Johann Strauss Jr., the composer of the Blue Danube Waltz, became the waltz king at the time the dance craze swept Europe in the late 1800’s. In Vienna it was customary to have an orchestra play light concert music in restaurants with huge open courtyards. The only modern equivalent is the dinner theater, but the Viennese people were far more elegant, especially in their musical tastes.
Composers had to be ready to supply a constant stream of music. It took a lot of original waltzes, marches and polkas to keep the crowds at the beer garden happy.
Each beer garden had a musical director, and there was great competition to see who could provide the latest sensation.
Strauss conducted the orchestra, placed in the center of the surging crowd of diners and drinkers.
There were also balls and other entertainments, and the Strauss family was the leader in providing this zesty musical bill of fare, at one time employing enough musicians for six full time orchestras.
So popular was Strauss that even the great and serious composer Johannes Brahms fell under the spell of the Strauss waltzes. He once autographed Frau Strauss’s fan with the opening bars of the Blue Danube waltz, and signed it, “Alas, not by Johannes Brahms.”
At the height of his fame Strauss was lured to America in 1872 with a huge fee for a series of concerts, culminating in a festival in Boston called the Peace Jubilee.
Strauss walked into the cavernous coliseum for the performance of the Blue Danube, and discovered for the first time that he was to conduct an orchestra of 1,087 musicians.
In addition, there was a chorus of 20,000 singers, just in case you didn’t think the producers of this event were thinking big.
Strauss was horrified. “How am I supposed to conduct this mess?”
The producers pointed to a giant raised wooden dais in the middle of the stadium. At strategic points there were twenty smiling assistant conductors arrayed, each awaiting the cue from the famed Maestro.
The noisy crowd of 100,000 was roiling to a program already begun, and Strauss was forthwith led to his raised podium.
As Strauss ascended the stairs, he nervously asked the producer, “But how will I know when to begin?”
The producer, Patrick Gilmore, laughed and said to Strauss, “Oh, don’t worry. We’ll fire a cannon.”
Sure enough, soon after Strauss took his position there was a tremendous burst of cannon, and the downbeat was given.
In the words of Strauss himself, “There broke out an unholy racket.”
Thus began the World’s Largest Blue Danube Waltz.
Johann Strauss Jr. died rich and happy, certain of immortality alongside Beethoven and Brahms.
by John Aschenbrenner Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press All Rights Reserved
John Aschenbrenner is an Emmy Award Winning Composer and a leading children’s music educator, book publisher, and the author of numerous fun piano method books in the series PIANO BY NUMBER for kids. You can see the PIANO BY NUMBER series at http://www.pianoiseasy.com and http://www.pianoiseasy2.com
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