evening: a generous dose of music by the Strauss family and perhaps other Viennese composers for most of the program, and a concerto of some sort tucked in the middle, often something out of the ordinary—a niche filled tonight by Tchaikovsky’s brief but brilliant Third Piano Concerto. A Viennese waltz program would, of course, be unthinkable without music of the Strauss family. This year, excepting the Tchaikovsky concerto, the entire program is devoted to the most famous Strauss of all, Johann Jr., whose waltzes, polkas, galops, marches, quadrilles and operettas have provided countless people with countless hours of listening—and dancing—pleasure. Tonight we hear four of his most famous waltzes plus five popular polkas, all introduced by the overture to the world’s most beloved operetta, Die Fledermaus. First, though, a few words about those two dance forms, the polka and the waltz.

The five polkas we hear tonight all rank among Strauss’ most popular. This lively folk dance in 2/4 meter originated in Bohemia (not Poland!) around 1830. Its name is derived from the Czech word půlka, meaning “little half,” a reference to the short half-steps that characterize the dance. Polkamania quickly swept the world, and the dance became popular not only throughout Europe but as far afield as Argentina, Peru and the U.S. The entire Strauss family—Johann Sr., Johann Jr., Eduard and Josef—all wrote polkas, as did many others, including non-Viennese composers like Shostakovich (the ballet The Age of Gold and Jazz Suite No. 1), Stravinsky (Circus Polka), and Smetana in his opera The Bartered Bride and his nearly two dozen polkas for piano.

The dance form most indelibly linked with Vienna is of course the waltz. Today we associate it with elegant ballrooms and upper-class society, but its origins were in the lowly Ländler, a slow-turning Austrian peasant dance in three-four meter. The waltz became popular during the last quarter of the 18th century, enchanting both aristocrat and commoner with its captivating appeal. A Strauss “waltz” is actually more than a waltz; it is rather a whole string of them, usually arranged in contrasting moods, keys and tempos, and all framed by an elaborate introduction and a coda. It has been calculated that if all the melodic ideas of the approximately 170 waltzes by Johann Strauss, Jr., were added up, the total would exceed 700. Superb orchestrations, lilting rhythms, melodic inspiration and an air that perfectly captured the whole golden age of the Emperor Franz Josef coalesced in waltzes that are far more than mere dance music; they are musical masterpieces, great tone poems that reflect a glamorous era.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Born: October 25, 1825, Vienna, Austria
Died: June 3, 1899, Vienna, Austria

Overture to Die Fledermaus

Johann Strauss, Jr., was already 45 and world-famous before he turned to operetta. His first complete stage work, Indigo and the Forty Thieves, launched his new career in 1871 at the Theater an der Wien, the same theater that had seen premieres of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio. Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Strauss’ third stage work, followed in 1874 and became not only the most famous Viennese operetta ever written, but one of the most amazingly successful stage shows of all time. Within six years, it had been seen on over 170 separate stages in Germany alone. To date, it has been heard in at least a dozen languages.

Die Fledermaus is a joyous, bubbly, totally improbable concoction of mistaken identities, amorous intrigues, mischief and mirth. It raised the Viennese operetta to new artistic heights, and was billed as a “comic opera” rather than as an operetta. The plot has been criticized for being laden with improbabilities and chance occurrences, but no matter—the music is so full of irresistible tunes, sprightly orchestration, rhythmic verve and the irrepressible charm of Old Vienna that such criticism evaporates.

The Overture is put together from a potpourri of the operetta’s main themes, including (after an Allegro vivace introduction) Rosalinde’s mock-serious farewell to her husband Eisenstein before he goes off to serve a jail term; Eisenstein’s wrath when, disguised as the lawyer Blind, he learns how his wife has deceived him with Alfred; and the famous waltz. 


Annen Polka (Polka for St. Anne’s)

Nearly every one of Johann Strauss’ approximately 150 polkas takes its name from a programmatic or extra-musical association. The light-hearted, chirpy Annen Polka is one of his earliest (he was still in his 20s when he wrote it). This gentle, moderately-paced polka was first heard as part of the Festival of Saint Anne (grandmother of Jesus) celebrations in Vienna’s famous municipal park, the Prater, on July 26, 1852, with the composer conducting.


Tritsch-Tratsch Polka

The title of the jaunty and high-spirited Tritsch-Tratsch (Chit-Chat) Polka has several possible derivations, according to Strauss specialist Peter Kemp: the name of a Viennese publication specializing in comics and gossip; a burlesque called Der Tritsch-tratsch by the Austrian playwright and actor Johann Nestroy with music by Adolf Müller, Sr.; or the name of the poodle of Strauss’ first wife. The first option is the most likely, but take your pick!


Frühlingsstimmen (Voices of Spring) Waltz

Voices of Spring is one of Strauss’ later waltzes, following by many years most of his other great works in the genre. It is unusual in that it was introduced not as an instrumental work but as a vehicle for coloratura soprano. Voices of Spring was written to a text by Richard Genée for a charity event at the Theater an der Wien. The premiere was given by a singer from the Imperial Court Opera, Bianca Bianchi. The work then dropped out of the repertory while it became far better known in its purely orchestral and solo piano versions (Liszt had a particular fondness for it). Egon Gartenberg, in his study of the composer, sums up the enduring appeal of this masterpiece in calling it “a creation of elfin grace, a vision of flowing gowns and bare feet whirling through the Vienna Woods.”


Auf der Jagd (On the Hunt), Polka schnell

Auf der Jagd (On the Hunt) comes from Strauss’ 1875 operetta Cagliostro in Wien. It was successful at first, due in large part to famous names in the cast, but its popularity did not endure. Nevertheless, Strauss created no fewer than six shorter pieces (Opuses 369 through 374) drawn from or based on themes from the larger work, including a waltz sequence, a march, a quadrille and three polkas. One of these is the “quick” polka (polka schnell), Auf der Jagd, which incorporates gunfire (real or imitative) and horn calls from hunters, even though the operetta’s storyline has nothing to do with guns or shooting.


Kaiserwalzer (Emperors Waltzes)

Perhaps only second in popularity among Strauss’ waltzes, after The Blue Danube, is the dignified and majestic Emperors Waltzes, so richly imbued with the pomp and dignity implied in its title. And about that title: the name as usually rendered in English, Emperor Waltz, is not quite an accurate translation of the German Kaiserwalzer; properly speaking, it should be Emperors Waltzes. Singular and plural of “waltz” in German is Walzer, and like many other works of its kind, Kaiserwalzer is really a whole string of waltzes, not just one. Furthermore, there were two Kaiser (again, the German word remains unchanged in the plural) involved in the creation of Strauss’ music. The first was the popular Franz Josef of Austria, ever so much a symbol of Strauss’ Vienna and in the 40th year of his reign when Strauss composed his tribute (1888). The other Kaiser was the newly-elected Wilhelm II of Prussia. Strauss wrote the Kaiserwalzer for some concerts that formed part of the ceremonies surrounding the first state visit of Franz Josef to Berlin in 1889. The original title of the work was Hand in Hand; the current one was suggested by Strauss’ Berlin publisher Simrock. “By not dedicating the music to either Kaiser specifically, Strauss could satisfy the vanity of both,” noted Peter Kemp.


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia

Concerto No. 3 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra

So overwhelmingly popular is Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor that it is easy to forget that he wrote two others as well. The genesis of the Third Concerto is found in sketches Tchaikovsky made for a new symphony during the spring of 1892, about a year and a half before his death. Deciding that this work contained “nothing interesting or appealing,” he abandoned it and went on to begin composing what we now call Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique). 

After completing his final symphonic masterpiece, Tchaikovsky returned to the abandoned symphony and reworked the first movement into the single-movement Piano Concerto No. 3. He also left fragments for what may have been intended as the work’s second and third movements, although his intentions for these fragments are not confirmed. They were later orchestrated by Sergei Taneyev, a composer and friend of Tchaikovsky, but nearly all modern performances of the Third Piano Concerto consist of just the confirmed, completed Allegro brillante movement.

The Allegro brillante is laid out in large-scale sonata form with three distinct, important themes. The first is heard in the opening bars played by bassoons over a rumbling bass; the second is sometimes described as “Schumannesque”—a nostalgic, lyrical idea introduced by solo piano; and the third theme follows soon thereafter, a peppy, militaristic tune that soon turns highly virtuosic. The soloist’s only period of rest comes in the development section, but this is followed by a cadenza of massive proportions covering ten pages of printed music. The recapitulation is straightforward, and the movement ends in a whirlwind of pianistic pyrotechnics.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Wine, Women and Song Waltz
Wne, Women and Song takes its name from this famous saying: Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weib und Gesang / Der bleibt ein Narr sein Leben lang. (He who loves not wine, woman and song / Remains a fool his whole life long.) Aside from the wealth of gorgeous melody and splendid orchestration, what sets this waltz apart from most others is the sheer length of its introduction, a miniature symphonic poem in itself amounting to about half the length of the entire composition. Strauss biographer Egon Gartenberg notes that “the romanticism of the opening might easily have been a thought from the pen of Weber or Mendelssohn, and the final march theme, before the waltz is allowed to unfold, comes pictorially right out of [Wagner’s opera] Die Meistersinger.” It is worth mentioning that Wagner, who seldom had praise for any composer but himself, was a great fan of this waltz.


Johann Strauss, Jr., and Josef Strauss 
Pizzicato Polka

The brief Pizzicato Polka is scored for plucked strings only. It is often attributed to Johann Strauss Jr., but in fact one of his younger brothers, Josef (1827-1870), also had a hand in it; they composed it in 1869 for a trip to Russia.


Johann Strauss, Jr. 
Thunder and Lightning, Polka schnell

The brilliant Thunder and Lightning Polka is appropriately named for the thunderous rolls and flashes of lightning emanating from the percussion section, as well as for the “lightning” speed at which it all flies by.


On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Waltz

To close tonight’s program, we hear the immortal Blue Danube Waltz (On the Beautiful Blue Danube, to give the full title). Like Voices of Spring and Wine, Women and Song, in its original form it was vocally conceived. The Blue Danube began life as a number for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association with a text by Josef Weyl. The words were soon discarded in favor of a purely instrumental version, the form in which it is familiar today. As any concertgoer can tell you, The Blue Danube never fails to sweep listeners into its magical flow, sending them home radiantly happy after a night in Vienna.

Program notes by Robert Markow.

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