100 years later, Johann Strauss has Austria spinning again

Europe editor Dinah A. Spritzer visited Austria to preview the country's Strauss Year. Her report follows:

VIENNA, Austria -- Before Elvis Presley was the King and Michael Jackson the King of Pop, there was Johann Strauss, a musical revolutionary for the masses.

The Waltz King, as he was affectionately known throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the 19th century, propagated a dance craze -- like the jitterbug or the hustle did later -- that changed the course of popular music.

This year, Strauss' native country and city are marking the 100th anniversary of his death with a year of performances and exhibits. During my stay in Vienna, I heard more than one cynic refer to Strauss as a "one-hit wonder."

Is there anything beyond "The Blue Danube," which has become so much a part of popular culture that some toddlers in the U.S. learn the tune from Warner Brothers cartoons?

One can point to the 300 works Strauss composed and conducted -- to great fanfare in Europe and the U.S. -- before he turned his attentions to the most famous waltz ever penned.

Another reason Strauss might merit a year of homage is his indelible tie to the city's position as a European center of culture.

The composer was born in 1825, son to the music director of the Imperial Court Balls, Johann Strauss the Elder. The younger son made his debut as a concert director in 1844 at the Dommayer Casino, which today is the Parkhotel Schonbrunn.

Johann was part of a concert-performing dynasty that included brothers Josef and Edi. Their orchestra became so well liked that it was compelled to divide nightly into three groups, each performing at two balls.

The Strauss orchestras' initial dance works were based on the polka, cousin of the waltz, which was upgraded from folk-music status to a staple of aristocratic balls during the brothers' musical reign in Vienna.

Johann Strauss the Younger had already earned the attention of the Habsburg rulers in 1848 with the "Kaiser-Franz Joseph Marsch," written in honor of the 18-year-old's ascension to the throne. The maestro's success paralleled the royal family's glory days: In 1858, Empress Elisabeth and Franz Joseph began construction of the Ringstrasse, a 2.5-mile-long circle of halls and palaces that is still the cornerstone of Viennese architecture.

One of the Ringstrasse's great landmarks is the Renaissance-style Opera House, where Strauss conducted an "Opernball-Polka" composed by Edi Strauss in 1873.

After already having won the hearts of Europe's waltz-loving nobility, Strauss composed "The Blue Danube," which turned into one of the first worldwide hits and was performed to a record 30,000 fans in Boston during the maestro's grand concert tour.

But it wasn't Strauss' acclaim among sophisticates alone that made him a musical phenomenon. Dancing in three-four time became the standard not only for the empress but for her washerwomen as well.

In 1873, Strauss wrote "Die Fledermaus," said to be the world's most frequently performed operetta. Other Strauss works include the operettas "A Night in Venice" and "The Gypsy Baron" and pieces known as "Die Kaiserwalzer," which are dedicated to one of his closest friends, the composer Johannes Brahms.

To take in the full Strauss experience, I suggest visitors to Vienna sample a few performances of the works mentioned above but also explore the monuments that touched the composer's life. For instance, St. Stephen's Cathedral, with its medieval spires, was where Strauss married Henriette Treffs in 1862. The former opera singer abandoned her lover and seven children to take up with Strauss and successfully managed his financial affairs.

The composer chose St. Charles' Church, only a few blocks away from St. Stephen's, for his wedding to Lily Dittrich in 1878, less than three months after Henriette died. St. Charles', built in 1713, is more welcoming than St. Stephen's, perhaps because of its more diverse architectural elements -- Roman columns, Renaissance chapels and Baroque facade -- and its peaceful park surroundings.

The city's two key tributes to Habsburg preeminence -- both sites where Strauss performed -- are the Schonbrunn Palace and the Hofburg.

The Schonbrunn, built in 1692 on the outskirts of the city, was the summer residence of the Habsburgs and hosted many a party in the 19th century. Forty of its 1,441 rooms are open to the public.

The 18-wing Hofburg, in the city center, dates to 1275 and has a much heavier feel than its summertime rival. The extensive court tableware collection is a highlight for royal buffs.

An informal tourist poll I took in Vienna suggested that artwork created during Strauss' time and slightly after is still what attracts many visitors here. Paintings by Strauss' contemporary Hans Markart can be found at the Belvedere Palace and on the walls and ceiling of the Opera House.

The international darling of the Belvedere, however, is the painter Gustav Klimt, who began his career in the latter part of the composer's life. Viewing Klimt's famous "Kiss" at the Belvedere is the ideal romantic conclusion to a waltz-filled stay in Vienna.

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