Throughout the 19th-century Vienna was a microcosm of the turmoil that agitated all Europe. In some ways it was a focal point.
From Vienna the Hapsburgs had ruled the Holy Roman Empire until the Napoleonic Wars forced its dissolution in 1806; then they reigned over a tumultuous polyglot Austrian Empire. The 1814 Congress of Vienna reestablished a European balance of power on reactionary pre-French Revolution principles, but in 1848 armed popular rebellion forced its architect, Prince Metternich, to flee the city. That insurrection, finally crushed by force of arms, led to the enthronement of a new emperor, Franz Joseph, but areas nominally under Hapsburg rule, from Bohemia to Italy, remained restless, chafing at the bit.
Social change was being reflected in physical alterations to the old city. By 1860 the ramparts that had been built to defend Vienna against Turkey had been razed and replaced with the fashionable Ringstrasse. Around it, the recently empowered bourgeoisie constructed gaudy mansions near grandiose new public buildings. In 1873 the established order was mauled by a financial panic and by the subsequent expansion of divisive pan-Germanic demagoguery. By the end of the century, intellectual tensions were breeding explosive new insights, ranging from Sigmund Freud to the young Arnold Schoenberg.
Yet the image of 19th-century Vienna that lingers in our memory is that of a city blithely waltzing across the surface of all that turbulence to the music of Johann Strauss II. And to a large extent, that picture has underlying validity.
The waltz developed from the ländler, a peasant dance in three-quarters time. Introduced to Vienna in Soler's opera La Cosa Rara, it came into full flower with the emergence of Johann Strauss I and his sometime colleague Joseph Lanner. It was then further invigorated by Strauss' son, Johann II. The waltz is slower and sexier than earlier social dances, encouraging the then-shocking close embrace of a man and a woman. The irresistibly seductive sway of its rhythm and the lusciousness of the resultant melodies led to an astonishing century-long ubiquity. Stressful times in Austria demanded a palliative; the waltz provided it.
Echoing the society in which they lived, the Strauss family had its own internal strains. Baptized as Catholic in 1762, they had Hungarian Jewish roots. Johann I, born in Vienna in 1804, became proficient on the fiddle when very young. His friend Lanner, three years older, had joined a dance orchestra when he was fourteen, formed his own group at 17, and invited the star-struck Johann to join. From then on, despite occasional squabbles, their names were inextricably linked, as are their likenesses on a memorial statue in Vienna.
Strauss quickly became the most celebrated waltz composer and performer throughout the Austrian Empire and beyond. He was in special demand during Fasching, the pre-Lent Carnival season, when the many dance halls were jammed and Vienna exploded with parties. Dowagers raised on the stately quadrille clucked disapprovingly on the sidelines while their menfolk revolved around the floor with younger girls, everybody often masked, to Strauss' music played by the Strauss orchestra.
Johann II was born in 1825, the first of six children. His father, captivating on the bandstand, was ferocious at home, neither a caring parent nor a loyal husband. Philandering was in the air then, but even so his behavior was especially hurtful. He also scorned his children's musical proclivities (which his wife, Anna, encouraged), and was infuriated by any household noise. Finally, in 1833, he deserted his family altogether for a girlfriend.
Son Johann's talents matured fast: by age 20 he was fully competitive with the senior Johann, composing splendid music and playing the violin while leading his own orchestra. Johann I fumed, but Johann II remained steadfastly respectful of his father's considerable achievements, despite his detestable behavior. Amongst the gossipmongers of press and society, though, the competition was red meat, and it became even juicier during the Revolution of 1848, when the Strausses landed on opposing sides.
Johann II later claimed that he was totally apolitical, a man who cared about little besides music. However, when doing his National Guard duty he refused to fire upon rioters, and at one point took his band to the barricades to play that anthem of rebellion, La Marseillaise, as well as his own Revolution March. Meanwhile, his rigidly right-wing father ostentatiously worked for the royalists. The Raditzky March, still his most popular work, was written in honor of an Imperial hero. The insurgency inescapably grew violent; only devastating cannon fire by troops supporting the Establishment finally overwhelmed Viennese proletarian defiance. The rivalry between father and son seemed crystallized into permanence.
Yet, when the elder Johann died suddenly in 1849, Johann II, in the ultimate conciliatory gesture, merged his orchestra with his father's while paying him extravagant verbal tribute. Initially reluctant, instrumentalists accepted the inevitable, as young Johann rapidly surpassed his predecessor's extraordinary renown. Any youthful revolutionary missteps were forgotten in the glow of each new tune. Though he had been on the wrong side of a bloody uprising, Strauss emerged untouched, even triumphant.
By 1852 he had become truly the King of the Waltz. Domestic or political strife could rage: he believed that the Fates had singled him out for glory. He organized multiple orchestras, which performed in different Viennese ballrooms virtually every night except during Lent, and was in personal demand across the world from Russia to America. A poll listing the world's favorite people placed Strauss, number two, just behind Queen Victoria, and everyone knew his great waltzes, such as The Beautiful Blue Danube. Eminent authorities as disparate as Wagner and Brahms unanimously extolled the lilting music which seemed to pour effortlesslyfrom his pen.
But it was an effort, often painful. Composing pushed him into black moods not unlike the apparent depressions that afflicted his grandfather and father. After Carnival in 1853 he collapsed and had to convince his gifted but excruciatingly shy younger brother Joseph to take over his orchestras. Joseph composed and conducted superbly, but he never recovered from the shock of their mother's death in 1870. Within the month he fainted on the podium, fell, hit his head, and died. Johann, also still in mourning for his beloved Mama Anna, added a sense of guilt to this new grief.
The handsome and very eligible celebrity had not married until nearly forty, when he wed the well-known singer Henriette "Jetty" Treffz. Strauss was faithful for several years, then began womanizing as his father had. Even so, Jetty remained invaluable, assuming full charge of all his business affairs. It was she who pushed the disinclined composer towards musical theater, citing the strain of all those conducting dates while simultaneously challenging his competitive spirit.
The operettas of Jacques Offenbach had been the rage until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, when the French-German composer abruptly fell from favor on all sides. The void attracted lesser talents like Franz von Suppé; surely there was room for a superstar like Strauss! His first two attempts were tarnished by his poor taste in librettos, drawing audiences to the Theater an der Wien only because of their typically irresistible melodies. However, Die Fledermaus, in 1874, had the advantage of borrowing from a delicious French farce written by Offenbach's librettists, Meilhac and Halévy. A masterpiece resulted.
However, the timing seemed unfortunate. Immediately after the Vienna Exhibition of 1873 the overheated Austrian economy crashed. Overnight, nouveau riche aristocrats with purchased titles were impoverished. Displaced medieval-style craftsmen, now unemployed, flocked to follow virulently anti-Semitic rabble-rousers. The unfettered gaiety that sparkles through Die Fledermaus suddenly seemed irrelevant, the champagne fueling its humor no longer affordable for anybody. In fact, it failed at first. Only a jubilant reception in Berlin shamed contentious Vienna into embracing a convivial operetta incongruously celebrating "Brüderlein und Schwesterlein," "dear brothers and sisters." Die Fledermaus and Vienna have since become intertwined, practically synonymous. Once again Strauss had managed to glide atop a storm.
Despite this victory, his bleak withdrawals persisted, exacerbated now by an obsessive fear of age and death. He delegated his performing dates to brother Eduard so as to be free to compose operettas, 17 in all. These all had delightful music, and most achieved box office success, but, with the exception of The Gypsy Baron, they were marred by inferior librettos. Strauss remained detached, ignoring the clamor of theatrical and civic commotion, retreating into distant silences when working. Then, in 1878, his sheltered life was again devastated; Jetty had a fatal heart attack. Now, the mistresses provided scant comfort.
Only seven weeks later, on the rebound, Strauss plunged into a disastrous marriage with the actress Angelika "Lili" Dietrich. She was 30 years younger than he; he was a gloomily compulsive worker no longer certain his preeminence was divinely guaranteed. She cheated openly from the start, finally leaving him for a director in 1882.
Public humiliation reinforced Strauss' personal devils, although at 56 he remained vigorously handsome. Then, a young widow, Adele Deutsch, whom he had known earlier, reentered his life. She was Jewish, which didn't bother him, but with anti-Semitic rhetoric rampant the authorities, lay and clerical, were bothered a lot. In order to marry, they had to leave Vienna for the Protestant principality of Saxe-Coburg, where Strauss renounced his Catholicism and Austrian citizenship, she her Judaism.
For probably the first time in his beleaguered family history, Johann Strauss II achieved happiness at home. The couple loved each other, Vienna accepted them‹with his tunes everywhere there was no other option‹and she was his perfect wife. Now all he desired, besides living forever, was official validation at the highest level. That meant a real opera, even if written without commission; surely the Court Opera could not refuse a work from so prominent a personage.
The Court Opera did in fact premiere his opera Ritter Pasman in 1892, with tickets selling at ten times their face value. The composer was blissful. Then reality set in: poor reviews, only nine Vienna performances, and short runs in those few theaters elsewhere that bothered to produce it. This time the mountain had labored and brought forth a mouse. For Strauss, it was terribly mortifying.
In the end, it did not matter. Johann Strauss II composed and performed the most brilliant lighter music of his time, and came to typify an idealized Vienna that in reality was undergoing metamorphosis. His art was stable, enduring; it was the world around him that changed.
In his masterwork, Die Fledermaus, he gave the Viennese the self-image they most cherished when they needed it most, the one we still treasure. Within a few years it even found its way onto major opera stages worldwide. Austria may have been agitated and confrontational, yet despite his personal angst Strauss poured balm onto its wounds.
Although Strauss died as the Viennese century he came to symbolize ended, he will forever remain the Waltz King.