Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Waltz V: Wine, Women and Song...Yes Please!

It's both surprising and delightful to discover that all three members of the dreaded Second Viennese School - Schoenberg, Berg and Webern - made arrangements for a small salon ensemble of several of the most delectable waltzes by Johann Strauss the Younger. It's a real treat to hear them them all. 

The three Schoenberg arrangements - Roses from the South, Op.388, the Lagunen-Walzer, Op.411 and the Emperor Waltz, Op.437 - are straightforwardly charming. The Lagoon Waltz is drawn from the operetta A Night in Venice and also gives me the chance to link to a favourite YouTube video of mine - an enchanting performance of the Act III waltz-song Ach, wie so herrlich zu schau'n. Bliss!!

Webern's arrangement of the lovely Schatz-Waltzer, Op.418 ('Treasure Waltz') from The Gypsy Baron is characteristically graceful. If you fancy hearing one of its best tunes in its original form, why not try So voll Fröhlichkeit?

Best of all though is Alban Berg's arrangement of Wine, Woman and Song, Op.333. That Berg was the one to arrange this particular piece seems entirely fitting as all of those three delightful things clearly meant the world to him. "Who loves not wine, woman and song, remains a fool his whole life long" was the old adage that inspired Strauss's masterpiece. Ah, wise words indeed! They are said to have been said by Martin Luther of all people (whilst taking refuge in the Wartburg) - which does surprise me, if true. This is one of my favourite Strauss waltzes and I've always found it gratifying that both Brahms and Wagner also felt great affection for it. That Berg loved it too is just the icing on the cake. The warmth of his arrangement is surely proof of that love. A lesser-known fact about the piece as Strauss originally composed it is that it was written for male chorus and orchestra - a version you can listen to here. And if you're still pining for the much more familiar orchestral version, please have a listen to it here. Who loves not Wine, Woman and Song, Op.333, remains a fool his whole life long!


The Waltz IV: The Kings of Swing

By one of those quirks of Google blogger, this post doesn't seem to be visible. As it's (in many ways) the central post of the series, I will re-add it here and hope that it doesn't result in duplication for you. Enjoy!!:

As Chopin was writing out his waltzes and Berlioz was fantasising about a scene in a ballroom, the Strauss Family's father, Johann Strauss I, was getting into his stride. The craze for the waltz may have been starting to fade in Britain and France but it was exploding in the capital of the land of its birth where, alongside Lanner, Strauss the Elder gave the Viennese and the waltz a massive shot in the arm. We don't tend to hear a great deal of Johann the Elder's music, even at the New Year's Day concerts in Vienna - with one very obvious exception, the inescapable clap-along Radetzky March (named in honour of the Austrian field marshall Joseph Radetzky von Radetz) - but there are some delightful waltzes to be had from Strauss I (even if none of them has the magic of the best of Johann the Younger).

His best-known waltz is Lorelei Rheinklänge, Op.154 but (to put my explosion imagery earlier to good use!) his Ballracketen, Op.96 is even more delightful. As a Brit, I can't resist also linking to his Huldigung der Königin Victoria von Grossbritannien, Op. 103, a waltz that begins with Rule Britannia and ends with God Save the Queen

The zenith of the Viennese waltz, however, came in the second half of the Nineteenth Century when the waltz passed from father to sons - namely Johann Strauss II and his brother Josef and Eduard. Supreme artistry and popular appeal mark out Johann Strauss the Younger's contributions to the genre. His gift for a good tune was second to none and, along with his almost-as-gifted brother Josef, he invested a great deal of poetry in many of his introductions to the waltz. Johann Strauss II expanded the waltz sequence (often including an introduction and coda) as set out by Weber and added richer melodies, harmonies and orchestral colours to those of his father. 

He was a prolific composer, so offering you a decent selection of his waltzes is both easy (so many to choose from) and hard (so many to choose from). I will save some of the most famous for a later post, where they will be heard in intimate arrangements by an unlikely group of composers. OK, let's start with a popular piece, Frühlingsstimmen, Op.410 ('Voices of Spring') which shows, I think, why this Strauss is the best Strauss. It may lack a slow introduction but the sheer quality of the waltz tunes puts it in a league of its own. A whirling theme, a tune from the country with birdsong (on flute), a more wistful melody of much beauty and a jolly tune to lead us towards the close. The waltz's vocal version is sometimes included in performances of Die Fledermaus, where is it entirely at home. The whole thing is delightful and invites comparison with the piano waltzes of Chopin. I played arrangement of popular Strauss waltzes on the piano as a youngster, so many - like Voices of Spring - feel like childhood friends to me. I would try to ooze flexibility during the lovely slow introduction to Wiener Blut, Op.354 ('Vienna Blood') and then straighten up for the grander bits. Wiener Blut was written for a royal wedding, so celebratory grandeur had its place in the waltz alongside the customary charm and the loveable easy-going waltz tunes. 

It would be perverse not to include An der schönen blauen Donau, Op. 314 ('The Blue Danube', as if I really needed to translate that for you!) The tremolo strings evoking the shimmering surface of the water, the motif based on the notes of a major triad on horns (and sometimes strings) evoking the grandeur of the river, the answer high woodwinds chords evoking the glint of light on the river, the long bass notes evoking the depth and breath of the river...all those familiar, too-easily-taken-for-granted features found in the famous well-known and yet still so impressionistic, so magical. And the waltzing hasn't even begun yet. A curious fact here is that the waltz didn't go down a storm at its première, rather unusually for a Strauss waltz. Audiences have been reacting far more appreciatively ever since! 

"What about some rarities? I mean, come on Craig, the flipping Blue Danube for goodness sake!"

Well, how about a tribute to another river, An der Elbe op. 477? The slow introduction is another lovely evocation of a river in flow - more shimmers, more triad-based magic, but also some magical light-on-water effects that don't sound a million miles away from Wagner and his Forest Murmurs. The waltz sequence that follows has plenty of tuneful appeal too. It's quite a find. So is Gartenlaube, Op.461 ('Garden Trees', I think), with its charming woodwind-dominated introduction and its deliciously-scored main theme. Music to charm the birds from the trees! And talking of charming woodwind writing, you might also enjoy the introduction to Gedanken auf den Alpen op.172 ('Thoughts in the Alps').

Going back to the start of his career, his Jugend-Träume op 12 ('Youthful Dreams') is notable as being its composer's break-through piece, winning five encores at its first performance back in 1845. All the ingredients are there - an imaginative introduction, a memorable lilting main theme and an easy flow of waltzes.

To finish though this short survey of an artist's life, it's time a couple more famous ones to finish, both from the height of Johann the Younger's fame - Künstlerleben op.316 and G'schichten aus dem Wienerwald, Op.325  ('Tales from the Vienna Woods'). The latter must be heard with its slow introduction, for it is a thing of delight. Open fourths and fifths suggestive of nature call beckoningly on winds, a drone begins and a grand invitation to the dance is issued. A solo cello sings to us and gentle melodious fills us with warmth. A bird sings and the zither (or muted strings) sings its magical song, calling us to the Vienna Woods. A sequence of five waltzes and a coda (with reprise) follows. Any performance that omits that introduction should be roundly booed. (Only joking!)

As for Josef Strauss, I refer you to to a post of mine from a year ago, New Year Swallows from Austria, for an appreciation of his art - especially his gift for crafting beautiful introductions. I shall re-quote his brother Johann here about Josef: "Pepi [his family nickname] is the more gifted of us two; I am merely the more popular." I think Johann was being overly modest there, but there's no doubt that his brother's gifts were of a high order. As a fresh example of his genius, please try his Geheime Anziehungskrafte (Dynamiden), op.173. The title evokes the secret powers of attraction and the play of atoms and the introduction to the waltz sequence conjures a dream-like vision in much of symphonic power. As I said in my earlier post about Josef, it does rather seem a shame that he couldn't have dropped the waltz sequence altogether and expanded his introduction into a miniature symphonic poem. Still, the reliably tuneful, colourfully-orchestrated waltz sequence gives the listener such a good feeling that such qualms almost dissolve. The main waltz tune here begins with nine notes that fans of an unrelated Strauss, Richard, might recall as being the same first nine notes of one of his waltz tunes from Der Rosenkavalier (5.11 into this link). It could be co-incidence, of course (after all, it's a simple waltz tune formula that could easily keep cropping up), or it could be a deliberate echo by Richard. Who knows! 

What though of brother Eduard? Eduard Strauss was definitively in his brothers' shadows and made a speciality of polkas and conducting. His waltzes - such as Schleier und Krone, Op.200 ('Veil and Crown'), written for an Imperial wedding, Glockensignale, Op.198 ('Bell Signals') and Doctrinen, Op.79 ('Doctrines') - show talent but I can't detect the spark found in his brothers' finest pieces. Can you?

Eduard's eldest son, Johann Strauss III, became the last of the Strauss dynasty (dying in 1939) - not that you ever hear his music. (Well, until now that is!)  By all accounts, the lad got off to a disastrous start with one of his pieces going down so badly with the public that he was told by critics to use a pseudonym so as not to tarnish the family name. (Ouch!) Trying out his Unter den Linden Walzer, Op.30 and Kronungs-Walzer, Op.40 ('Coronation Waltz'), written for the coronation of our own Edward VII, shows that he got over this crisis and went on to be a highly competent Strauss - if not a great Strauss. I wouldn't mind hearing more of JSIII. 

The Strauss Dynasty (1804-1939), purveyors of pleasure in three-four time to millions for almost two hundred years now. Long may that continue!

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