When the 19-year-old Johann Strauss II (1825–1899) appeared before the Viennese public in the fall of 1844, his debut became a sensation. The eldest son of the famous conductor Johann Strauss I performed at the Dommayer’s Casino as a violinist, composer and conductor of his own orchestra. The 600-seat hall was bursting at the seams with anticipation as to whether the son would live up to his father’s renown or whether it would be a debacle. But the young “Schani” had the audience wrapped around his little finger in a matter of minutes, and eventually the new fans carried him off on their shoulders to frenetic applause. Perhaps the only person not happy about this success was the composer’s father, who for a long time could not reconcile himself to his son’s musical career. On the one hand, he wanted his son to become a bank clerk, and on the other hand, he perceived him as a competitor. Johann Number Two later became Johann Number One and the darling of Vienna, writing more than 400 instrumental works, 16 operettas and one opera. To this day he is rightly regarded as “The Waltz King” and one of the main representatives of the golden era of Viennese operetta.
One of the top works of that era is undoubtedly the situation comedy Die Fledermaus (The Bat). This third operetta by Strauss was composed in just six weeks in 1874. Its libretto was written based on the successful French comedy Le Réveillon by Richard Genée, a Kapellmeister at the Theater an der Wien. Strauss was particularly enthused by the story because it tells in endearing exaggeration about the people of the time: A wife seduces her husband in disguise at a masquerade ball, her former lover finds himself in prison (quite inappropriately dressed in her husband’s dressing gown), the maid Adele poses as an actress at the ball and shows off with the laughing song Mein Herr Marquis (My Dear Marquis)... At first, the frivolousness, teasing and innuendos caused embarrassment among the Viennese audience, so that the operetta did not attain fame until its Berlin premiere the same year, but soon afterwards Vienna humbly returned to Die Fledermaus and the operetta was presented in all the world’s theaters. It is said that Strauss’s friend and admirer Johannes Brahms never missed a performance of Die Fledermaus in Vienna. In Prague, the operetta was first performed in the Czech language in September 1875 at the now defunct Arena on the Walls (located on the site of today’s National Museum); the Prague National Theater included it in its repertoire in 1888.
The operetta Wiener Blut (Viennese Blood) is named after Strauss’s famous waltz. Strauss did not compose this operetta himself, but it was compiled from his existing works by the conductor Adolf Müller. Its premiere took place after Strauss’s death on 26 October 1899, and its success dates from 1905, when it was staged at the Theater an der Wien. The story, set during the Congress of Vienna, is again full of confusion and funny misunderstandings; one of the operetta’s most famous arias is that by Countess Gabriele, “Grüss dich Gott, du liebes Nesterl!” (Hello, dear little love nest!).
From the wealth of Strauss’s instrumental works, today’s concert will feature his elegant waltz Frühlingsstimmen (Voices of Spring), Op. 410. The part of the obligatory soprano was written for Bianca Bianchi, a famous singer of the Vienna Court Theatre, and the piano version was dedicated to Alfred Grünfeld (1852–1924), a composer and professor of the Vienna Conservatory, who was incidentally a graduate of the Prague Conservatory. Strauss’s three polkas, Unter Donner und Blitz (Thunder and Lightning, Op. 324), Im Krapfenwald’l (In Krapfen’s Woods, Op. 336) and Auf der Jagd (On the Hunt, Op. 373), are excellent examples of Strauss’s spectacular work with color and sound, be it the use of percussion, the expression of birdsong, or even the firing of a hunting rifle.
Josef Strauss (1827–1870), a younger brother of Johann Strauss II, an engineer and designer by profession, had a musical talent as well. After his elder brother had to slow down due to physical exhaustion, Josef took up a temporary position as Kapellmeister of his orchestra and wrote almost 300 compositions during a short career that tragically ended by his collapse during a concert. The polka-mazurka Die Libelle (Dragonfly) was inspired by his stay at Traunsee in Upper Austria; the musical prank Plappermäulchen (Chatterboxes) refers to the milieu of dance clubs and parties.
The music of the Strauss dynasty has been appreciated by many figures, including the German composer Richard Strauss (1864–1949), who paid tribute to the Viennese waltz in his opera Der Rosenkavalier. The instrumental mastery and melodic inventiveness of this composer will be represented at the concert today by his dreamy intermezzo Mondscheinmusik (Moonlight Music) from the final scene of his last completed opera Capriccio (1941–1942), in arrangement by pianist and composer Tomáš Ille for French horn and string orchestra.
The success of Jacques Offenbach’s music in Paris aroused interest in the genre of operetta also in 19th-century Vienna, but it was Franz von Suppé (1819–1895), born in Split as Francesco Ezechiele Ermenegildo de Suppe, who followed Offenbach’s example and began writing operettas to German texts. By the time he entered these waters, he was already a successful composer of theater music and, in particular, a conductor. In 1846, he first came to prominence as a composer with the operetta Dichter und Bauer (Poet and Peasant), the overture to which with a strong cello solo became a popular concert piece. This tune is considered a possible inspiration for the American folk song I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.
One of the most important representatives of the following period of Viennese operetta was Franz Lehár (1870–1948). This composer with family ties to Moravia and Hungary attended the Prague Conservatory, where from the age of twelve he studied violin with Antonín Bennewitz, theory with Josef Förster (father of the composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster), and composition with Antonín Dvořák; later he took private lessons with Zdeněk Fibich. He graduated from the Prague Conservatory in 1888 at the Rudolfinum with Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 44. His career was determined by Dvořák’s legendary advice to him “to put the violin aside and devote himself to composing music”, as well as by the support of Johannes Brahms. However, Lehár did not forget his instrument and liked to include violin solos in his compositions. In 1902 he became conductor at the historic Theater an der Wien; three years later, he created a modern form of operetta in Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow), in which a gentle waltz is a must. Since then, there have been many variations on the story of a couple in love who are constantly quarreling and do not reveal their true feelings for each other until the end. The famous song about the forest fairy “Es lebt eine Vilja” (Vilja song) is presented in Act 2 by the main protagonist, the “merry widow” Hanna Glawari from the fictional country of Pontevedro.
Lehár’s last operetta Giuditta was written in 1934. The work without a happy ending about a passionate woman who longs for great love, but is unable to find it, seems to be a more subtle variation on Bizet’s Carmen... At the premiere at the Vienna State Opera, the leading roles were played by Jarmila Novotná, a celebrated Czech singer, and Richard Tauber, a prominent Lehár interpreter. The premiere attracted more attention than any of Lehár’s previous works. It was broadcast live by 120 radio stations throughout Europe. Giuditta’s aria “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß” (My lips they kiss so hot) is one of the most popular songs from this operetta. Lehár’s picture will be complemented by his waltz Gold und Silber (Gold and Silver), which he composed in 1902 for a ball of the same name given by Princess Paulina Metternich, a patron of music and arts and a great promoter of the works of Richard Wagner and Bedřich Smetana.