Johann Strauss I

1804 1849

Johann Strauss I

Composer

Biography

Johann Baptist Strauss I was a Viennese composer, violinist and conductor. Many of his dances and concert works were written for his own orchestra, with which he toured Europe to great acclaim. Three of his sons became composers, most notablyJohann Strauss II, whose fame as a composer would later eclipse even his father’s.

Johann Baptist Strauss was born in a small tavern where his father, Franz Borgias worked as a waiter. The tavern allowed Johann to become acquainted with many types of music as many tavern musicians would frequent the establishment. Johann was fascinated by all of the music and after the early deaths of his mother and father in 1811 and 1812, he went to live with Anton Müller. Müller arranged an apprenticeship for the boy with the Viennese bookbinder Johann Lichtscheidl. It was also during this period that that Strauss first received formal violin lessons from the theatre musician Johann Pollischanzki. He later continued his musical studies in thorough-bass and instrumentation with Ignaz von Seyfried. He also took violin lessons with the violinist and theorist Leopold Jansa.

It is rumored that Strauss performed with Michael Pamer’s orchestra, but this remains unproven. It is, though, quite likely that he was able to earn some money performing through his connection with Pollischanzki.

In 1823, Strauss joined the trio of Joseph Lanner, which consisted of two violins (Lanner and Johann Drahanek) and guitar (Anton Drahanek). His violin level was not yet high enough, thus he joined as a violist. The next year the group expanded yet again with the addition of Joseph, Karl and Simon Scholl. By this time the group had flute and clarinet, cello or bass, guitar, 2-3 violins and viola. For this ensemble he made an arrangement of the overture to Auber’s operaLa neige, ou Le nouvel éginard (1823), which is one of his oldest existing works. The group expanded even further, to include 11-12 players, thus becoming a small orchestra.

In 1824, Strauss was drafted to the Hoch-und Deutschmeister Infantry Regiment No. 4. After a year in the military, he married Maria Anna Streim, who gave birth to Johann Strauss II in 1825. They also had five more children, of which one died in infancy.

Strauss’s musical career was slow to launch and he frequently stated that he was a music teacher. After the reorganization of Lanner’s orchestra in 1825, Strauss was appointed second musical director and played in many restaurants. During this same year he published his first work, 7 Walzer für das Pianoforte (now lost).

Several years later he composed his successful Kettenbrücke-Walzer Op. 4 (1827) which prompted him to form his own orchestra, separate from that of Lanner. This would allow him to have complete control over the orchestra’s performance and its interpretation of his ideas. In May 1827 the Strauss Orchestra was formed.

The Strauss Orchestra was an instant success and he was named ‘the Mozart of the waltz, theBeethoven of the cotillions, the Paganini of the galop, theRossini of the Potpourri’ by the journalist Adolf Bäuerle in Theaterzeitung in 1833.

After receiving a six-year contract with Zum Sperlbauer (also known as the Sperl) in Leopoldstadt, Strauss spent much of his time there and composed more than a quarter of his works to be debuted there. HisSperls-Fest-Walzer Op. 30 (1829) was his first such work. In addition to his work with the Sperl, Strauss appeared throughout the city for dance events. Most impressively he conducted 125 balls and composed eight new works during the 1848 carnival.

In 1832, Strauss was appointed Bandmaster of the 1st Vienna Citizens’ Regiment. It was during this year that Richard Wagner noticed Strauss. He wrote inMein Leben(1911), ‘I shall never forget the extraordinary playing of Johann Strauss… [He] very often made the audience almost frantic with delight.’  According to Wagner, ‘at the beginning of a new waltz this demon of the Viennese musical spirit shook like a Pythian priestess on the tripod, and veritable groans of ecstasy which, without doubt, were more due to his music than to the drinks in which the audience has indulged.’

Strauss travelled frequently to bring his dance music to international recognition. He believed this the only way to accomplish that goal and was the first conductor/composer to tour with dance music. Performances in Germany in 1834 were quite rewarding for Strauss, both financially and artistically. There he performed for the Prussian king and the Tsar of Russia. During this same time Strauss began an affair with Emilie Trampusch, with whom he had seven children. The constant pressure and travel he endured for his work had led him to become distant with his wife and family.

Strauss’s travels also took him to France, where prominent musicians such as Adam, Auber, Cherubini, Halévy, Meyerbeer, Paganini and Musard were enchanted by his music.Berlioz was also greatly impressed, writing in the Journal de débats in 1837, ‘We knew the name of Strauss, thanks to the music publishers […] of the technical perfection, of the fire, the intelligence and the rhythmic feeling which his orchestra displays, we had no notion.’

Throughout Europe Strauss brought his orchestra to many balls and open-air concerts. While the balls allowed him to feature his dance music, the open-air concerts allowed for operatic and symphonic works in addition to lighter pieces. In this manner, he ensured that audiences were exposed to a variety of styles, a practice his sons also continued.

For a tour of Britain, Strauss performed many new works such as the waltz Hommage à la reine de la Grand Bretagne Op. 102 and the potpourri, Le télégraph musicale Op. 103. The performance was declared by the Morning Post in 1838 to be the most perfect band that had been heard on that side of the Channel.

In 1846, Strauss received the honorary title of k.k. Hofballmusik-Direktor which remained in the family until Eduard Strauss relinquished it in 1901.

During the European Revolution, Strauss took the side of the established order while his son sided with the students and revolutionaries. Despite his political preferences, Strauss composed his famousRadetzky-Marsch Op. 228 for the Austrian Army and theMarsch der Studenten-Legion Op. 223 and Freiheits-MarschopOp. 226 for the revolutionaries. For this reason he was named ‘a musical chameleon’ by the newspaperDer Wanderer in 1848.

Strauss died on 25 September 1849. Illustrated London News wrote after his death that ‘If there had been no Strauss, we should not have had Musard or Jullien. Hosts of imitators have sprung up since Strauss, but to him will remain the glory of originality, fancy, feeling and invention.’

Images courtesy of public domain

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