Strauss waltzes to America
The first operetta by Johann Strauss II took Vienna by storm at its premiere in 1871. His second followed in 1873 and his third — Die Fledermaus —in 1874. What happened to 1872? The answer comes from our own country: Strauss accepted an invitation to perform at a celebration in Boston scheduled to mark the centennial of the nation’s independence. The timing may strike us as odd. Indeed, the United States declared its independence from England in 1776, but Massachusetts had taken major steps toward that eventuality (the Boston Tea Party, for example, occurred in 1773, and the city of Worcester declared self-rule in 1774) and therefore felt comfortable jumping the gun when the centennial approached. The commemoration ended up taking the form of the World’s Peace Jubilee and International Music Festival, which ran from June 17 through July 4, 1872. The U.S. Marine Band signed up to participate, as did other leading bands from France, Germany, and Great Britain. To further underscore the festival’s international bona fides, the committee extended an invitation to Strauss. At first he demurred. He disliked travel and avoided it whenever possible. The fee, however, proved impossible to resist: $100,000, paid in advance, to lead a piece in each of 14 Festival concerts — an astronomical figure at that time — plus round-trip transportation for Strauss, his wife (Henrietta, who went by “Jetty”), his valet, and her maid.
The foursome set out from Bremerhaven, Germany, on June 1 and made the crossing in a none-too-luxurious ship that was alternately powered by steam and sails. They docked in New York, and from there they proceeded directly to Boston, where the composer was greeted with adulation.
Boston had decided to pull out all the stops, and the city constructed an immense Peace Jubilee Festival Hall — also known as the Coliseum — designed to accommodate an audience of 100,000. Strauss had previously participated in “monster concerts” back in Vienna, events that played out before perhaps 5,000 listeners; but what he encountered in Boston was of an entirely different magnitude. The opening concert was completely sold out days in advance, and the 100,000 music lovers went wild when Strauss entered the hall escorted by six burly policemen, with Strauss’ valet carrying his violin. They made their way to a platform 100 feet above the audience level. The composer later related his memory of the occasion: On the musicians’ platform there were twentythousand singers; in front of them the members of the orchestra — and these were the people I was to conduct. A hundred assistants had been placed at my disposal to control these gigantic masses, but I was only able to recognize those nearest to me, and although we had had rehearsals there was no possibility of giving an artistic performance, a proper production. But if I had declined to conduct, it would have been at the cost of my life.
Now just imagine my position, face to face with a public of a hundred thousand Americans. There I stood at the raised platform, high above all the others. How would the business start, how would it end? Suddenly a cannon shot rang out; a gentle hint for us twenty thousand to begin to perform “The Blue Danube.”
I gave the signal, my one hundred assistant conductors followed me as quickly and as best they could and then there broke out an unholy row such as I shall never forget. As we had begun more or less together, I concentrated my entire attention on seeing that we should also finish together! — Thank Heaven, I managed even that. It was all that was humanly possible. The hundred thousand mouths in the audience roared their applause and I breathed a sigh of relief when I found myself in fresh air again and felt firm ground beneath my feet.
The next day I had to take flight before an army of impresarios who promised me the whole of California if I were to undertake an American tour.
The Boston Herald reported, “The chief honors from a strictly musical point of view were carried off by Herr Strauss whose activity, firmness and judgment made him a model conductor. … He has, apparently, not an idle muscle in his body while he is conducting.”
He made good on all 14 concerts, plus two additional balls, doling out such bonbons as the Morgenblätter and Künstlerleben waltzes and the Pizzicato Polka .He also unveiled a new composition he had written for the occasion, the Jubilee Waltz, which incorporated a quotation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (happily, it was cast in three-quarter time already). Strauss led its premiere on June 29, with the program proclaiming that it was “composed especially for the occasion,” and he dedicated it to Patrick S. Gilmore, the famous bandleader who had founded the first incarnation of the Peace Jubilee several years earlier and was the music director for the 1872 installment. For this occasion Strauss may also have authored a work titled Sounds From Boston, a pastiche that pillaged its sections from various preexisting waltzes of his composition. At least two other waltzes attributed to Strauss from his visit are known to have been arrangements cobbled together by a composer named Alfred E. Warren, drawing on earlier Strauss waltzes. Perhaps Sounds From Boston represented a similar enterprise.
The proceedings were not to everyone’s appetite. John S. Dwight, whose Dwight’s Journal of Music exercised a point of view trained on good taste in matters artistic, pronounced judgment with a raised eyebrow and curled lip in the magazine’s issue of July 18: “The great, usurping, tyrannizing, noisy and pretentious thing is over, and there is a general feeling of relief, as if a heavy, brooding nightmare has been lifted from us all. … For the people was it? And yet the people were to pay fifty dollars for a season ticket, five dollars for a single concert, when better music, more enjoyably, can be heard in common music halls, nearly all the year round, in any of our large cities, certainly in Boston, for a dollar!”
That, however, was not a view shared by Thomas Ryan “of the Mendelssohn Quintette Club of Boston,” who in 1899 published his Recollections of an Old Musician. “Mr. Gilmore,” he recollected, “had captured several rare lions and lionesses for his magical menagerie, chief among whom was the royal lion, Johann Strauss, — the famous waltzcomposer from Vienna …. His manner of conducting was very animating. He led off with the violin bow to give the tempo, but when the right swing was obtained and the melody was singing out from the orchestra, he joined in with his fiddle as if he must take part in the intoxication of the waltz. While playing or conducting, he commonly kept his body in motion, rising and falling on his toes in a really graceful manner.”
The next day I had to take flight before an army of impresarios who promised me the whole of California if I were to undertake an American tour. — Johann Strauss II
When he had completed his obligations in Boston, Strauss returned to New York, where he led several further concerts and granted an interview to the New York Sun. On July 27, Dwight’s carried highlights of that interview, which put the preceding weeks in perspective:
“The Sun” reporter asked the famed composer how he liked America. Johann Strauss (in German — he does not speak any English) — Oh! This country is superb, magnificent. I never had an idea of the grandeur of this country, and I never would have thought that there is so much appreciation of good music here. … Reporter — How do you like Boston? Johann Strauss — I did not like it. Boston is Puritanical, stupid, dull. There is no life in the street. There is no display of elegance or luxury. The women are homely, and do not dress nicely. I do not like Boston. But with New York I am perfectly charmed (mit New York bin ich ganz entzückt).
Strauss had left his mark on American musical life. In 1945, his visit would be commemorated through a Broadway musical, Mr. Strauss Goes
to Boston, with music by operetta notable Robert Stolz. It boasted choreography by George Balanchine, but it ran for only 12 performances — fewer even than Strauss had given during his residency. “Could you not make up your mind to stay in this country?” the Sun reporter asked Mrs. Strauss during a pause when her husband had stepped out of the room. “Oh dear, dear no, not for the whole world,” she replied. “We would not leave Vienna for the world. We have everything so charming there; there are a thousand ties that bind us to Vienna.” And so the Strausses concluded their American adventure and returned home, to more waltzes and polkas, to a stream of operettas, to