My Pop Life #157 : By The Beautiful Blue Danube – Johann Strauss II

An der schönen blauen Donau   –   Johann Strauss II

I immediately smile when I hear the first few phrases of this and I don’t stop smiling until it’s finished.  What a truly tremendous piece of music.  Dance music, pop music, classical music, whatever.  Music.  It is a waltz, which means it is in 3/4 time.  When you play or dance a waltz you count 1,2,3 – 1,2,3.   Actually that’s the easy part.  As a self-taught pianist I’ve always struggled with beats in a bar.  Where’s the four ?? Anyway, you count 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.  And don’t step on her toes.  Very important.

Der Donau near Vienna

The Danube is Europe’s 2nd-longest longest river (after the Volga in Russia) and runs from the Black Forest in Germany (where is is called der Donau) all the way through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary (called the Duna as it runs through Budapest rather beautifully), Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine where it deltas into the Black Sea.   It is (tragically today in late June 2016) the longest river in the EU.

Johann Strauss II

Johann Strauss II was Austrian and grew up by der schönen blauen Donau in Vienna. Photos of him suggest he was a biker, but this is a modern interposition because the motorbike had yet to be invented properly.   He also resemble a rocker, greased back hair and mutton chops.  He was clearly a dude.  He was as near as you got to a pop star for the 1850s/60s.   If you were a musician in the 19th Century you tended to gravitate to Vienna, much as New Orleans was a musical magnet in the first half of the 20th Century.

All of his family were musicians, and his father, Johann Strauss I,  was a popular composer and the leader of an orchestra.  Dad didn’t want number one son to become a musician and whipped him when he discovered the secret violin lessons he was taking (with a member of his own orchestra).  Undeterred, number one son eventually held his first concert for music he had written at Dommayer Casino in Vienna in 1844 after many other venues, fearful of Dad’s influence, shied away from hosting young Johann.  So enraged was Dad that he never played the Dommayer again.

                                                                                                       Johann Strauss I

In 1848 revolution swept through Europe and father and son found themselves on opposite sides of the struggle, father siding with the Habsburg Royal Family and writing his most famous piece the Radetsky March the same year  and son being arrested for playing the revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise in public.   The following year Strauss senior died and Johann the younger merged their two orchestras.  The waltz was then the most popular dance in Europe thanks to Johann Strauss I and his contemporary Joseph Lanner, and Johann Jr extended the form and took it into the stratosphere becoming probably the most successful composer of dance music in the 19th Century, touring Europe with his orchestra to great acclaim.  An Der Schönen Blauen Danube was written in 1866, and premiered in Vienna, Paris and New York in 1867.  It was a sensation.  It still is.  One of the world’s most popular pieces of music, but that’s never frightened me.  When I was younger I preferred the cool of undiscovered, unpopular music.  My ears led me here though.  Bless my ears.

I feel like this piece of music has been in my head forever.  I cannot remember when I purchased the vinyl LP, early 20s in London no doubt, but it was already familiar to me.  It is, it must be confessed, a tune.  The night I danced to it in ?1991? lingers lovingly in the memory since we had all been partying at the Archway Road flat since Saturday evening, and it was now Sunday morning.  The party was over but many people were still present, still drunk, still happy.  It was late summer I believe, Jenny and I had invited the gang round – why or who or what I cannot recall but  – among those present were : Jo Martin, Michael Rose, Roger Griffith, Jo Melville, Michael Buffong, Paulette, Beverley, Paul my brother, Colin, Michael too? Pedro ? Richard (Lady G?), Saffron Myers, Julian Danquah and….hmmm here it gets hazy.  If you were there please let me know !  In any event it was around five or six in the morning when we’d played all the Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Marley, house music, Sly Stone and ska records in the collection and we needed a party closer.  I rustled around in the box and found the LP.

This is pre-CD by the way !   The response to those opening phrases was magical.  We each took a partner and waltzed gently around the front room, pretending we knew what we were doing, pretty sure I partnered with Saffron letting the alcohol lead our steps, slowly at first then with increasing vigour and abandon as the music swelled, swirling merrily around the carpet and onto the furniture, swapping partners, spinning, smiling, spinning.  We laughed we fell over we span and span around and around.  Exhilaration and satisfied exhaustion followed and we collapsed in a pile smiling.  Time for a coffee.   Happy days.  Happy happy music.

The piece is performed every New Year’s Day in Vienna by the Vienna Philharmonic  and beamed live around the world.   Here is the result from 2010.

and here is the wonderful Daniel Bahrenboim in 2014 :