Johann Strauss II

Born - Oct 25, 1825   |   Died - Jun 3, 1899   |   Genres - Music, Theater

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Biography by Bruce Eder

One of the most celebrated composers of the 19th century, Johann Strauss II spent almost 50 years at the center of cultural life for much of Western world, from his native Austria-Hungary to such far-flung American territories as California. His work was embraced and acclaimed not only by Europe's upper and ruling classes, but also the working class and the growing middle classes of the era. He was the son of Johann Strauss I, who was the most lionized composer of waltzes in Vienna during the first half of the 19th century, and who also did his best to force his son into a profession other than music. The younger Strauss couldn't resist the calling, however, and quickly overshadowed his father as a composer of waltzes, polkas, and marches, and as orchestra leader. They were rivals until his father's death in 1849, and after that, the younger Strauss never had any potential rivals. By the 1860s, Strauss had found an international public, on at least two continents, eager for his work. Essentially, he brought what amounted to a symphonic scope to the waltz, elevating it from light music to respectable concert music in the process. It's principally because of him that front-line orchestras have ever regularly played and recorded waltz music; essentially, he gave light music the depth of full-blown concert music, rather anticipating the best film music in some respects. He rose to prominence amid the rebuilding of the city of Vienna following the failed revolution of 1848. Although Strauss -- a man as naïve in the world of politics as he was adept in the composition of music -- had sided with the rebels, which caused the court of the Emperor Franz Josef to keep him at arm's length for decades, he was able to make his career in the imperial capital. His music became inextricably associated with Vienna's "golden age" and was one of the few attributes of the city and its culture to rise above the political ferment of the times. The diametrically opposed admirers of Brahms and Wagner, for example, might have been prepared to do bodily harm to each other in the streets, given too much beer and a wrong word on any given night, but both camps admired Strauss. Monarchists who loved the emperor and Democrats, Republicans, and would-be reformers of all stripes, even the most virulent anti-Semites (a great irony, since the Strauss family was Jewish), all loved his music. Strauss' contribution to operetta was somewhat more uneven than his work in orchestral music, principally because of his inexperience in theatrical matters -- he simply could not, intuitively or intellectually, distinguish a good libretto from a bad libretto. There was also, from the point-of-view of the theater producers, an irrelevancy to that "blind spot"; after his success with Die Fledermaus in 1874, which introduced Viennese operetta to the world (and is still produced regularly 130 years later), it became clear that the public would flock to a Strauss operetta of any quality, so far as the libretto was concerned. Publishers on at least one occasion deliberately stuck Strauss with a second-rate libretto, knowing it wouldn't matter, while reserving a superb, first-quality piece for a less well-known rival composer. As a result, apart from Die Fledermaus, The Gypsy Baron, and A Night in Venice, few of his operettas proved durable, even in the German-speaking world, although their music has often endured in excerpts. Strauss died in 1899, just as movies were developing into a proper storytelling form. His most immediate influence was in the form of his waltzes and polkas, which were interpolated into countless films during the silent era in the form of suggested cues and full orchestral scores provided by the studios, and carried over into the sound era, by which time the copyright had begun to dissolve on most of his work where it still existed at all. "The Blue Danube" is the most famous of his waltzes; it turns up, in whole or in part, in dozens if not hundreds of movies, in everything from Abbott & Costello's Hold That Ghost (1941) to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the latter utilizing the 1867 waltz before a 1968 audience to underscore the gracefulness of satellites' (and people's) movements in orbit. The overture to Die Fledermaus was used to delightful comic effect for the big finale of H.C. Potter's Hellzapoppin' (1941), and the list goes on and on: Spring Parade; the cartoon A Corny Concerto (1943); the comedy Dios los Cría (1953); The Little Fugitive (1953); Harry Munter (1969); Harold and Maude (1971); Heaven's Gate (1980); Les Bons Débarras (1980, aka Good Riddance); Strictly Ballroom (1992); True Lies (1994); The Jungle Book (1994); Dear God (1996); Earth (1998); Dogma (1999); and Rock 'n' Roll Frankenstein (1999). And those are just some of the more obvious films that have made use of some of his music. There are snatches of it spread far wider, with Carl Stalling and his scores for the Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1940s providing a very vivid canvas on which to place snatches of Strauss's music (thus quietly initiating several generations of young viewers to Strauss' work). As to the operettas, they've mostly been filmed in the German-speaking world, starting with a 1923 version of Die Fledermaus directed by Max Mack. They obviously didn't come into their own until the advent of sound films in 1927, however, Germany's Ufa Studio produced an especially notable color version of Die Fledermaus in the early '40s. That film raises an interesting and ironic point about the status and meaning of Strauss' music in popular culture during the Nazi era. Hitler, who was of Austrian birth, personally liked Strauss' music (though his favorite operetta was The Merry Widow, by Franz Lehar), and Strauss' waltzes and operettas were embraced by the Nazi-run cultural apparatus of the Third Reich. In Austria, however, a lot of creative people and ordinary citizens who abhorred the Nazis and the occupying Germans, and who clung to their separate national identity, also embraced Strauss' work as their own, as a statement (veiled and subtle, as it had to be for their own safety) of their separateness from the Germans. Indeed, Strauss' music and the Imperial era that it evoked were a safe haven for the nationalists and anti-Nazis working quietly in Vienna, Salzburg, etc. And there was the odd, unspoken truth amid all of this, that the Strauss family was of Jewish descent -- in fact, when the Nazis marched in during the spring of 1938, descendants of the composer were protected from persecution by the timely, surreptitious creation of baptismal certificates, indicating conversions to Christianity generations earlier, which conveniently turned up in the public record. Perhaps the most cinematically daring and challenging adaptation of Strauss' work came in the form of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Oh...Rosalinda! (1955), which took the music and basic plot from Die Fledermaus and transposed both into a beautiful, albeit bittersweet, operetta/satire about life in postwar, Allied-occupied Vienna. No less a figure than Erich Wolfgang Korngold enjoyed one of his earliest popular successes, long before he thought of working in movies, by way of Strauss. His edition of A Night in Venice restored the work to the repertory, and his Strauss pastiche, Waltzes From Vienna, was not only a hit on-stage but was brought to the screen in the early '30s, including a notoriously uninspired British version directed by Alfred Hitchcock (his least favorite of all of his movies), and a Hollywood adaptation called The Great Waltz, starring Fernand Gravey. Onscreen, Strauss has been portrayed by numerous actors across the decades, including Gravey and Stuart Wilson in the 1972 miniseries The Strauss Family.