Johann Strauss the “King of Waltz” has given back to Vienna the intoxicating city of his birth, almost four hundred widely acclaimed waltzes. One of these is “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” Yet most tourists limit themselves to Vienna , and seldom venture into the woods.
A drive through these dark woods brings to mind the catchy rhythm of his enchanting music. Strauss adored his native city, and brought to its people a zest for living. In the middle of the 19 th century the Viennese were a melancholy people obsessed with their own mortality because of the plagues, wars and floods which besieged them. They were steeped in Catholic mysticism which made them even more morose.
Strauss culled elements of music from various sources – the peasant dances of Bavaria and Austria , the songs of wandering minstrels, the lively melodies from cafes and taverns, and wove them into the waltz, which became Vienna ‘s signature tune. He restored to the common people a love for life, and a conscious awareness of their own grace and sensuality. They considered the waltz a ‘flight from death.’ While the Aristocracy did their minuets and gavottes in ballrooms, with partners merely touching tips of their fingers in prudish restraint, Johann’s waltzes brought about a romantic whirl of bodies in cafes, theatres and homes, until the buoyancy and charm of these waltzes proved irresistible to the upper classes. The waltz invaded ballrooms and palaces, and has been cherished ever since.
People said that Strauss came to earth ‘on a waltz.’ He inherited this love of music from his father, who had already established himself as a composer and conductor of repute. He was even called “Johann the Great.” But the man sternly opposed his son’s desire to study music. And so, Johann Junior learnt his notes in secret. He composed his first waltz at the age of six, and his mother had to write down the notes he composed.
A man called Joseph Lanner had already composed something of a waltz with a distinct Viennese flavour. He had his own Palmer Dance Orchestra. He invited Johann to play the viola. Johann became so popular, that Lanner soon turned over the baton to him. But they often quarreled over the music and money. When Lanner died in 1825, Strauss took over, and gave the waltzes a new tilt. By the age of 19, he had his own orchestra which he kept a secret from his father. The orchestra performed at the Dommayer Garden Restaurant, where, as a gesture of goodwill, some of his father’s compositions were played. People described him as the worthy son of his father.
“When he swings his bow,” they said, “An electric shock passes through our bodies. With his music, he sprays sparks like a galvanizing battery.”
Johann was the undisputed “Waltz King.” His unforgettable Blue Danube premiered in 1867, is still the Queen of all waltzes, and is a tribute to perpetual youth and romance.
Johann was not lucky in love. His first wife Jetty Strauss died early. He was cuckolded for five years by his second wife Angelica Dietrich, who was a woman of easy virtue. But Adele Deutsch his third wife was the woman who brought him love and contentment and filled the emptiness of his life.
Johann liked to poke fun at people who pretended to be expert critics of music, and then acclaimed the stage antics of mediocre performers, without bothering about the contents of the music. In 1862, he indulged in a musical prank called ‘Perpetual Motion.’
It was an 8-bar whirligig which went round and round and stopped abruptly at an unresolved chord, as if stuck with ‘one foot in the air.’
As we travelled through the Vienna woods, we passed through Baden a place with more than thirty spas, and then through Moedling. Composers and poets from all over Europe would spend their summer vacations here. Our guide pointed to a small restaurant which was once the house of Franz Schubert.
Midway through the woods was Myerling, where we stopped at a Carmelite Cloister convent. There were no nuns in sight. The chapel with its serene and peaceful ambience was once the scene of a macabre double murder of the Archduke Rudolph of Austria and Hungary , and his mistress Baroness Marie Vatsera who was barely seventeen. It was his hunting lodge. Historians believe that the French Prime Minister who wanted to dethrone Franz Joseph the Emperor and install Rudolph as king, was angry that he did not play along, and so had him killed. It paved the way for the end of the Hapsburg Dynasty, as there was no other successor to the Emperor. The Austrian Police however, did an excellent cover-up job, saying Rudolph had killed his mistress and then shot himself. The people of Myerling believe that the ghosts of Rudolph and Maria still haunt the convent. But the nuns of the Cloister are not talking.
Travelling further to the southern part of the woods, we arrived at a Cisterian Monastery which is also a Theological College . The exquisite stained glass windows, beautiful sculptures and silent corridors, make one want to tiptoe. Then suddenly the pews of the chapel burst into the Gregorian liturgy sung by white robed monks. It is a profound experience. As we exit the chapel, we see a Plague Pillar in the courtyard, built in memory of the Plague victims of long ago.
Our last stop was at Hinterbruhl where we entered the See Grotte, a 430 feet long winding passage way leading us 60 feet below ground level, to Europe’s largest underground lake – 25 square metres in area and one and half metre deep. This was an old gypsum mine which was abandoned due to flooding. Gypsum deposits were still seen at the bottom of the mine. It was discovered by Germans during the war, and used for building fuselage for their Bomber planes. Prisoners of war were put to work in this cold underground mine, from 1944-45. There were several excavations in the walls preserved in memory of the people who died there. In one alcove were the implements of the miners, in another, a grotto of St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners. There was also a section where the remnants of a bomber were seen. Candles lit in dark niches made the place look spooky. The last remake of the Three Musketeers was filmed here in an improvised prison. The golden gondola in which the Bishop tried to escape, is kept in an enclosure.
We had a 20 metre long ride through the caves in a motor boat. It was very cold, but we had been provided with blankets to drape around. Water had to be pumped out regularly to control the level of water.
Our guide never tired of singing the praises of Johann Strauss even as we drove back to the city. On his 40 th anniversary as a musician, Vienna showered him with accolades and medals. He even received a silver laurel wreath from America , each leaf bearing the title of a waltz. Johann’s response was one of humility.
“If it is true that I have some talent, I owe its development to my beloved city of Vienna . Vienna , I drink to her. May she grow and prosper.”
Born on October 25 th 1825 , he lived till the ripe old age of 74. He died on June 3 rd 1899 , and is buried in the Central Cemetery beside Brahms and Schubert, in a section reserved for Viennese musicians. When he died, something of Vienna died too.
The bronze and marble monument of Johann Strauss stands in Vienna ‘s Central Park . People from all over the world come to pay homage to this “nerve demon” who took the Waltz to unsurpassed heights of glory. Though present day music is loud, coarse and catatonic, the waltz has never lost its appeal, and the world still salutes this “Spinning Frenzy,” whose love for life, echoes down the corridors of Time.
Sunday Herald 23-10-2005