Johann Strauss I

Johann Strauss I


• 1804 1849

Editor's Choice

Johann Strauss I may have headed a dynasty of Viennese waltz composers, but that didn’t mean he was pleased about it. A strict disciplinarian, he forbade his sons to seek careers in music; it was only the divorce from his wife which resulted from the revelation of his infidelity (and 8 illegitimate children) that released them from his grip. Strauss, though, established the template followed by his most famous son, Johann Strauss II, went on to perfect: individual waltzes, galops and polkas, composed for a well-heeled Viennese audience and for the pleasure of Austrian royalty. The irony is that the father is the least often heard of the Strausses today, bar the ubiquitous Radetzky March. A sample of Marco Polo’s vast series of recordings of his output reveals less sparkle than the music of the illustrious son, but Strauss I at least deserves credit for having started something special.


Johann Strauss I is one of the most important composers of nineteenth century Viennese light music. While his son, Johann Jr., has rightly surpassed him in fame and stature, he must still be assessed as an important figure in the genre, not simply because of his influence on his sons and other composers, but because of the occasional high quality of his music. His melodies tend not to flow smoothly in their brevity or in their motif-like collage structure, and his harmonies are not particularly inventive. Still, he was able to fashion attractive music in the Viennese waltz genre owing to his understanding of its nature -- indeed, he was central to its evolution in the nineteenth century. Moreover, he possessed the ability to convey the best case for his works through his superior conducting skills. He had moments of genuine inspiration and created several memorable works, including the Loreley-Rhein-Klänge (1844) and Radetsky-Marsch (1848). In addition, he had a keen sense for employing popular themes from the works of other composers, as with his Walzer à la Paganini, Op. 11.

Although Johann Strauss had shown musical talent in his childhood, he began apprenticeship in bookbinding at age 13, while still taking lessons on the violin from Polischansky. Around this time he began playing viola for Michael Pamer in his dance orchestra. There he befriended Joseph Lanner, who would also make a name for himself as a composer in the light music genre. Lanner formed a trio which Strauss joined at the age of 15. As the group grew to orchestra size, young Johann took on greater responsibilities, finally becoming conductor of Lanner's second orchestra, which had splintered from the main ensemble. By this time, Strauss had studied theory with Ignaz von Seyfried, but had not yet delved into composition.

In July 1825, Strauss married Maria Anna Streim and three months later she gave birth to Johann Jr. A month before the birth, Strauss had left his post with Lanner to form his own band, comprised of some of Lanner's players. He began writing his earliest compositions not long afterward, like the Op. 1 Täuberlin-Walzer and the first of the Kettenbrücken Waltzes, Op. 4.

By the early 1830s, Strauss and his 28-piece dance orchestra had become immensely popular, owing not only to his music, but his deft conducting of it. In 1833, Strauss launched a European tour that included concerts in Germany and France. Berlioz lavished much praise on his music and performances in Paris. In 1838, he made the first of two successful trips to England, the last coming in 1849. He was even invited to play for Queen Victoria's coronation, an event for which he composed his Queen Victoria Waltz.

In 1842, Strauss left his wife and family, an action that freed Johann Jr., to openly study music, a profession his father had discouraged. The elder Strauss had left to live with another woman, Emilie Trampusch. He remained productive as a composer and popular as a performer throughout that decade, though Johann Jr. would form a band and become a serious, if unintended, rival. After performing an engagement at a fashionable establishment in Vienna in September 1849, Strauss, who had contracted scarlet fever from one of the seven illegitimate children he fathered by Emilie Trampusch, became seriously ill. He died six days later, at age 45.