The Waltz Kings


Thump, thump (rest). Thump, thump (rest). Yes, our hearts beat in waltz time. No wonder that graceful dance touches us in special ways. Its pulse had been around for centuries, but not until the 1800s did the elegant waltz we associate with Johann Strauss Jr. captivate all of Europe. In this music-filled program, we'll get to know Johann, his father and two brothers, while we discover how the development of the steam locomotive played a role in spreading the wildly popular (and scandalous) dance craze that has never quite disappeared. We'll also get acquainted with other dances of that day, such as the polka and quadrille. Yes, there's more to the world of the waltz than oom-pah-pah.


Most music in the West is divided into two rhythmic categories: duple or triple. Duple music has a square rhythm, with two or four beats per measure – Beethoven's, “Ode to Joy” or Stephen Foster's “Camptown Races,” for instance. Triple time comes with three beats, and somehow that suggests a dance rhythm. Which is strange, considering that we only have two legs to dance on. In the very early days, music in three beats could be heard in churches and cathedrals, rooted in the concept of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). Listen, for example, to the “Gloria” in Bach's B-minor Mass. But as far back as the 1200s, out in Central Europe's villages, peasants were dancing to a heavy-footed three-pulse thing called the Ländler. Lots of hopping and stamping. Only later in the late-1700s did it smooth out and gain elegance and sophistication for the growing middle- and upper-classes. At first, the waltz was danced in private homes and in the Hapsburg courts, with minimal music accompaniment. But as composers began writing more ambitious music for larger forces, great dance gatherings began to be held in large ballrooms, most of them in Vienna. Joseph Lanner became the first star composer of waltzes in the early 1840s, followed by Johann Strauss Sr. No surprise that his sons, Eduard, Joseph and Johann Jr. (the Waltz King) continued the family business, soon to become superstars. In no time, great celebratory balls presented two orchestras playing in alternating fashion from opposite ends – each led by one of the Strauss boys. Quickly, the craze spread across the continent, thanks in large part to touring Strauss orchestras zipping around in trains. Late in the 19th Century, another Strauss entered the picture – though the German-born Richard Strauss was no relation to the Austrian Waltz Kings. In loving tribute to the early days of elegance and pomp, he peppered his opera “Der Rosenkavalier” with dreamy waltz melodies. The craze dampened with the dawn of the 20th Century, then was all-but obliterated with the start of World War I. But oh, for those golden days of young ladies in lavish gowns (specifically designed to reveal a view of ankle!) led in dizzying circles by handsome men wearing tuxes or formal uniforms – spinning around a giant ballroom underneath crystal chandeliers!

Exploration Questions

  • How did Carl von Weber's beloved “Invitation to the Dance” change the direction of waltz music?
  • What is a “chain waltz”?
  • What are the surprising origins of Strauss Jr.'s “Beautiful Blue Danube”?
  • How did contests at Shooting Clubs inspire some Strauss compositions?
  • Why did the waltz cause scandals in high society?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you waltzed? Did you twirl about, or were you and your partner just trying not to step on each other's toes?
  • Millions of movie-goers discovered “The Blue Danube” through “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Why do you think it was used in the spaceship-docking scene?
  • Do you have a favorite waltz that's not-so-well-known?

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.
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  • 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.
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  • Stetson, Bernard. Introducing the Waltz – History, Steps, Etiquette. Read Books, 2010. 86 pages. As its title suggests, this small but informative book covers the waltz's history as it instructs the dancer in how to keep yourself and your partner in time with that ¾ beat.
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  • Knowles, Mark. The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances. McFarland. 2009, 273 pages. Yes, the waltz caused scandals back in the 19th Century – a charming piece of social history nimbly covered in this book, which also delves into the scandals of close-quarter social dances. Shocking!
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