Keepin’ It Classy: the Stories Behind the World’s Greatest Classical Music Compositions…Song # 5/50: An der schonen, blauen Donau, Opus 314 by Johann Strauss II

The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II.

Today we will be discussing one of the most famous waltzes of all time, Johann Strauss II’s An der schonen, blauen Donau, Op. 314 or, as it is much more commonly known in the English speaking world, “The Blue Danube”. This waltz has become so popular that many people refer to it as Austria’s unofficial national anthem. “The Blue Danube” is performed many times throughout the year in Austria and around the world and holds the record for being the most-performed waltz ever recorded. In Austria, “The Blue Danube” traditionally closes New Year’s Eve concerts so that this waltz is always the final piece of music performed live there to close out each and every year.

The “Waltz King”, Johann Strauss II.

Johann Strauss II left a musical legacy for the world that included over 500 pieces of light music which is basically meant to be music to dance to such as waltzes, polkas and so on. Because of the enormous number of popular dance compositions Strauss II created, he is known in musical circles as the “Waltz King”. However, Strauss II’s rise to prominence was not without its challenges. For example, he was named after his father, Johann Strauss, who, in his day, was a man of musical renown as well. The senior Strauss spent many of his days rehearsing, performing and traveling with an orchestra throughout Austria and the rest of central Europe. He found the lifestyle to be very demanding and pledged that his two sons, Johann the Younger and Eduard, would not be allowed to follow in his footsteps and would, instead, live more settled and established lives as bankers. The problem with this plan was that both sons inherited from their father his gift for creating and performing music. Johann Strauss the Younger secretly practiced many instruments as a child whenever his father was away on tour. He became so skilled that one time, when his father was too ill to fulfill his orchestral duties, Strauss the Younger was asked to stand in his father’s place. He did so, much to the chagrin of his father, who threatened to disown him if he did not immediately stop. Well, even a few centuries ago, teenage rebellion against one’s parents was a very real thing, and Strauss the Younger refused to bend to his father’s will and ended up going on tour with the orchestra. His maturity and musical skill were evident to all, and his path as a composer was formalized.

As much as Johann Strauss II’s act of rebellion infuriated his father, it served as an important step in terms of the evolution of light music at the time in Austria and the rest of Europe. Back in the mid-1800s, light music was often composed for formal balls. At these balls, members of higher society would engage in dance routines that were more akin to what we might call country line dancing today. Specifically, the royal dancing routines tended to involve parallel movements in which partners would dance in unison, side-by-side, or else facing each other while mirroring each other’s moves. When Johann Strauss II started composing a style of light music called a waltz, it revolutionized how social dancing was performed and enjoyed. The big innovation that came as a result of waltzing was that the dance partners actually touched and moved as one, instead of standing side-by-side and moving separately from each other. The fact that couples touched each other and held on closely in a public setting was initially thought to be scandalous behaviour. However, as the music of waltzes became more well known among the general public, the intimate nature of the dance proved very popular. Holding a loved one close, in a sexually-charged, romantic or loving way became socially acceptable behaviour. Not surprisingly, Johann Strauss II was given much of the credit for introducing this new element to light music and became a very popular public figure as a result.

“The Blue Danube” was first composed with a complete set of lyrics that sang the praises of the beauty of the Danube river that flows across much of Europe. This composition was meant to be a morale booster for Austrians who were down in the dumps due to their country having been bested by Prussia during the Seven Weeks’ War. But, while the audience liked the instrumental side of this composition, they found the lyrics to be grating on their nerves. So, for a while, Strauss the Younger shelved “The Blue Danube” and refused to perform it, considering it to be a failure. However, he was encouraged by many to revisit his composition and present it without lyrics at the opening of the Paris World Fair. The version of “The Blue Danube” that premiered there was warmly received and has stayed as the version the world has come to know and love.

As an interesting aside, I have learned something while researching these classical music posts that I hadn’t considered before. Eventually, Johann Strauss the Elder passed away and the two Strauss brothers were free to indulge in their love of music. As they moved forward in life, Eduard and Johann the Younger made a pact. That pact centered around a pledge that each made to the other that whoever died first, the surviving brother would take the deceased brother’s life work and destroy it. This seems at first blush to be a very drastic and unnecessary pledge to make. However, back in the 1800s, there were no such things as copyright laws to protect one’s original work. Furthermore, printing presses were only just becoming commonplace so the notion of making multiple copies of original compositions or manuscripts was not something that many people considered doing. Some composers, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, hired people whose sole job was to make a historical record of their work. Consequently, whenever you research a composition created by Bach, you will see an additional notation in the title, “BWV” which stands for “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” or “Bach Works Catalogue”. The Strauss brothers had no such person designated to preserve their original compositions. So, when Johann the Younger passed away, his brother Eduard acted on their pact and began burning his brother’s work in order to protect his legacy. As it turned out, the Strauss brothers were worried that their work would fall into the hands of less-skilled, inferior composers and unwarranted alterations to their greatest compositions would begin circulating in their name, thus sullying their reputations. Fortunately for us, many of Strauss the Younger’s compositions were so popular during his lifetime that other composers copied them for themselves while Strauss was still alive. So, it has become a matter of debate among classical music historians as to how authentic the over 500 compositions of waltzes and other forms of light music that bear Johann Strauss II’s name actually are, and how many are copies by other composers. We may think that matters of copyright law are modern affairs, but truth be told, it is because of situations such as those faced by the Strauss brothers and other composers of that time almost two centuries ago that the idea of an artist being able to protect the sanctity of their original work came to be.

Music historians are fairly confident that the sheet music for “The Blue Danube” contains Strauss the Younger’s original notations. The composition was such a huge hit that it was copied verbatim by many other composers at the time, so historians have a large number of copies by many composers that all use the same notes, chord progressions, tempo, etc…, and which all give credit to Johann Strauss II as composer. Whether or not there is an original copy of “The Blue Danube” written in Strauss the Younger’s own handwriting is up for debate, but the unaltered nature of his composition is not. So, with that having been said, let’s all enjoy one of the most beloved waltzes ever composed, “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the composition “The Blue Danube” can be found here.

The link to the official website for a museum dedicated to the works of Johann Strauss II can be found here.

The link to the official website for Classical Music station 103.1 in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.

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