New Year in Vienna

6 January 2021
Six violinists in the WNO orchestra.

January at Welsh National Opera usually means our fantastic Orchestra would be taking a Vienna themed concert to our audience across the country to bring in the new year. While that’s not possible this year, we’re going to explore the history of the Strauss family and the Viennese waltz.

The name Johann Strauss, and the sound of his music, are synonymous with Vienna. He was born on 14 March 1804 in a small tavern on the banks of the Danube in the Viennese suburb of Leopoldstadt. As child he would creep down from his bedroom and hide under the tables so he could hear the music and watch couples dance the waltz. At the age of just 15, the talented violinist gained a place in the highly popular orchestra led by Michael Pamer. He later joined the Lanner Quartet formed by his would-be rival Josef Lanner. Both Strauss and Lanner are considered the fathers of the Viennese waltz, and are immortalised in bronze in Vienna’s Rathauspark. Strauss soon set up his own orchestra, that toured all over Europe with great financial success.

In 1825 Strauss married Anna Streim and on 25 October, Johann Strauss II was born. This was the Johann Strauss who would go on to eclipse his father as a musician, and become the best-loved, most prolific, internationally lauded composer that the city of Vienna had ever - or would ever - produce. Despite his father’s disapproval, the young Strauss had started composing and directing his own ensemble of local musicians by the time he was 20. In 1849, when the elder Strauss died, Johann Strauss II combined his orchestra with his father’s and went on a tour that included Russia and England, winning great popularity. He wrote more than 400 waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, and other dance tunes, as well as several operettas. The single most famous piece of music to emerge from Vienna, heard without fail at every Vienna New Year’s Day concert, is Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube. The work epitomises the symphonic richness and variety of his music, which earned him acclaim as the ‘Waltz King’.

Vienna’s Theater an der Wien has hosted some monumental premiere performances including Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. The opera’s brilliant overture was performed at the first New Year’s Day Concert in Vienna. The Vienna Philharmonic presents an annual concert of music from the vast repertoire of the Strauss family and its contemporaries. Such is the popularity of the concert that tickets are allotted by lottery nearly a year in advance and it is broadcast to over 90 countries around the world. This year’s concert, Riccardo Muti’s 6th appearance, included compositions by Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II and his brother Josef Strauss.

André Rieu created the modern version of The Johann Strauss Orchestra in 1987. The orchestra’s first European tour encouraged a renewed interest in waltz music and the Dutch violinist become known as the present-day ‘Waltz King’. When asked by John Suchet why waltz music continues to be popular today, Rieu replied ‘Simple. Strauss makes you happy.’

Despite not being able to celebrate the beginning of a new year in our usual fashion, WNO wishes you a Happy New Year filled with music.