The Last Waltz: The Strauss Dynasty and Vienna

The Last Waltz: The Strauss Dynasty and Vienna

by John Suchet


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Captured in a beautiful package, including more than fifty color photographs, The Last Waltz tells the intriguing story of the Viennese Strauss family known for producing some of the best known, best loved music of the nineteenth century. Johann and Josef Strauss, the Waltz Kings, composed hundreds of instantly recognizable and enduring melodies, including The Blue Danube Waltz, Tales from the Vienna Woods, Voices of Spring and The Radetzky March. Their iconic music has been featured on the scores of nearly a thousand films.

Yet despite their success, this was a family riven with tension, feuds and jealousy, living in a country that was undergoing seismic upheaval.

Through the personal and political chaos, the Strauss family continued to compose music to which the Viennese – anxious to forget their troubles – could dance and drank champagne, even as their country hurtled towards oblivion at the hands of the First World War.

Classical music expert and radio host John Suchet skillfully portrays this gripping story, capturing the family dramas, the tensions, triumphs and disasters against the turbulent backdrop of Austria in the nineteenth century, from revolution to regicide.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250094117
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/10/2016
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

JOHN SUCHET is a well-known journalist and radio presenter in the UK where he presents for Classic FM, the UK’s only 100 per cent classical music radio station. Before turning to classical music, he was one of the UK’s best-known television journalists. He has been named Television Journalist of the Year, Television Newscaster of the Year, and been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Royal Television Society. He has also been honored by the Royal Academy of music for his work on Beethoven including the internationally bestselling Beethoven: The Man Revealed.

Read an Excerpt

The Last Waltz

The Strauss Dynasty and Vienna

By John Suchet

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 John Suchet
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09411-7


City of Dreams

There is a saying in Vienna: 'When one eye cries, the other one laughs.' Another has it that 'Things are desperate but not serious.'

Vienna is a city of contradictions, as the Viennese themselves know well, and you need look no further than its music to prove it.

The single most famous piece of music to emerge from Vienna, a piece that encapsulates the spirit of the city, that is heard without fail at every Vienna New Year's Day concert, that from the opening of shimmering violins says 'This is Vienna', is named for its river.

I can think of no other great capital city that has a universally known and loved piece of music named for its river. Not the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, the Tiber in Rome, the Vltava in Prague, the Spree in Berlin, the Vistula in Warsaw, the Moskva in Moscow.

But Vienna has 'By the Beautiful Blue Danube'. And yet every river I have named runs through the centre of its city, except the Danube. The Danube skirts round the city of Vienna. For many hundreds of years the traveller arriving by boat in Vienna had quite an onward journey to reach the centre of the city. It was true when Johann Strauss wrote his famous waltz, and it is true today.

How then did this great city come to be indelibly identified with its river through music, a river that does not even touch it? Just one of the many contradictions of Vienna.

For the explanation behind its wealth of contradictions, take a look at a map of mainland Europe. Vienna sits pretty much at the centre of the landmass. From the earliest times travellers passed through Vienna, from the north, south, east and west, bringing with them their language, customs, ideas and sounds. Inevitably many never left.

During the whole of the nineteenth century, fewer than half of those living in Vienna were Viennese by birth. Not many years before Johann Strauss II was born in 1825, a visitor to Vienna wrote:

A feast for the eyes here is the variety of national costumes from different countries ... Here you can meet the Hungarian striding swiftly with his close-fitting trousers reaching almost to his ankles and his long pigtail, or the round-headed Pole with his monkish haircut and flowing sleeves ... Armenians, Romanians and Moldavians with their half-Oriental costumes ... Serbians with their twisted moustaches occupy a whole street – The Greeks in their wide heavy dress can be seen in hordes smoking their long-stemmed pipes in the coffee houses ... Bearded Muslims in yellow mules with their broad murderous knives in their belts ... Polish Jews all swathed in black, their faces bearded and their hair all twisted in knots ... Bohemian peasants with their long boots ... Hungarian and Transylvanian wagoners with sheepskin greatcoats, Croats with black tubs balanced on their heads – they all provide entertaining accents in the general throng.

The same visitor wrote that the native languages ('native' not 'foreign'!) of the Austrian empire were German, Latin, French, Italian, Hungarian, Bohemian, Polish, Flemish, Greek, Turkish, Illyrian, Croatian, Slavic, Romanian and Romany.

Of all the customs and exotica travellers brought with them, none embedded itself more in the culture – the very fabric – of Vienna than music.

Here bassoonists and clarinettists are as plentiful as blackberries ... no place of refreshment, from the highest to the lowest, is without music ... one cannot enter any fashionable house without hearing a duet, or trio, or finale from one of the Italian operas currently the rage ... even shopkeepers and cellar-hands whistle arias.

Why might this be? First, and most obviously, because of all the arts music is the most accessible and influential. Foreigners have long played their music in the streets of Vienna, and the Viennese have listened enthralled.But there is another, more sinister, reason.

In the dying decade of the eighteenth century, Vienna – capital of the Holy Roman Empire, seat of the Holy Roman Emperor, head of the mighty House of Habsburg – was a city living in an atmosphere of increasing fear and suspicion. Just a few hundred miles to the north-west, a rampaging mob had brought down the French monarchy, leading first the king, then his queen, to the scaffold, and was now in the process of trying to obliterate an entire social class.

No other city in Continental Europe was as class conscious, as socially structured, as Vienna, and no other monarchy as powerful or autocratic as the Habsburgs. If the British monarchy – and people – had at least a narrow but forbiddingly protective stretch of water to safeguard them, then Vienna, its monarchy and its aristocracy, were obvious first targets if the new French rulers decided to export their revolution by means of the French Revolutionary Army under their brilliant young commander Napoleon Bonaparte.

Austria's iron-willed chancellor, Klemens von Metternich, had the answer. He simply brought the shutters down on Europe's most vibrant city. A network of spies was created; any activity remotely seditious was immediately reported; people of all classes thought before they spoke, and when they did speak they took great care over what they said. Anything else was simply too dangerous.

Which, in a nutshell, is how Vienna came to be Europe's capital city of music. If words are not safe, what is? Music. Who can say that a folk band in a tavern, a café, or on a street corner, is fomenting dissent? And so Europe's musicians flocked to Vienna. A roll-call of composers who lived or worked in Vienna, or merely visited it in the century and a half to 1900, is like a recitation of some of the greatest names in music: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Johann Strauss II, Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler – and they are only the best known.

Yet, of those great names, only two were actually Viennese, born in Vienna. Franz Schubert and Johann Strauss. And of these two, one alone can be said to encapsulate Vienna in his music – the zest, sounds, rhythms, excitement, laughter, gaiety and sadness.

The music of Johann Strauss does not just encapsulate the contradictions of Vienna; it provides an explanation for them and in so doing it supersedes them. The most famous couplet of his best-loved operetta, Die Fledermaus, reads: 'Happy is he who is able to forget what he cannot change.' A more succinct summation of the Viennese character – and indeed for those Viennese not naturally blessed with it one they were able to adopt – is hard to find. To think of Johann Strauss, to listen to his music, is to think of Vienna and hear its sounds.

But it was a long and dangerous journey from the carefree days described by that earlier traveller to the era of Strauss, the waltz and champagne. In between came nearly four decades of fear and tension.

Vienna has always been something of a frontier city. In Metternich's time it was a pointed joke to say that on the other side of the city's most easterly tollgate the Orient began. A century and a half later Vienna was the last city in the West before the barbed wire and sentry posts marked the beginning of communist Eastern Europe. Buildings that once looked out over the Hungarian plain, from where the Ottoman army came to besiege Vienna, now looked out over a land whose people were shut off from the West on pain of death.

Vienna, then, has been well acquainted with danger and intrigue. The decades between the Congress of Vienna in 1814, which attempted to redraw the post-Napoleonic map of Europe, and the revolutions of 1848 that swept away the old order, were to stamp themselves indelibly on the Viennese character. During those long years the city, and its people, turned in on themselves.

The period is known to us as the Biedermeier era, and it introduced a particular word to the lexicon: 'Gemütlichkeit', a word that cannot be translated into a single English equivalent. It is a state of mind that is cheerful, happy and unworried, accepting of what life may bring.

A close approximation of the meaning of 'Gemütlichkeit' in English would be a sort of comfortableness, cosiness, even amiability. Yet how could such a mood exist in a city of fear? The answer is simple. It existed in the comfort of your own home – and only there.

That is where the name 'Biedermeier' comes in. It derived originally from a series of humorous poems depicting a comically naive schoolteacher by the name of Papa Biedermeier. By a series of mutations, the name came to describe the comfort and safety of your own home in a city where talk in a public place was dangerous.

In those tense years the Viennese simply stayed at home, where they knew they would be safe, or visited the homes of close friends and associates. Aristocrats, patrons of the arts, held soirées in their palaces. For the upper classes it was a salon life replete with culture.

To a degree this was simply an extension of how it had always been. A generation earlier the young Beethoven had made his name in the salons of the nobility, who were stunned at his extraordinary virtuosity and his ability to improvise on the piano. Franz Schubert entertained friends at home with such regularity that the evenings were known as Schubertiades.

Then, in 1825, Johann Strauss the Younger was born – right in the middle of the Biedermeier era, he grew up under its influence. His music is inseparable from the period.

So how does the Strauss dynasty fit into this rich and complex tapestry? How did the music of a father and his three sons come to encapsulate the spirit of that contradictory city so perfectly?

* * *

On 14 March 1804 a child born in a small tavern on the banks of the Danube in the run-down Viennese suburb of Leopoldstadt was given the name Johann. His father, who managed the tavern, was Franz Strauss. Thanks to this child the name Strauss would forever be linked to music and the Viennese waltz.

It was a propitious time for a musician to be born. The Irish tenor Michael Kelly, visiting Vienna twenty years earlier, where he befriended Mozart, spoke of a city where it seemed the whole populace danced. There were dance halls in all the suburbs, and most taverns had a resident band and a space for dancing.

Taking their cue from the victorious revolutionaries in Paris, the stately dances that had been the province of the aristocracy – the minuet, the allemande, the bourrée – were quickly replaced by the stamping and whirling dances that had been familiar in village taverns across southern Germany for generations, the 'Ländler'.

With increasing boat travel east along the Danube, across Bavaria and into Austria, it was not long before the bucolic rhythms and sounds reached Europe's most sophisticated city, Vienna. They were soon taken up by resident bands in the city's dance halls and taverns, and the common populace delighted in the new entertainment, beer mugs overflowing, feet stamping.

There was a unique feature that set these dances apart from the dances of the nobility. The man and woman faced each other, arms entwined, bodies clasped tightly. In other words they danced as a couple, as opposed to dancing partners facing mostly in the same direction, their hands possibly touching lightly in the air.

In the wake of the French Revolution there was a new feeling of freedom and release among the lower social classes in aristocratic Vienna. It would not last, of course, once Metternich took matters in hand, but in the closing decade of the eighteenth century and the opening decade of the nineteenth, for the first time music, fashion and tastes in general permeated up the social scale rather than down.

They did not survive the transition entirely intact, however. The polished wooden floors of aristocratic salons, so suited to the leather-soled shoes of the aristocracy, might have been the perfect surface on which to dance the minuet, but they were entirely unsuited to the Ländler and the boots and clogs in which they were normally danced.

And so, over a remarkably short period of time, the stomp developed into a slide, the hobnail gave way to leather. The new dance was in three-four time, the man holding the woman close, one hand clasping hers, the other pressing her body to his. Faces could be close, cheeks could touch, lips brush lightly. The waltz was born. This was the sound, the rhythm, that young Johann listened to from his earliest years, that he grew up hearing. It was said that as a child he would creep down from his bedroom and hide under tables so he could hear the music and watch the couples dance.

It was as well he had music as a distraction, because his early years were fraught with sadness. When he was just seven years old, his mother died from fever. His father remarried, but five years later his body was found floating in the river that ran swiftly past the tavern he managed. It was never established whether he drowned accidentally or committed suicide.

Johann's father left a debt-ridden estate and it was no surprise that his stepmother apprenticed the boy months later to a tailor, who very soon passed him on to a bookbinder. The boy, now thirteen, hated this apprenticeship, complaining years later that his whole boyhood stank of glue.

But there was salvation. Exactly how Johann Strauss came into possession of a cheap Bavarian violin made of poor-quality wood is not known. It is possible his new stepfather – by all accounts a kindly man – gave it to him. It is just as likely it was abandoned by an itinerant musician after a night's drinking. What is certain, however, is that it swiftly became the boy's most treasured possession.

He took to it like a duck to water. We know he received violin lessons, though not from whom, and this preoccupation with music ran alongside his bookbinding apprenticeship. At the age of just fifteen, possibly even younger, he landed a place in the highly popular dance orchestra led by violinist and conductor Michael Pamer. This impressed his stepfather enough to allow him to leave the smell of glue behind to pursue a career as musician.

Pamer was an interesting character. Forced to give up the violin because of an injury to his left index finger, he made up for it with monumental intakes of beer – while conducting. Pamer's showpiece was a number to which he gave the nickname 'Blessed Memories of Hütteldorf Beer', pausing to drink a mugful in honour of the memory after each piece. The audience, entering into the game, regularly called for as many as twenty encores, resulting in Pamer collapsing in a heap in front of the orchestra and conducting on his back.

It is surely not too fanciful to imagine a young and impressionable Johann Strauss, sitting in the orchestra and observing closely how extroversion and showmanship can involve an audience more closely in music making, even if this particular example was somewhat extreme.

There was another young member of the violin section in Pamer's orchestra, three years older than Johann, by the name of Joseph Lanner. The two must have formed a friendship, because it was not long before both had resigned from the orchestra and were working together. Lanner had been the first to leave, setting up his own trio with two friends, soon to be joined by Strauss, the trio becoming a quartet. Johann and Joseph formed a close bond, even sharing lodgings.

These two highly talented violinists soon attracted attention, not least because they were such opposites. 'Black Schani' (Strauss) was olive-skinned with dark wavy hair, described by the Viennese in local dialect as 'peppery', 'vibrant', even 'sharp-tongued'. 'Blond Peppi' (Lanner) by contrast was 'mild', 'smooth', 'silken'.

That applied to their music too, because what set these two apart from the many other musicians playing in orchestras and bands was that both began to compose. Lanner, as the older and more experienced, was the more productive of the two. Although – in an uncanny prescience of what would happen a generation later to an as yet unborn Johann Strauss the Younger – the strain of rehearsing, conducting, arranging and composing began to take a toll on Lanner's health.

Lanner, the driving force in the partnership, had expanded his quartet to a small string orchestra, and when that proved insufficient to handle the ever increasing workload, formed a second orchestra. He appointed his friend and partner, Johann Strauss, as 'vice-conductor' of this orchestra.


Excerpted from The Last Waltz by John Suchet. Copyright © 2015 John Suchet. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Chapter One: City of Dreams,
Chapter Two: Café Culture,
Chapter Three: Conquering Paris,
Chapter Four: By Royal Appointment,
Chapter Five: A Family Conspiracy,
Chapter Six: 'Good Morning Strauss Son!',
Chapter Seven: Radetzky Marches Out of Step,
Chapter Eight: A New Waltz King,
Chapter Nine: 'Pepi' Joins the Family Firm,
Chapter Ten: In Russia and in Love,
Chapter Eleven: Tying the Knot,
Chapter Twelve: The Strauss Family in Mourning,
Chapter Thirteen: Strauss Turns His Hand to Operetta,
Chapter Fourteen: Johann Strauss Tastes Failure,
Chapter Fifteen: To the Altar Again,
Chapter Sixteen: Tragedy in the Imperial Royal Family,
Chapter Seventeen: The 'Emperor Waltz',
Chapter Eighteen: An Assassin's Knife Breaks the Emperor's Heart,
Chapter Nineteen: A Final Fledermaus and Johann Strauss Bids Farewell,
Chapter Twenty: Eduard's Flames of Revenge,
Chapter Twenty-one: A New Century and a New Vienna,
Chapter Twenty-two: The Nazis Rewrite History,
Chapter Twenty-three: Admired by the Greats,
Picture Credits,
About the Author,

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