Daily Archives: May 10, 2012

The Waltz King

Strauss statue in Stadtpark, Vienna

There are thousands of books on raising children these days, not one of which would recommend the approach Johann Strauss I took with his son Johann Strauss II.

Dad was a well-known Austrian composer and conductor in the first half of the 19th century.  He wanted Junior to become a banker, but the kid wanted to follow in his father’s musical footsteps.  One day Johann Senior walked in on Johann Junior secretly practicing the violin, and serious punishment ensued.  The father is quoted in several sources as saying that he was going to “beat the music out of the boy.”

The kid wasn’t easily discouraged, however, and his interest in having a musical career was abetted by his mother, Maria Anna Strauss.  She may have been motivated in part by spite; her relationship with her husband was strained because he had a mistress. 

Junior was 9 years old when his father got involved with Emilie Trampusch, who eventually had 6 children with the elder Strauss.  That was grounds for divorce back then; when Maria Anna served papers on him, Strauss Senior shrugged and moved in with his illicit family.  With him out of the house, Maria Anna did her best to further Strauss Junior’s career in orchestral music.

By the mid-1840s, father and son were musical rivals; both led orchestras that were extremely popular, and both composed tunes that were widely admired.  It would have been a great story if Dad finally came around and said, “Son, I was wrong — you’re great.”

That doesn’t seem to have happened, though.  During the Revolution of 1848, Strauss Senior remained loyal to the monarchy,  but Strauss Junior sided with the revolutionaries.  It just didn’t work out between those two, and when Dad died of Scarlet Fever in 1849, I’m guessing that Johann II must have been conflicted about attending the funeral.

After all, when Johann II’s wife died in 1878, he didn’t attend her funeral, and he liked her.  He mourned her death for several… well, several weeks, when he married someone else. 

By now you’re probably getting the impression that I’m just ripping the Strausses, so let me tell you something positive about them —  or at least about Junior, because he was the superior talent.

Neither Strauss actually invented the Viennese waltz; it had been around as a folk dance.  But by composing elegant melodies and writing more sophisticated arrangements, Johann Junior elevated the waltz from the beer halls to the concert halls — and palaces, too.  The Waltz King, as he was called, toured Europe and America, spreading the popularity of that musical form.

By the time he died in 1899, Johann Strauss II had written over 150 waltzes, as well as several operettas, some polkas, marches, and other compositions that were later used as soundtracks for cartoons.  His most famous work, the Blue Danube Waltz, is one of the most recognizable melodies ever written, and is sort of the unofficial national anthem of Austria.  He is so revered there that a statue of Strauss occupies a place of honor in Vienna’s main park (see photo).

The Waltz King’s career illustrates that there is almost no limit to what a man can accomplish when he has a parent who strenuously objects to his dream.