Strauss waltzes to Amer­ica

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller

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

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