In the ballrooms of Vienna in the 19th century, if you heard a waltz it was highly likely that it was written by a member of the Strauss family; either the father, Johann, or one of his three sons, Johann Jr., Josef or Eduard.
Johann Strauss I came from humble beginnings. Orphaned at the age of 12, he apprenticed as a bookbinder while also taking lessons on the violin and viola. By the age of 22, he was a dance music sensation in Vienna and began to tour Europe with his own band. Spending most of the year on the road left little time for his wife and children. Yet, he was very strict and refused to allow any of his sons to study music. Johann II became a banker, Josef joined the military and Eduard went into civil service.
Then scandal struck. Johann the elder admitted to being the father of an illegitimate child; it was rumored he had many more. His wife now had grounds to divorce him. Free from his father’s strict rules, Johann II began to pursue his own musical career, becoming a waltz composer/conductor and a fierce rival of his father. When Johann I died at the age of 45 of scarlet fever, Johann Jr. merged his father’s band with his own, got his brothers Josef and Eduard to join and together they toured Europe.
The Strauss family dominated the dance halls of Vienna for the remainder of the 19th century. After Johann II died in 1899, Eduard, the last remaining brother, disbanded the family band, retired from public life and reportedly burned all of the musical manuscripts of his entire family. He was afraid their music would be stolen and used by another composer. Fortunately his son, Johann III, carried on the family tradition and helped to fuel a revival of the Strauss family catalogue. The Strauss dynasty continued well into the 20th century. Eduard Strauss II, a fourth generation Strauss, founded the Vienna Johann Strauss Orchestra in 1966 and served as their first conductor.
The work of the Strauss family has been called “Viennese light music” but there is nothing “light” about the sheer volume of pieces this family produced. They left an indelible mark on the waltz, the polka and the march. Johann Strauss II earned his title as the “Waltz King” of Vienna.
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