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