Johann Strauss II (or Johann Strauss the Younger, or Johann Strauss Jr.) (October 25, 1825 – June 3, 1899) was an Austrian and German composer known especially for his waltzes, such as The Blue Danube.
Johann Strauss II was the son of Johann Strauss I, himself a composer. His brothers Josef Strauss and Eduard Strauss were also composers; but Johann II is the most famous of the family. He was known in his lifetime as 'the waltz king,' and the popularity of the waltz in Vienna through the 19th century is due in large part to him. He became the 'waltz king' by his revolutionary elevation of the waltz from lowly peasant dance to sparkling entertainment for the royal Habsburg court. Not only did he revolutionize the waltz, but his work was far superior to that of his predecessors (such as Josef Lanner and Johann Strauss I)--and has enjoyed greater fame. Some of his polkas and marches are also well known, as is his operetta Die Fledermaus.
Strauss was born in Vienna. His father did not want him to become a musician but rather a banker; nevertheless he studied the violin secretly as a child: ironically with his father's first violinist in the Strauss orchestra, Franz Amon. However, when his father found out that he was fiddling away one day, Johann II recalled that 'there was a violent and unpleasant scene' and that 'his father wanted to know nothing of his musical plans'. It seems that rather than intending to avoid a Strauss rivalry, Strauss Sr. wanted his son to escape the rigors he understood to accompany a musical life. It was only when his father left the family and took on a mistress Emilie Trambusch when Johann II was 17 that he was able to concentrate fully on a career as a composer.
Johann Jr. then studied counterpoint and harmony from theorist Professor Joachim Hoffmann who owned a private music school. His talents were also recognised by composer Josef Drechsler (also spelt as Drexler) who taught him exercises in harmony. His other violin teacher, Anton Kollmann who was the ballet répétiteur of the Vienna Court Opera also wrote excellent testimonials for him. Armed with these testimonials, he approached the Viennese authorities to apply for a license to perform and would initially form his small orchestra where he recruited his members from the tavern 'Zur Stadt Belgrad' where musicians seeking work could be hired easily. Johann Strauss I's influence meant that many establishments were wary of offering the younger Strauss any contracts for fear of angering the former. The younger Strauss was then able to persuade the Dommayer's Casino, Hietzing in Vienna to give him a chance at his debut. The local media were soon frantically reporting of a 'Strauss v. Strauss' rivalry between father and son. Strauss senior himself, in anger at the prospect of his son disobeying his wishes, also would not play at the Dommayer's Casino ever in his lifetime, which was surprising as the Hietzing establishment was the site of his many earlier triumphs.
Strauss son found the early career years difficult but he soon won over audiences after accepting commissions to perform away from home. The first major appointment for the young composer would be his award of the honorary position of 'Kapellmeister of the 2nd Vienna Citizen's Regiment' which was left vacant following Josef Lanner's death two years before. He would eventually proceed to surpass his father's fame, and become the most popular of all waltz composers, extensively touring Austria, Poland and Germany with his orchestra. It would be a usual sight for his audiences to catch sight of Strauss for only one performance before he would quickly hurry to another venue where he was commissioned to play via the traditional fiaker. It would be the ultimate showmanship and this would be displayed on the placards at the venues to proudly proclaim 'Heut Spielt der Strauss!' or 'Strauss plays today!'. He also made visits to Russia where he performed at Pavlovsk and wrote many compositions there and retitling it to suit his Viennese audiences back home which is proof of his astuteness in business, Britain where he performed with his first wife Jetty Treffz at the Covent Garden, France, Italy and the United States where he took part in the Boston Festival and was the lead conductor in the 'Monster Concert' of over 1000 musicians.
Vienna was racked by a bourgeois revolution on 24th February 1848 and the intense rivalry between father and son became more apparent and eventually, Johann the younger decided to side with the revolutionaries; a decision which was both musically and professionally at his disadvantage as the Austrian royalties twice denied him the much coveted KK Hofballmusikdirektor position, which was first designated specially for Johann Strauss I in reward for his musical contributions. Further, the younger Strauss was also hauled up by the Viennese authorities for publicly playing the infectious La Marseillaise which stoked revolutionary feelings.
When the elder Strauss passed away from scarlet fever in 1849 in Vienna, the younger Strauss merged both their orchestras and engaged in tours as mentioned above. He married the singer Jetty Treffz and applied for the KK Hofballmusikdirektor Music Director of the Royal Court Balls position which he eventually achieved after being denied several times before. His involvement with the Court Balls meant that his work has been elevated to a supreme standard. His second wife, Angelika Dittrich was not a fervent supporter of his music and their differences in age and opinion, especially her indiscretion led him to seek a divorce. Strauss was not granted a divorce and therefore he changed religion and allegiance and became a citizen of Coburg-Saxe-Gotha. Strauss II sought solace in his third wife Adele and she encouraged the creative talent to flow once more in his later years, resulting in much finer music such as those found in the operettas 'Der Zigeunerbaron' and 'Waldmeister' and the waltzes 'Kaiser-Walzer','Kaiser Jubilaum','Märchen aus dem Orient' op.444 and 'Klug Gretelein' op. 462.
Strauss had an astute business mind which he utilised to the fullest. After establishing his first orchestra prior to his father's death, he founded many others to be supplied to various entertainment establishments such as the 'Sperl' ballroom as well as the 'Apollo' where he dedicated appropriately titled pieces to commemorate the first performances there. Later, he accepted commissions to play in Russia for the Archduke Michael and Tsar Alexander II especially in Pavlovsk where a new railway line was built. When the commissions became too much to be handled by him alone, he sought to promote his younger brothers Josef and Eduard to deputise in his absence from either poor health or an impossible commission. In 1853, he was even confined to a sanatorium to recuperate as he was suffering from shivering fits and neuralgia. Anxious that the family business that she so lovingly nurtured would be ruined, mother Anna helped persuade a reluctant Josef to take over the helm of the Strauss Orchestra. The Viennese welcomed both brothers eventually and Johann even once admitted that 'Josef was the more talented of the two of us, I'm merely the more popular.' Josef went on to stamp his own mark into his own waltzes and this fresh rivalry did more good for the development of the waltz as Johann Strauss II proceeded to consolidate his position as the 'waltz king' with his exquisite The Blue Danube waltz which began life as a choral waltz with banal words written by a local poet.
The highlight of the Strauss triumvirate was displayed in the concert of 'Perpetual Music' in 1860s where his aptly titled 'Perpetuum Mobile' musical joke op.257 was played continuously by all three Strauss brothers at the helm of three large orchestras. At around the same time, the three Strauss brothers also organised many musical activities during their concerts at the Vienna Volksgarten where the audience would be able to participate. For example, a new piece would be played and the audience would be asked to guess who the composer was as the placards would only announce the piece as written by a 'Strauss' followed by question mark punctuations.
The polka also underwent development from a Bohemian peasant dance in the 1840s to one which generated interest in serious musical societies in Vienna. Strauss brilliantly displayed its potential with the Unter Donner Und Blitz 'Thunder and Lightning' op. 324 and the cheerful Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka op.214 which can be literally translated as 'chit-chat' in English.
The Strauss family was not without its rivals. Although the most sought-after composer of dance music was Johann Strauss II in the 1860s to the 1890s, stiff competition was present in the form of Karl Michael Ziehrer and Emile Waldteufel whom the latter was commanding in his position in Paris. Much earlier, Johann Strauss I faced a long rivalry with fellow composer Josef Lanner and Josef Gung'l. Ziehrer would eventually eclipse the Strauss family after Johann and Josef's deaths and posed more than a challenge to the superiority of Eduard. The German operetta composer Offenbach who made his name in Paris also posed a challenge to Strauss in the operetta field. Later, the emergence of operetta maestro Lehár would usher in the Silver Age in Vienna and most certainly sweep aside Strauss dominance in the operetta world.
He was much admired by prominent composers of the day, including Richard Wagner who once admitted that he admired the waltz Wein, Weib und Gesang op.333 and Johannes Brahms to whom he dedicated his popular waltz Seid umschlungen Millionen 'Be Embraced Millions' op.443 inspired by a poem by Schiller, who was also a personal friend. Other admirers include the famous Richard Strauss who, when writing his Rosenkavalier waltzes said 'How could I forget the laughing genius of Vienna?' which made a clear reference to the genius of Johann Strauss the younger.
Strauss' operettas, however, have not had as much enduring success as have his dance pieces: and much of the success was reserved for Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron. This has been attributed to the fact that Strauss was once considered to lack dramatic and theatrical sense, although his musical prowess was never questioned. The result was a welter of fine music drawn from themes of his lukewarm operettas of which 'Cagliostro-Walzer' op.370 and 'Rosen aus dem Süden' Walzer op.388 were fine examples. His gift was evident especially in instrumentation but his apparent lack of dramatic sense has led many 'serious music' enthusiasts to dismiss his works as mere 'light music'. One such example was the failure of his only opera Ritter Pásmán which could be faulted on the libretto but nevertheless,many attribute his strong links to the waltz and the polka as his failure as this may well indicate that he may not be able to write serious music. In fact, for his third and most successful operetta of all time, Die Fledermaus 1874, music critics of Vienna prophesied that his work would only be a 'motif of waltz and polka melodies'. Nonetheless, his fiercest critic and ironically a strong supporter, Eduard Hanslick wrote at the time of Strauss's death in 1899 that his demise would signify the end of the last happy times in Vienna.
It is to be noted that most of the Strauss works that we are all familiar with today may have existed in a near negligible different form as conceived by Johann Strauss II and his brothers as Eduard Strauss destroyed a great amount of original Strauss orchestral archives in a furnace manufacturer in Vienna's Mariahilf district in 1907. The Johann Strauss societies around the world have, however painstakingly pieced together a large body of these destroyed works and allowed many generations after to appreciate and love the waltzes and polkas of the famed Strauss family. Such was the popularity of the music of the Strauss family that Eduard Strauss, then the only surviving brother, took this drastic precaution to prevent Strauss works from being openly claimed as another composer's own. This may have also been fuelled by the intense rivalry between the other popular waltz and march composer, Karl Michael Ziehrer.
Strauss' music is now regularly performed at the annual Neujahrskonzert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, thanks to the efforts of the late Clemens Krauss who performed a special all-Strauss programme in 1929 with the established orchestra. Many distinguished Strauss interpreters include Willy Boskovsky who carried on the 'Vorgeiger' tradition of conducting with violin in hand as is the Strauss family custom as well as the famous Herbert von Karajan and the opera conductor Riccardo Muti.
Johann Strauss II died from pneumonia in Vienna in 1899 at the age of 74 and was buried there in the Zentralfriedhof.
Works of Johann Strauss II
This biography is published under the GNU Licence
- Kaiser Franz Josef Rettungs op. 126
- Napoleon op. 156
- Persischer op. 289
- Egyptischer op. 335
- Jubelfest op. 396
- Deutschmeister Jubiläumsmarsch op. 470
- Auf's Korn! op. 478