Work: The Blue Danube (An der schönen, blauen Donau)
About This Work
Johann Strauss Jr.'s status as an internationally recognized Austrian icon began with the success of his waltz, An der schönen, blauen Donau (The Blue Danube Waltz), at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. The Austrians, still smarting from their
military defeat at the hands of the Prussians at Königgrätz in July of 1866, whole-heartedly supported Strauss's music; when the Blue Danube achieved a resounding success at the Paris exhibition, the Viennese felt they had shown the French that Austria, despite its recent military setback, was still an important cultural force. Writers even described Strauss's triumph with military imagery, calling Strauss a "Napoleon among composers."
Strauss's international triumph in Paris makes it easy to forget that this was neither the first performance of the Blue Danube, nor representative of the piece's original conception. Composed for the Wiener Männergesang-Verein (Vienna Men's Singing Society), the waltz was originally scored for four-part choir and orchestra or piano. Josef Weyl (1821-1895) supplied the text; it was in this version that the world first heard the Blue Danube waltz on February 15, 1867, sung by the Wiener Männergesang-Verein, and accompanied by the orchestra of the Forty-Second Infantry Regiment, directed by Rudolf Weinwurm. The waltz was first performed without voices probably on March 4, 1867, and was certainly played in its familiar format on March 10, 1867, at a benefit concert for Strauss's brothers.
The title An der schönen, blauen Donau may have been derived from a poem by Karl Beck (1817-1879) entitled, An der Donau; the poem, Die feindlichen Brüder also contains the line, "An der schönen, blauen Donau liegt mein Dörfchen still und fein." Strauss sold the Blue Danube for only 250fl. to Carl Anton Spina (1827-1906), who published the work in 1867. Spina realized an exceptional return on his investment.
Like most of Strauss's waltzes, the Blue Danube features five distinct "mini-waltzes," each with two sections. To modern listeners, the slow introduction to the Blue Danube is the ultimate tease, delaying what seemingly all of us know in our sleep. At the Paris exhibition, however, the opening probably produced a different effect: a heightened sense of anticipation, and curiosity about when the actual dance will begin. Even after the orchestra reaches a waltz tempo there still is no real tune, and the music seems to amble without aim.
Strauss's wealth of melodic material provides great contrast; waltz sections featuring melodies with large leaps give way to those with linear tunes within a narrow range. Quarter-note motion is juxtaposed with eighth-note motion and, of course, there are contrasting keys. The D major first waltz follows an introduction on the dominant, A major, while the second half of the second is in B flat and the entire fourth waltz is in F. The coda partially summarizes the entire piece, revisiting the first part of Waltzes two and four (again in F), and then Waltz one in D. Variations of the first waltz precede the work's rousing close.
-- John Palmer
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