by Neil McCalmont
Era: High Romantic
Duration: c. 10 minutes
Will you recognize it? You’ll probably start whistling along.
Recommended Recordings: the Vienna Philharmonic, either with Carlos Kleiber or Willi Boskovsky
Composer: Johann Strauss II (1825-1899): Strauss explicitly disobeyed his father’s orders never to be a musician. In fact, dear old dad unintentionally founded a dynasty of musicians, as all three of his sons went against his wishes and became composers. Strauss the father was a composer of Viennese waltzes like his sons, but wanted his children to find more stable careers. The family also wrote numerous polkas, marches, and other popular tunes for the Viennese public, and their works were particularly admired by Emperor Franz Josef I. Strauss II went on to become by far the most successful and well-known composer of the family, with such big hits as the Blue Danube and Emperor waltzes. He also composed the music to Die Fledermaus, possibly the most popular operetta (comic opera) ever. The music of the Strauss family is beloved for its catchy melodies, light textures, and copious amounts of fun.
The Piece: Written in 1866 and premiered the following year, The Blue Danube was only a moderate success at first, but its popularity soon came into full swing at the Paris World’s Fair in 1867. The waltz was quickly adapted into versions both with words and without, and has become one of the most enduringly popular classical pieces of all time.
The popularity of the 19th-century waltz in Vienna can’t be overstated; it was a staple of aristocratic society and the closest thing to a pop song genre back then. During this era, the waltz was quite a sensuous dance, since it called for men and women to dance face to face, arm in arm, sometimes staring into each other’s eyes, or even allowing chests to touch. (Gasp!) It was an excuse for an overly stuffy society to enjoy a sliver of excitement, and the easily danceable, swaying motion of The Blue Danube allowed for an especially fun time on the dance floor.
The waltz begins with a slow introduction that hints at the main theme over shimmering violins. The music then picks up as if to say, “Here we really begin,” and we are given our first theme to dance to. A waltz is always in ¾ time, so you will hear three beats, the first of which will get the most oomph, producing a “boom-chick-chick” beat. The lilting rhythms make it easy to listen to — just let your mind ebb and flow like the Danube. Since waltzes are commonly made up of different sections, contrasting vistas emerge on this riverside journey; each usually has a discernible melody to hum along to, so you don’t get lost.
Eventually, during the coda (closing section), we are led back to that oh-so-catchy melody from the beginning. We end our brief but joyous Danube cruise with the kind of smile on our face that only a Viennese waltz can provide.
Personal Notes: The opening, which foreshadows the catchy main melody, sounds like a misty sunrise over a river. Each of the shorter following sections is made up of its own melody, which will usually be repeated once. Between sections, there are short transitions, as if the composer says, “Now on to something different.” I find it helpful to listen for these sections and transitions to guide me through the piece, as it makes the music easier to follow. The constant ¾ beat makes good foot-tapping music, too!
- The Blue Danube was used in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- The Vienna Philharmonic always plays The Blue Danube during its New Year’s Concert.
- The piece is so popular it is known as Austria’s unofficial national anthem.
- Johann Strauss II and Johannes Brahms were good friends. Once, when Strauss’s stepdaughter asked Brahms to sign her fan, Brahms wrote out the opening bars of The Blue Danube, adding the words, “Alas — not by Brahms.”
- Kaiser (“Emperor”) Waltz, Artist’s Life Waltz, Tales from the Vienna Woods — all by Strauss II
- La Valse by Maurice Ravel
- Swan Lake Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Neil McCalmont, a New Hampshire native who just completed his second year at Oberlin College, is ClevelandClassical.com’s Young Writer Fellow for 2016. “McCalmont’s List” was an Oberlin Winter Term Project directed by visiting teachers Daniel Hathaway, Donald Rosenberg and Mike Telin. His 14 articles on representative classical works will be serialized weekly throughout the summer.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com May 24, 2016.
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