Johann Strauss the Younger was the most famous and accomplished
member of the musical dynasty that began with his father, Johann
Strauss the Elder (1804-49), a noted violinist, conductor, and
composer. Together with his brothers Josef and Eduard, who both
wrote waltzes and polkas, the younger Strauss effectively ruled
the dance music world of Vienna, the city of his birth, for most
of the nine-teeth century.
He wrote his first waltz at the age of six; but it was not
until his father, who had wanted him to go into banking, deserted
the family in 1842 that he began his formal musical education. He
soon formed his own small orchestra and their debut in 1844 was
such a success that he became his father's leading rival
overnight. When his father died five years later the two
orchestras were merged under his direction.
In the 1850s Strauss introduced some of the compositional
techniques of Wagner and Liszt into his waltzes, receiving a
rebuke from the fiercely anti-Wagnerian critic Eduard Hanslick.
The public was in favour, however, and in the 1860s he became
increasingly busy both composing and conducting, particularly
during the ball season of Vienna's high society. Most of his
finest waltzes elate from this decade — Morning papers
(1864), the ever popular Blue Danube (1867), Tales from
the Vienna woods (1868), and Wine, women and song
(1869) among them.
Strauss's waltzes all fit a basic pattern, consisting of a
slow, scene-setting introduction, followed usually by five waltz
sections. They finished with a coda (end section) that
reintroduced the main waltz tunes in a continuous sequence,
creating a sense of quickening musical pace. It was a format that
any competent composer could use to good effect; but Strauss's
best waltzes were more poised and better orchestrated, his
rhythmic combinations more finely balanced, and his melodies
simply more graceful than those of anyone else. They captured the
mood of nineteenth-century Vienna — its sophistication and its
The "Waltz King" was naturally expected to tour — during the 30
years from 1856 Strauss made appearances all over Europe, from
England to Russia, hailed as Austria's most successful ambassador.
He was invited to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1872 for an
"International Peace Jubilee" marking the end of the
Franco-Prussian War. It was a huge gala affair, in which he was
forced to endure numerous performances of Blue Danube and
Wine, women and song, but it brought him worldwide
popularity. In 1876 he dedicated his Centennial Waltzes to the
American people in honour of the one-hundreth anniversary of the
Declaration of Independence.
Comic opera and operetta had become popular in
Vienna, particularly the works of the Parisian composer Jacques
Offenbach. In the 1870s theatre directors and librettists turned
to Strauss for a distinctly Viennese contribution to the genre. He
had never had to tit his free-flowing melodies to a text before,
and he was no discerning judge of librettos suitable for the task.
Of his 18 published stage works only two operettas passed into the
repertory, largely due to their excellent librettos. Die
Fledermaus (The Bat) from 1 874 does, however, sparkle with
all the wit and elegance of his best waltzes, while Der
Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron), dating from 1885, uses gypsy
melodies and exotic harmonies to capture the Hungarian flavour of
In 1885 Strauss converted to the Protestant
faith in order to divorce his second wife Angelika (his first,
Henrietta, had died) and marry the young widow Adele Strauss (no
relation). This cost him his Austrian citizenship. He assumed that
of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha for the rest of his life, but Vienna was
always his home. When he died there in 1899 a part of the Austrian
Empire died with him.