Oscar Straus

Oscar Straus


• 1870 1954


Born with a double S at the end of his last name, Oscar Straus shaved off the final consonant to demonstrate that he wasn't related to the family of the famous Waltz King. Confusion was inevitable, for Straus was a leading composer in the silver age of operetta, the generation following the Strausses and dominated by Franz Lehár. (He also wrote an operetta, Drei Walzer, two-thirds of which consisted of the music of Johann Strauss I and II.) Straus was tremendously popular during his lifetime, but since his death he has been increasingly consigned to the reference books rather than the stage. His music is unfailingly charming and cheerful, but is now regarded as rather superficial compared to Lehár's sometimes darker, more yearning and sensuous operettas. Nevertheless, his lilting tunes are ripe for revival and have shown staying power mainly in his native Vienna.

With a recommendation from Brahms in hand, the young Straus first studied with Hermann Grädener before moving to Berlin in 1891 for lessons with Max Bruch. Following the advice of Johann Strauss II, Straus paid his dues in the provinces, conducting in theaters around Germany and what are now the Czech Republic and Slovakia between 1893 and 1899. This is when he began writing stage works, none of which achieved immediate success, and a great many salon pieces. By 1900, he was back conducting in Berlin, where he was engaged to conduct in and compose for Count von Wolzogen's Überbrettl cabaret. This is where Straus found his first acclaim, writing musical farces and employing a satirical style. His hits from that period include Der Lustige Ehemann and Die Musik Kommt. With increased confidence, Straus returned to Vienna and began producing a string of well-received operettas, more innocently melodic than his Berlin songs and springing from the dance rhythms popular at the turn of the century. His first international success was Ein Walzertraum (A Waltz Dream) in 1907, which for a while was as popular as Lehár's Merry Widow. The following year, Straus wrote Der Tapfere Soldat, known in English as "The Chocolate Soldier;" it was based on George Bernard Shaw's play Arms and the Man, and remains the work by which Straus is best-remembered in the English-speaking world.

Straus wasn't able to duplicate that success until 1920 with Der Letzte Walzer (The Last Waltz), which starred Fritzi Massary, for whom Straus would write many of his subsequent stage works. He began to wander the world at this point; in 1927 he moved to Paris, then in 1930 resettled in the United States, where he wrote several film scores (among them Jenny Lind, The Smiling Lieutenant, and The Southerner). Then it was back to France, where he became a citizen in 1939 and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur. But the war drove him back to the U.S. in 1940, where he lived in New York and Hollywood until finally settling in Bad Ischl in his homeland in 1948. All this time, he toured as a guest conductor, made recordings, and continued to compose, although his operetta output dropped off after the 1930s. He did produce one more international hit near the end of his life: Love's Roundabout (Liebeskarusell), the theme from his score for the 1950 film La Ronde.