The Waltz That Defines Vienna

The river that inspired Strauss’s symphonic waltz.

On June 3, 1899, in the midst of a benefit concert at Vienna’s Volksgarten, someone approached the podium and spoke to the conductor. The orchestra was stopped and a quick order whispered to the musicians. A moment later they began to play the ethereal string tremolo that introduces “The Blue Danube,” and as that first familiar phrase rose on the French horn, people rose to their feet in stricken silence. Vienna’s favorite musical son, Johann Strauss Jr., had just died.
To this day, Strauss’s magnificent waltz is the veritable anthem of Vienna. And like so much of Viennese culture, the waltz’s title—”An der schönen, blauen Donau” (On the Beautiful Blue Danube)—is really a pleasant fantasy. The river’s waters are muddy brown.

That “The Blue Danube” was dedicated to the Vienna Men’s Choral Society attests to its origins. Around 1867, Strauss was repeatedly invited to compose a choral waltz by the society’s director, Johann Herbeck. Strauss tried to excuse himself, saying the time was not ripe for a new piece because the Viennese were depressed over Austria’s recent military defeat by Prussia. But Herbeck successfully countered that a new choral waltz would raise Vienna’s spirits.

Acquiescing, Strauss took his work’s title from a line in a poem by Karl Isidor Beck. After composing the music, he presented it to Herbeck, who assigned his staff versifier to fit singable words to Strauss’s music. The resulting doggerel incited vehement protests by the choir members. And when, in February 1867, the society presented the new waltz at its concert, the audience response was only lukewarm. Characteristically, Strauss blamed himself—apparently the piece “wasn’t catchy enough,” he said.

That May, Strauss was invited to conduct in Paris, where his waltzes caught the fancy of Jean de Villemessant, proprietor of France’s Le Figaro. At a gala dinner given by Strauss for the Figaro staff, the composer conducted his new “Figaro Polka.” In addition, he hauled out his neglected waltz (sans lyrics), called “Le beau Danube bleu” for the occasion. The French response was so enthusiastic that the Prince of Wales invited Strauss to conduct it in London, to even greater acclaim. By the time Strauss returned to Vienna, “The Blue Danube” was as much a part of the city as its muddy namesake.

Like many Strauss waltzes composed after 1860, “The Blue Danube” was designed as a concert piece. The instrumentation of these symphonic waltzes—which also include “Artist’s Life” and “The Emperor Waltz”—is richer than the ballroom waltzes of the 1840s and ’50s. The introductions and codas are often longer and harmonically more elaborate. The melodies themselves are imbued with greater sweetness. Certainly, Strauss’s concert waltzes sound best played with flexible tempos rather than the rigid beat of the ballroom.

Strauss builds the waltz’s most familiar melody on a simple four-note motif. Generated by the rising notes of a D-major triad, it is not just easy to remember but, like the waltz’s other melodies, it seems to embody more than any other Strauss composition the romanticized nostalgia typical of Vienna.

Before Strauss presents that full-blown waltz melody, however, he offers tantalizing fragments of it in his dream-like introduction, which opens with a trembling violin chord of A-major in 6/8 time. The first horn sounds that primary motif, answered by two brief woodwind chords—the first fragments of the secondary motif. As the violin harmony shifts to E-major, the two horns repeat the primary motif, joined by the violas and cellos and answered in the woodwinds again—like rays of sunlight piercing the morning haze. With a gradual crescendo, and further statements of these motifs, Strauss brings the introduction to a climax as the solo cello takes up the primary motif, lending a note of Straussian poignancy to the mix of emotions and leading the harmony back to the momentary home key of A-major.

As the tempo quickens, now in 3/4 waltz time, a new bridge section conveys us from the atmospheric opening to the waltz proper. Then three slowly descending pizzicato notes in the basses and cellos lead to the first full statement of the famous theme by the violins and cellos, first horn and first bassoon, now underscored by a luscious harp chord on the fourth note. Thus begins the first of five numbered waltz episodes that make up “The Blue Danube.”

As with most waltzes, each successive episode, with its subtle change of instrumentation and mood, is repeated before proceeding to the next one. This lends a feeling of symmetry and substance to the musical architecture, while giving us the pleasure of hearing each melodic invention twice. Indeed those lilting, surging melodies, while not actually descriptive, seem inspired by the Danube’s currents and the whirlpools and swells churned up by the paddle wheels of its steamboats.

The fifth episode is the climactic one. After a plaintive melody for violins, sweetened by flutes and strengthened by the bassoon an octave below, the dynamic markings change to emphatic “forte” and “double forte.” The instrumentation is heavier now, with trumpet figures and the addition of bass and snare drums lending almost the flavor of an operatic drinking song as the exultant “release” theme, opening with three bright high C-sharps on the violins, piccolo and flute, is answered by a vigorous rising gesture by the cellos and basses fortified by the bass trombone.

After releasing all this joyful energy, Strauss winds down with one of his most poetic codas. Recalling various themes heard earlier, it leads to a welcome reprise of the primary D-major melody. But this time Strauss interrupts it on the penultimate chord with a full measure of pregnant silence. Then, in a gesture of almost bittersweet emotion, the solo cello returns, taking up the theme against a sympathetic countermelody in the flute and oboe. Now the trumpet quietly takes over, against the bird-like warbling of the solo flute. And as the afterglow of sunset seems to fade into night, Strauss concludes his masterpiece with an energetic flourish for the entire orchestra punctuated with three final chords.

Mr. Scherer writes about music and the fine arts for the Journal.


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