Program Notes: Strauss: The Waltz King

Program Notes: Strauss: The Waltz King

magical music, effervescent moods

Vienna in the 19th century was a city of glamour and charm—and it was passionately in love with dancing, requiring thousands of waltzes, polkas, galops, marches and other dances to satisfy its voracious appetite. At the center of this world of gaiety, shimmering with chandeliers and reeling with romance, was the Strauss family, ushered in by Johann, Sr., and brought to the height of fame and fortune by his three sons, Johann, Jr., Josef and Eduard.

Our concert offers a steady stream of music by the Strausses, broken twice by delightful interruptions— seldom-heard, fascinating concerted works by composers who extend inspiration for this concert’s magic well beyond Vienna.

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Full program notes:

Johann Strauss Jr

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

Overture to The Gypsy Baron

der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron), is a tale of gypsies, buried treasure, zesty Hungarian flavor and of course Viennese Schmaltz and romance, and among the 15 stage works of Johann Strauss, Jr., it is second in popularity only to Die Fledermaus (1874). So deeply did the Viennese take this music to their hearts that between the year of its premiere, 1885, and 1909, more than a thousand performances were given. Even the city’s “serious” opera house, the Staatsoper, presented it, with none less than the eminent Felix Weingartner on the podium. The operetta’s sparkling, melodious overture gets our Strauss celebration off on just the right note.

Schatz-Walzer (Treasure Waltz), from The Gypsy Baron

One month after the premiere of The Gypsy Baron, Strauss assembled a waltz sequence from the complete operetta. The title Schatz-Walzer (Treasure Waltz) comes from the subject—and melody—of the Act II trio, “Ha, seht, es winkt, es blinkt, es klingt” (“Ha, look, it beckons, it glitters, it jingles”), in which Barinkay, joined by Saffi and Czipra, sings of the treasure (Schatz) he has just found at his late father’s estate.

Josef Strauss

Josef Strauss
Born: August 20, 1827, Vienna
Died: July 22, 1879, Vienna

Stiefmütterchen (Pansies) Polka-Mazurka

A polka-mazurka might seem to be, at least in theory, almost a contradiction in terms: the polka is in duple meter, the mazurka in triple. But it works. In Josef Strauss’ Stiefmütterchen, the meter belongs to the mazurka (three beats to the bar, but with the accent on the first), the structure belongs to the polka (two principal themes heard in quick succession, and a central “trio” section often with a new theme and in a different key). The genre became popular in the 1850s; the first written by any Strauss was in 1854, with Johann’s La Viennoise. Stiefmütterchen (Pansies) is one of at least a dozen pieces by Josef named after a flower. It was first performed at a benefit concert organized by the composer and held in Vienna’s Volksgarten on July 7, 1865. The ethereally beautiful ending is of special note.

Johann Strauss, Jr.

Bitte schön! (If You Please!) Polka française

Auf der Jagd (On the Hunt), Polka schnell

The polkas Bitte schön and Auf der Jagd belong together, as they both come from Johann Strauss’ operetta Cagliostro in Wien, which opened on February 27, 1875, with the composer conducting. 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 drawn from or based on themes from the larger work, including a waltz sequence, a march, a quadrille and three polkas.

We hear two of those polkas tonight, back to back, and what a complementary pair they make—one, Bitte schön!, light, gentle and delicate as befits the “French” style polka (Polka française), the other, Auf der Jagd, fast and furious as befits the “quick” polka (Polka schnell). The former derives mostly from the beautiful sextet sung by six ugly old women who believe a snake oil salesman is going to rejuvenate them. The latter incorporates gunfire and horn calls from hunters—even though the operetta’s storyline has nothing to do with guns or shooting.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born: October 12, 1872, Down Ampney
Died: August 26, 1958, London

Concerto in F minor for Tuba and Orchestra

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote almost no dance music, but he did something just as noteworthy, for when he wrote his Tuba Concerto in 1954, it was the first concerto ever written for this instrument, at least by a composer of international stature. Today, some 60 years later, it remains the most important, and tuba concertos are still a rarity. The only well-known composers to have written one since Vaughan Williams have been John Williams of Star Wars and Boston Pops fame, and the Finn Kalevi Aho.

Vaughan Williams wrote the Tuba Concerto, one of his last compositions, for the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) on the occasion of its Golden Jubilee season. The first performance was given on June 13, 1954, by the LSO and its tuba player, Philip Catelinet, with Sir John Barbirolli conducting.

The composer wrote that the concerto’s form was “nearer to the Bach form than to that of the Viennese school (Mozart and Beethoven), though the first and last movements each finishes up with an elaborate cadenza which allies the concerto to the Mozart-Beethoven form.” The solo part, which covers an exceptionally wide range, is idiomatically written throughout. There are passages of tender lyricism, imposing technical feats (including two cadenzas) and broad humor (note the numerous trills in the third movement).

Josef Strauss

Dynamiden Waltzes (The Mysterious Powers of Magnetism)

Now for a return to the Strausses. Like many pieces with suggestive titles, Josef Strauss’ Dynamiden Waltzes come with an interesting story. The original name was Geheime Anziehungskräfte, which translates as “Mysterious Powers of Magnetism.” That may suggest love and romance, but in this case the topic was the dynamics of atomic particles whirling about in 3/4 time—not scientifically sound, perhaps, but certainly classically energized! Ferdinand Redtenbacher, the founder of scientific mechanical engineering, suggested the additional title Dynamiden, perhaps a reflection of his own work Das Dynamiden-System, published in 1857.

Strauss, himself trained as an engineer and inventor of several devices, composed his Dynamiden Waltz in 1865 for the Industrialists’ Ball held on January 30 in the Redoutensaal of the Imperial Palace. Concertgoers familiar with the opera Der Rosenkavalier by another, later Strauss (Richard, no relation to Johann) will recognize that the dreamy waltz tune that opens and closes the Dynamiden Waltzes found its close echo in one of the Rosenkavalier waltzes, “Ohne mich, ohne mich,” initially sung by Baron Ochs at the end of Act II.

Johann Strauss, Jr.

Flugschriften (Pamphlets) Waltz

During the mid 1860s, all three Strauss brothers were steadily turning out new compositions, many of them for balls of one sort or another. In 1866, a total of 22 new pieces for the Vienna Carnival (Fasching) alone came from their collective pens: seven from Johann, ten from Josef and seven from Eduard. One of Johann’s was the Flugschriften Waltz (Pamphlets Waltz), composed for the annual ball of the Vienna Authors’ and Journalists’ Association, given in the ballroom of the Sofienbad-Saal on January 21. Although dedicated to the Association, the waltz was actually premiered four days earlier at a different ball, the Court Ball at the Rittersaal of the Imperial Hofburg Palace, with Emperor Franz Josef I in attendance.

Eduard Strauss

Eduard Strauss
Born: March 25, 1835, Vienna
Died: December 28, 1916, Vienna

Bahn frei! (Clear Track!), Polka schnell

Ohne Bremse (Without Brakes), Polka schnell

The majority of Eduard Strauss’s 300-plus opus numbers are polkas, and most of these the majority belong to the category of the polka schnell (quick polka). Bahn frei! (Make way!) and Ohne Bremse (Without Brakes) are sprightly, spirited, delightful and deft polkas of the “quick” variety, both among the most popular in the repertory of their kind. Bahn frei! imitates the sounds of a choo-choo train, still something of a novelty in 1869 when the polka was written. Ohne Bremse (1886) creates the illusion of a train (or any other means of transportation) running smoothly and effortlessly with no thought given as to how to stop it!

Georges Bizet

Georges Bizet
Born: October 25, 1838, Paris
Died: June 3, 1875, Bougival, France

Carmen Fantasy, for Two Flutes and Orchestra,
arr. François Borne/ed. James Walker

Paraphrases, transcriptions, potpourris, fantasies and other means of adapting famous operas amounted to a sizable industry in the 19th century. Touring pianists and violinists especially benefited from this practice, often creating their own versions of the operas. A typical “fantasy” would incorporate perhaps a dozen or so tunes—some fast, some slow, some gentle, some frenetic—loosely stitched together but carefully arranged so as to present a steady crescendo of excitement, culminating in an all-out blizzard of notes.

Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875) has generated a particularly rich harvest of such works, two of the most famous being the Carmen Fantasy for violin and piano (or orchestra) by Pablo de Sarasate and the Carmen Variations of pianist Vladimir Horowitz. François Borne’s Carmen Fantasy was one of the first such works to arrive on the scene. We know almost nothing about Borne, other than the fact that he was principal flutist in the orchestra of the Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux, and that he wrote his fantasy for flute and piano about 1880, five years after the opera was first performed in Paris. Borne incorporated nearly a dozen themes from the opera, according special importance to the “Habanera,” which became a miniature theme and variations section by itself. More than a century later, James Galway orchestrated the piano part. Now we have still another variant on Bizet’s—and Borne’s—work: a reworking by James Walker of the solo role, now designated for two flutes.

Johann Strauss, Jr.

Kaiserwalzer (Emperor Waltzes)

If any Strauss waltz can be said to hold the honor of second place in popularity to The Blue Danube, it is probably this one, usually called the Emperor Waltz; properly speaking, it should be “Emperors Waltzes.” Like many other works of its kind, Kaiserwalzer is really a whole string of waltzes, not just one, and Walzer serves as either the plural or the singular form of the word.

Furthermore, there were two Kaiser—in German this word, too, 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, who was in the 40th year of his reign when Strauss composed his tribute. The other 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 the first of these, Franz Josef, to Berlin in 1889. As Peter Kemp deftly put it, “by not dedicating the music to either Kaiser specifically, Strauss could satisfy the vanity of both.” And regardless of its background, this is unquestionably an emperor among waltzes!

The Strauss Family

The Strauss brothers: Eduard, Johann and Joseph.

Robert Markow

About the author

Montreal-based Robert Markow, whose program notes have appeared in Showcase for more than 15 years, is a former horn player with the Montreal Symphony who also taught at Montreal’s McGill University for many years. He is a program annotator for numerous orchestras and musical organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Asia, in addition to writing for leading music journals including Fanfare in the U.S., Opera in London and Der neue Merker in Vienna. He has led music tours to several countries and continues to travel regularly to Europe, Asia and Australia in search of musical stimulation, and to bakeries throughout the world for gustatory stimulation.