Vienna's World of the Waltz

Overview

The infectious oom-pah-pah of the waltz's gentle pulse calls up images of spinning dancers, gliding in circles around a lavish Viennese ballroom. Presiding over these scenes were three brothers whose name is synonymous with the waltz – Strauss. The oldest of the three, Johann Jr., remains the most famous, but his brothers Josef and Eduard had their share of hits, too. And let's not forget Johann Sr. The thriving ballroom scene in mid-19th Century Vienna offered vivid images and glorious melodies – but there was much more going on. Europe was enjoying the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, and the advent of the steam locomotive made touring possible for waltz orchestras, making the Strauss Brothers superstars across the entire continent, as you'll discover in this peek into the elegant world of tuxes, ballgowns and handle-bar mustaches. 

Summary

As with so many classical dance forms, the waltz began with Europe's peasants. Social gatherings in villages and farming communities usually involved music, eating, drinking, flirting and, of course, dancing. There were many different steps for group circles or couples, but usually only two rhythmic pulses: two-beat rhythms (think “Hey Jude”) and three-beat rhythms (“My Country 'Tis of Thee”). Anyone inclined to dance to either of those rhythms had to know the right combination of steps. Since we have two legs, three-beat rhythms require that the dancer alternates each initial, heavy down-beat between the right leg and left – which makes it a fun challenge for dance partners. And so, the Ländler, a German dance built on a three-beat pulse, was invented and became an instant hit. It didn't take long for composers such as Franz Schubert to arrange some Ländlers for piano, performed as private enjoyment in Vienna's homes, or as accompaniment at lavish dance parties. Soon, the waltz – from the German word, to turn – emerged. While the original had a heavy first beat, the Viennese waltz was smoother and more elegant. Around the same time as Schubert was writing his piano ditties, the great opera composer Carl Maria von Weber captured the flirtatious world of those social gatherings in an ambitious piano piece, Invitation to the Dance, that depicted a nervous fellow's approach to a young lady, their delirious spins on the floor and the quiet return to the lady's chair. It stitched together several different melodies, known as a chain waltz, that would serve as the model for the orchestral pieces that made the dance – and its composers – famous. In the 1830s, two Viennese musicians became friends as members of a dance orchestra. Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss Sr. soon broke away to form their own band, contributing their own compositions and becoming favorites of Vienna's elites. The constant twirling of the dance couples became quite a sensation, as each turn (at a rate of about 30 per minute) revealed a glimpse of ankle beneath a young lady's full-length gown. Shocking! Eventually, Lanner and Strauss went their separate ways, forming their own bands and creating an atmosphere of intense competition in Vienna's growing number of ballrooms. Strauss tried to discourage his three sons from entering the nasty world of the waltz, but to no avail. Eduard, Josef and, most famously, Johann Jr. became popular conductors and composers, supplying not only a steady stream of waltzes, but heavy-beat polkas, marches and quadrilles (the original line dance) to their fans. It didn't take long for the charms and gaiety of the Viennese dance world to infect the rest of Europe. Helping to spread the news was the introduction, in the mid-1850s, of the steam locomotive. At last, travel had become affordable, comfortable and even luxurious, permitting the Strauss brothers to load their orchestras on a train and tour the continent. They even traveled to England, where Eduard became a superstar. Johann Jr., as we all know, emerged as the most gifted, eventually turning his attention from the ballroom to the opera house, penning two glorious waltz-flavored operettas, Die Fledermaus and The Gypsy Baron. Vienna and the waltz had now become – and will always remain – timeless and inseparable.

Exploration Questions

  • What other composers, besides the Strauss brothers, were popular masters of the waltz?
  • What is the quadrille, and how was it danced?
  • How did opera composer Richard Strauss (no relation) honor the Viennese waltz?

Reflective Questions

  • Why did the glories of the Viennese waltz fade away? Could they ever return?
  • Can you recall your memories of dancing the waltz?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Watts, Jeanette. The Mechanics of Waltz. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2014. 84 pages. Watts, a dancer and dance instructor, guides the reader through every step of the waltz, in a breezy, light-hearted way, with links to videos to help clarify the moves.
  • Jacob, H.E. Johann Strauss-- Father and Son: A Century of Light Music. Halcyon House, 1948. 385 pages. A readable, if a bit dated, biography of Strauss Sr. and Jr. that explores the two composers and the world in which they lived.
    Click here to order