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Classical Composers A-Z: Johann Strauss II

Peter Wintersgill introduces us to Johann Strauss II, composer of The Blue Danube.

Born
25th October, 1825, in Vienna.

Father
Johann Strauss I, composer and conductor, died at 45 of scarlet fever.

Mother
Anna, strong character.

Family
Eldest of five children. Had two brothers, Joseph and Edward, who both became composers, also two sisters.

Childhood
Went to good secondary school at 11, on to Polytechnic at 15 to study banking. Father did not want any of his sons to become professional musicians, despite their all showing early musical talent. Johann, aided by his mother, studied in secret and wrote his first waltz - First Thoughts - at six.

Adolescence
In spite of father's wishes, mother encouraged him in his studies, which he did more openly after his father left home to live with his mistress. When father died in 1849, he joined father's orchestra with his own, which he had formed five years before.

Early Adult Life
He started giving public concerts with the family orchestra, mainly with waltzes of his own and father's compositions. One of father's best known pieces was the Radetzky March.

He was a compulsive worker, so much so that he had a breakdown in health in 1853 and had to convalesce at Bad Gastein. In 1862 he married Henriette, commonly known as Jetty, the ex-mistress of a wealthy banker and several years older than himself. The next year he was made Director of Court Balls. He became known as the Waltz King, as his waltzes became the symbols of the gaiety and sophistication of the Hapsburg Court.

Later Adult Life
Some of his tunes are still popular today, e.g.: The Blue Danube (1867), Wine Women and Song (1869) and Tales from the Vienna Woods (1868). The latter has a prominent part for the zither and was especially approved of by Brahms, who became a close friend.

The Blue Danube originally had a chorus part, and was initially not successful, but became so later on.

Many of his other tunes were polkas, e.g. the Pizzicato Polka, written jointly with his brother Joseph. Other well known tunes include Voices of Spring, The Pleasure of Life and The Emperor Waltz (1888).

In 1870 he was persuaded by Offenbach, along with Jetty to start composing for the theatre. This he was rather reluctant to do, knowing that he lacked any knowledge or experience of this rather specialised field. However, he made a start with operettas, the first real success being Die Fledermaus (1874). The only other one that is still known today is The Gypsy Baron (1885).

His mother and Joseph both died in 1870, after which Edward became conductor of the Vienna Orchestra, while Johann went touring. He made conducting tours of Germany, Poland and Russia. (He went to St. Petersburg regularly for 10 years).

In 1862 he visited Paris and London (Covent Garden) and later to the USA.

Last Years
His wife Jetty died suddenly of a stroke in 1878, after which he married Lilli, but this never worked out; they separated soon and got divorced after four years, after he became an Anglican. He then married Adele, a widow with a young daughter, with whom he remained very happy for the rest of his life.

He received many honours at this time, spending his days playing cards with old friends, including a surgeon called Bilroth.

He eventually died of pneumonia on 3rd June, 1899, in Vienna aged 74.

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