Dancing on the Danube
Vienna and Budapest have more than the Danube in common. Less than 150 miles apart, the two cities have long been linked in all kinds of ways – politically, commercially, socially, artistically, not least musically. But the river has always been the direct physical connection between them. One of the greatest of all Viennese assets came by way of the Danube when, in about 1750, Johann Michael Strauss travelled up the river from the Hungarian capital to settle in the Austrian capital. His grandson Johann Baptist, who learned to love Viennese dance music in his father’s tavern in the suburb of Leopoldstat, was destined to become the founder of the Strauss musical dynasty – no fewer than four generations of composers, beginning with Johann I himself and including not only his three exceptionally talented sons Johann II, Josef and Eduard but also Eduard’s less talented son, Johann III, and Johann III’s nephew, Eduard II.
While Hungary had little to do with the early development of either the Viennese waltz or the polka, like most Austrian composers from Haydn onwards, Johann I and his sons were fascinated by Hungarian or, more precisely, Hungarian-gypsy music. Johann I wrote several Hungarian gallops and a waltz, Emlék Pestre, dedicated to “the noble Hungarian nation” after a visit to Pest in 1833. As for Johann II, as well as comparatively minor pieces like the Pesther Csárdás and the Éljen a Magyár Polka, he wrote a Hungarian-inspired operetta Der Zigeunerbaron and a comic opera, Ritter Pásmán, which is also set in Hungary. Music from both those works is included in the present programme.
If Ritter Pásmán was too ambitious a project for a composer of operettas, Der Zigeunerbaron proved to be second in popularity among Johann II’s many stage works only to Die Fledermaus – which indicates how much the Viennese public enjoyed the rhythmic zest and the exotic melodies and harmonies of Hungarian-gypsy music. So it is not entirely surprising that the gap in the Viennese operetta market left by the death of Johann II was most successfully filled by two Hungarian composers and long-term Viennese residents – Franz Lehár, who learned to be more Viennese than the Viennese while remaining as Hungarian as taste required, and Emmerich Kálmán, who combined the waltz with Hungarian-gypsy music in much the same way as Johann II in the trend-setting Ziegeunerbaron. That this was not true Hungarian folk music Béla Bartók, once a fellow student with Kálmán in Budapest, was later at considerable pains to demonstrate. But for the Viennese in the Strauss/Lehár era if it had come to the city by way of the Danube it was authentic enough for them.
Franz von Suppé (1819–1895)
Poet and Peasant (Dichter und Bauer): Overture
Although Johann Strauss II is the hero of Viennese operetta – in his lifetime he had no serious rival – its father figure was Franz von Suppé. It was Suppé who had the talent and the initiative to write pieces just as entertaining as the Offenbach opéras bouffes which threatened to monopolise the Viennese audience in the late 1850s, before Strauss came on the scene. If most of the dozens of operettas Suppé wrote for the Theater an der Wien and the Carltheater are now remembered only by their overtures, it is not so much because the operettas are inferior as because the overtures are so very good. Though written in 1846, years before he entered into competition with Offenbach, and though intended not for one of his operettas but for a play by Carl Elmer, the Poet and Peasant Overture – with its slow introduction, its lyrical cello solo, its rousing main theme and, of course, its elegant Viennese waltz tune – is a thoroughly characteristic example.
Joseph Lanner (1801-1843)
The Schönbrunn Waltzes (Die Schönbrunner Walzer) Op.200
A few years older than Suppé, Joseph Lanner was with his near-contemporary Johann Strauss I one of the two great founders of the Viennese ballroom idiom. The reason why the name of Strauss rather than that of Lanner is now overwhelmingly associated with the Viennese waltz is not that Johann I was an overwhelmingly better musician. It’s largely because Johann Strauss had the good fortune to father three sons all of whom were more than capable of carrying on where he left off. Joseph Lanner on the other hand had one son, August, who had both the talent and the inclination to follow him but who died at the age of twenty-one.
Lanner’s most famous waltz, however, secured a new life nearly 70 years after it was written. One of its main themes is ingeniously echoed, along with another Lanner tune, in the waltz episode featuring the Ballerina in Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka. In its original setting it is just one of several themes arranged, as was the Viennese custom by now, in a sequence of five waltz tunes that are briefly developed and recapitulated in a quasi-symphonic construction. Written in 1842 and named after the royal palace to the south-west of the city, The Schönbrunn Waltzes are a convincing demonstration that, while Lanner might not have been capable of writing a Blue Danube, the Viennese waltz would still have become an internationally popular dance form even if the Strauss family had never existed.
Johann Strauss I (1804–49)
Sighs (Seufzer) Galop, Op.9
A forerunner and close relation of both the quick polka and the can-can, the galop was the most energetic – as well as the easiest to learn – of all ballroom dances in the first half of the nineteenth century. Before the polka overtook it in popularity the elder Johann Strauss wrote dozens of them, none more entertaining than Seufzer. In theory, there is no time to stand around sighing in the middle of a galop but, in practice, a resourceful composer can arrange anything. Suspending the apparently unstoppable trajectory of the dance – as Johann I does twice, indulging in four sighs each time – actually makes the momentum all the more exhilarating.
Franz Lehár (1870-1948)
The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe): Vilja Song (Viljalied)
The most successful of all Lehár’s operettas – the most successful of all Viennese operettas next to Die Fledermaus – was, and still is, The Merry Widow, which was first performed in Vienna in 1905. Set partly in the Paris embassy of an imaginary, impoverished Balkan state, it skilfully exploits both the sophisticated amusements of the great city and the sentiment associated with the backward way of life in the Balkan state of “Pontevedro.” The most treasured Pontevedran asset is the merry widow herself, Hanna Glawari, who is not only beautiful but also so rich that the loss of her personal fortune through marriage to any but another Pontevedran would sink the the country’s whole economy. Her most popular number, the Vilja Song, established Lehár’s Balkand credentials at an early stage in his career. Performed at a glamorous party in her Parisian residence, it is a clever and highly attractive idea of what a “Pontevedran” folk song would sound like. It tells the story of Vilja, an irresistible wood nymph who allows a huntsman to fall in love with her and then, to his inconsolable despair, disappears . . . . Hanna proves to be similarly irresistible to the one Pontevedran she fancies and finally, unlike Vilja, commits herself to him
Johann Strauss II (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus: Csárdás
Among the guests at magnificent ball thrown in Vienna by the Russian Prince Orlofsky are Rosalinde and her parlour maid Adele, neither of them invited in her own name and neither aware of the other’s presence. Rosalinde’s disguise as a Hungarian countess is so effective that it deceives even her own husband, Gabriel von Eisenstein, who is also incognito and is posing as a French marquis. It is in order to prove her Hungarian credentials that Rosalinde takes it upon herself to sing the longest and most elaborate aria in the whole score - a csárdás introduced by an authentic-sounding Hungarian gypsy clarinet and consisting of a characteristically nostalgic slow section and a brilliantly fiery ending. Gabriel, to his later embarrassment, is duly deceived
Josef Strauss (1827-1870)
Village Swallows from Austria (Dorfschwalben aus Österreich) Waltz, Op.164
Like Johann II’s Bauern-Polka, his brother Josef’s Dorfschwalben aus Österreich offered Viennese good-time society a pleasure trip to the countryside – where, since it originated there as the Ländler folk dance, the waltz is not entirely out of place. Having set the scene in the opening bars with bagpipe drones on the strings and a yodelling clarinet, Josef introduces not only his first main theme but also, with the help of a bird whistle in the orchestra, his twittering swallows. Some of the tunes are more sophisticated than others but there are regular yodelling or droning reminders of the rustic setting. The swallows and the graceful tune, so characteristic of Josef, that goes with them are recalled just before the end.
Johann Strauss II
Out Hunting (Auf der Jagd) Polka, Op.373
Just as the ballroom supplied operetta with some of its most successful numbers, usually in the form of waltzes or polkas, so operetta replenished the ballroom repertoire with selections of its most successful numbers, usually in the form of waltzes or polkas. The quick polka Auf der Jagd – a title which invites a particularly colourful use of horns and trumpets – comes from a Strauss operetta much admired by Brahms, Cagliostro in Wien.
Johann Strauss II
The Gypsy Baron (Der Zigeunerbaron): Overture
Like many Viennese musicians, Johann Strauss fancied himself as an exponent of the Hungarian idiom – or, to be more precise, the Hungarian-gypsy idiom, which was almost as popular in Vienna as it was in Budapest not so very many miles down the Danube to the East. The show-stopping status of Rosalinde’s Csárdás in Die Fledermaus is a good indication of the favoured position of that kind of music in Viennese society at the time. As it happens, although Johann II didn’t have much time to devote himself to the Hungarian idiom – waltzes and polkas were what the public wanted from him -– the most ambitious of his stage works, Ritter Pásmán, and one of the most successful, The Gypsy Baron, are both settings of Hungarian subjects.
The Overture to The Gypsy Baron offers a delightful sample of what the score as a whole – hung on the flimsiest of flimsy operetta plots – has to offer. Hungarian-gypsy melodic inflections, immediately evident in the aggressive beginning of the slow introduction, are put to most expressive use in the elegantly sustained line which eventually emerges on solo oboe over a quiet pizzicato accompaniment. Although the waltz which is the main interest of the second part of the overture is of the conventional Viennese kind, there is a wide variety of material here and much of it is of Hungarian inspiration, not least the syncopations so zestfully incorporated in the coda.
Blabbermouth (Plappermäulchen) Polka, Op.245
The Plappermäulchen Polka – the title of which translates literally as “Blabbermouth” and which is not to be confused with another polka by Josef Strauss called Die Schwätzerin or “Chatterbox” – is subtitled “a musical joke.” It was written for the Viennese Carnival season of 1868 and, with its amusing instrumental repartee and its percussion rattling on, is a characteristically ingenious example of the novelty polka.
Robert Stolz (1880–1975)
The Favourite (Der Favorit): “You will be the emperor of my soul” (“Du sollst der Kaiser meiner Seele sein”)
Robert Stolz – great-nephew of the famous Verdi soprano Teresa Stolz – was the last major survivor from the heyday of Viennese operetta. Although he died less than forty years ago, and although he was so much of our time as to win two Oscars for his work as a composer in Hollywood, he had been drafted into the service of operetta long before the First World War. And he went on writing for the stage until he was well into his eighties, completing no fewer than sixty-five operettas or musicals as well as hundreds of songs and dozens of film scores. Der Favorit was written in 1916 for the Komische Oper where it was such a flop that he wrote nothing more for Berlin until the 1920s, by when the German capital had taken over from Vienna as the centre of operetta. The one surviving number from Der Favorit, which otherwise disappeared without trace, is the soprano aria “Du sollst der Kaiser meiner Seele sein” which is so beautifully written for the voice, so melodious and so idiomatic that in Vienna it would surely have kept the whole work afloat.
Johann Strauss II
The Knight Pasman (Ritter Pásmán): Czárdás
When Johann II’s Ritter Pásmán – a comic opera, which is a cut above operetta – was first performed at the Court Opera in Vienna on New Year’s Day in 1892 it was generally agreed that, although the score was respectable enough, the composer’s ambition had exceeded his ability. It was also agreed, however, that the ballet music in the third act – a polka, a waltz and a csárdás – represented him at his very best. Certainly, the csárdás with its passionately expressive slow introduction and the brilliantly stylish, increasingly vigorous dance that follows is as exciting as anything the Danube had brought from Hungary to Vienna.
Johann Strauss II
Tittle-Tattle (Tritsch-Tratsch) Polka Op.214
Tritsch-Tratsch has always been one of the most popular of Viennese polkas. After its first performance in 1858 there was such a demand for it that the sheet music was sold out within a few days of its publication and was hastily reprinted – to the delight no doubt of the owners of the recently issued Tritsch-Tratsch magazine from which it takes its name. A brilliant example of the quick polka, it demonstrates just how swiftly and how irresistibly chit-chat or tittle-tattle can get round a crowded ballroom.
Johann Strauss II
By the Beautiful Blue Danube (An der schönen blauen Donau) Waltz, Op.314
The Blue Danube waltz is not only the last word in flattery – the Danube in Vienna is a muddy brown in most lights – but also the ultimate example of the concert waltz. In company with some of the most distinguished examples of its kind, it consists of as many as five distinct waltz-time sections, each one of them based on two different themes. Clearly, as the composer of well over a hundred waltzes (not including those in his operettas), Johann II was a uniquely resourceful melodist. Written for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association in 1867, this most familiar of Viennese waltzes was originally scored for chorus and orchestra and in that form it has achieved something like the status of a national anthem. The choral version, however, doesn’t have the splendid coda which in the orchestral version recalls and briefly develops the main themes of four of the five sections, referring back to the leisurely introduction and effortlessly completing a perfectly integrated construction. It flows just as easily as the Danube itself, and far more colourfully.
© Gerald Larner
Is there any finer way to greet the New Year than with a sparkling, traditional Viennese gala concert? Lovely singing, irresistible Strauss waltzes, polkas and overtures, and, of course, the essential favourites: The Blue Danube and Radetsky March. This is music to brighten up the darkest days and send you off with a spring in your step.