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8.223596 - STRAUS, O.: His Most Popular Works

Oscar Straus (1870- 1954)

Oscar Straus (1870- 1954)


Born on 6 March 1870 in Vienna, Oscar Straus was the most versatile of the musicians whose early masterpieces brought them to the attention of the public at the turn of the century. During his time as a student (under, among others, Max Bruch) he composed songs and chamber music, including works for his young wife, the violinist Nelly Irmen, a piano concerto and - of course - an opera. He worked for several years as Kapellmeister in the theatres of towns and cities in Bohemia and Moravia. The first high point of Oscar Straus' career was attained in Berlin as resident composer at the Uberbrettl, which had been founded and was directed by Ernst von Wolzogen. He became famous throughout Europe as "Uberbrettl Straus". After the collapse of this venture, and after a few undistinguished jobs in Northern Germany, Oscar Straus returned to Vienna and followed the advice given him by Johann Strauss in 1898 during a visit to Strauss' house on the Igelgasse: he went over to the camp of the operetta and dance composers. His model was at first Jacques Offenbach, and so he wrote parody operettas ("The Merry Nibelungen", "Hugdietrich's Wedding Journey"). When Franz Lehar, an exact contemporary of Oscar Straus, had a sensational success with his operetta "The Merry Widow" in December 1905, Oscar Straus said to himself, "I can do that too!"


He was helped by happenstance: while the 36-year-old composer was in a coffee house in the Vienna Prater, listening to a ladies' orchestra, a young writer offered him the material for an operetta in which a ladies' orchestra was to be involved in the plot. Straus accepted it and wrote "A Waltz Dream". The piece was performed on 3 March 1907 in the Vienna Carltheater, in what was to be the first of a run of more than 500 performances.


Of course, the music from the operetta "A Waltz Dream" immediately spread around the world. Several individual pieces from its rich score were arranged for concert performance: the "Entrance March", at the beginning of which the wedding bells for Princess Helena von Flausenthurn and the Viennese Lieutenant Niki are heard; the grand waltz entitled "Waltz Dreams", which contains the principal themes from the operetta: after the introduction "O Jubel sondergleichen" ("O incomparable joy") can be heard the waltz tunes "I walked in the blossoming garden", "Waltz of my dreams", "Es krabbelt und es wurlt" ("Scrambling and thronging"), "O Du lieber, O Du g'scheiter, O Du ganz g'hauter Fratz" ("Oh, you dear, clever, brilliant child"), "Ich habeeinen Mann" ("I have a man"), and "Alles, was keck und fesch" ("Everything cheeky and smart"), as well as a brisk polka based on the song "G'stellte Mad'ln" ("Beautiful Girls").


During his itinerant years as a theatre Kapellmeister, which had taken him to Mainz after the posts in Bohemia and Moravia, Oscar Straus wrote a little character piece with the title "Old Viennese Round Dances" which was published by Schott. When Oscar Straus, who was now established and whose first marriage (from which he had three children) had failed in Berlin, married the musician Clara Singer on 9 December 1908, the "Old Viennese Round Dances" were played as wedding music by a small ensemble.


After the triumph of "A Waltz Dream", Oscar Straus wrote another parody operetta, based on the well-known play "Arms and the Man" by George Bernard Shaw. The first performance oftheworkon 14 November 1908 in the Theater an der Wien under the title "Dertapfere Soldat" ("The brave soldier") did not meet with resounding success. However, one song from the work immediately encircled the world. That was the song "Komm, komm, Held meiner Traume" ("Come, come, hero of my dreams") which the young singer Greta Holm had performed with irresistible charm, striking precisely the delicate balance between sweetness and mockery (Greta Holm was married to Robert Stolz, who was at that time Kapellmeister of the Wieden theatre ). The worldwide success of the operetta did not begin until, as "The Chocolate Soldier" it took the English-speaking world by storm, beginning in London and including the USA. Now the song with the words "My hero" really became a popular melody, and was an obligatory number in the repertoire of every famous female singer for the next decade.


One of the amusing events which occurred in connection with the Viennese premiere of "The Chocolate Soldier" was a protest by the embassy of the Balkan state of Bulgaria, which was allied with Austria. The action of the operetta was to be set in that country, and the court in Sofia could not allow its country's bold army to be depicted on stage as lacking in heroism. The theatre had to accede to the protest and - to the annoyance of the costumiers - the Bulgarians had to be re-clothed as Tartars. In the printed editions of the music from the operetta "The Chocolate Soldier", the title of the "Bulgarian March" remained, of course, unchanged.


In 1909 the management of the Carltheater commissioned the well established librettist Victor Leon (alias Victor Hirschfeld, 1858-1940) whose previous work included the operetta "Simplicius" for Johann Strauss, "The Opera Ball" for Richard Heuberger and "The Merry Widow" for Franz Lehar, to adapt the comedy "Die Marquise" by V. Sardou into a libretto for a piece called "Didi", On this occasion Herr Leon proved a total failure: on the evening of the premiere on 23 October 1909 the audience and the press established beyond doubt that the famous comedy had been arranged to death. Just as unequivocally, both public and journalists judged that it was "a pity about Oscar Straus' music." In spite of the failure of the operetta, this music can still be heard in the "Didi Waltz".


In 1912- the composer had already enjoyed his initial successes in England and France -Oscar Straus was commissioned to write a ballet for the Vienna Hofoper. The new director, Josef Gregor, wanted to continue the balletic tradition which had reached its high point of legendary fame with Josef Bayer and his Viennese ballet "The Fairy Doll" ("Die Puppenfee"). Johann Strauss, too, had produced a ballet composition towards the end of his life, but his work - "Cinderella", completed by Josef Bayer -had to be performed in Berlin, and only appeared on the stage of the theatre on the Vienna Ring in 1908 when Felix von Weingartner was director. Now, therefore, Oscar Straus was to continue the sequence of Viennese ballets in modern style with a plot by the established ballet librettist Heinrich Regel and the equally well established choreographer Josef Hassreiter. However, Regel's plot was not substantial enough for a full evening. Once again, as in the "Fairy Doll", the audience was taken into the realms of marionettes and fairy tale figures, this time in a dance drama entitled "The Princess of Tragant", A sensitive girl grows up among people who have been turned into dolls by the constraints of a strict etiquette which suppresses all feelings. They behave like automata, even when they are in love and wish to show affection. The princess, too, gradually stiffens when surrounded by these wooden figures. Then a stranger with the typical fairytale name of Kreisel storms into the palace. His irresistible, untamable turbulence breaks the spell and carries everyone with him. The power of etiquette is broken and the way is clear for movement, freedom and love! Because it is a fairytale, Kreisel finally has to be revealed as a prince under a spell, and the happy ending is a joyful waltz, which nobody can leave and which expresses a new feeling for life.


This subject gave the composer Straus the opportunity to bring about a skilful combination of different styles of music. He wrote the "Menuett a la Cour" as rigid baroque music; the gentle yearning of the "Valse lente" he fitted to the feelings of the princess who has almost totally stiffened; in the parody march of the castle guard "Castle Parade", he showed his talent for musical allusions, and for the great, liberating love waltz, he wrote the rhythmical modern dance in the 'Jugendstil' of the day, the "Tragant Waltz" which perfectly suits the occasion. Also composed from these themes is the "Tragant Suite", which Oscar Straus published after the highly acclaimed premiere on 13 November 1912 in the Vienna Hofoper on the Ringstrasse.


When, in the summer of 1914, the Austro-Serbian conflict began to escalate into the First World War, almost all the composers living in Austria at once showed their willingness to fall in with the general enthusiasm for war. However, Oscar Straus did not even consider going along with this mood. He was working on an operetta for the Carltheater, the plot of which he was keeping as secret as possible. In this piece with the characteristic title "Rund um die Liebe" ("All around love"), he dealt with the eternal themes of human life. The plot was far from new: before becoming engaged, a young man wants to really find out what love is, and as soon as he embarks on what he plans as a journey of discovery, he happens upon his intended fiancée. This simple story was offered with elan and good humour. For Oscar Straus the piece offered the opportunity for enchanting waltzes, merry polkas, witty ensembles and snappy satirical marches. The best themes, which are all heard in the overture to the operetta, became popular without exception: the songs "Ich weiss schon, was ich mocht" {"I know what I should like") and "Ein Schwipserl mochtich haben" {"I'd likeadrinkortwo"), but above all the gentle song "Es gibt Dinge, die muss man vergessen" {"There are things one must forget") immediately spread throughout Europe and even reached America.


In October 1918, when the world war had been going on for four years and had brought misery and want to the people of Vienna, and when the collapse of the monarchy was imminent, Oscar Straus wrote the music for an "operetta of dreams". Once again, princes, dukes, barons and countesses formed the dramatis personae, and among them appeared a young girl from a clothes shop who, in the second act, is allowed to attend a wonderful, grand, amazing night at the ball, the first in her young life-as a countess, of course. All the noble men have to bow before this little one, and the ladies marvel at her natural grace and beauty. For her, it is a night in paradise, in which all her wishes are fulfilled. "A Ball Night" - that was the name of the operetta - was the stuff of dreams. It goes without saying that a splendid, luxurious setting was required for this piece, and in the war- ravaged city of Vienna, with its population racked with hunger and deprivation, such things were not readily available and had to be conjured up if the "operetta of dreams" was to be put on. The management of the Johann Strauss Theatre in Vienna achieved the impossible. On the first night, 11 October 1918, everything on the stage was just right. A splendid cast vied with each other against the backdrop of a sumptuous set in a confusion of joyful vivacity. Oscar Straus conducted a large orchestra who forgot their hunger and played waltz tunes just like they did in the good old days. It was a crazy, total success. A year later, the operetta "A Ball Night" was greeted with acclaim in Berlin. The waltz tunes from the operetta, which Straus had once again assembled into a dance composition in the old tradition, were heard in ballrooms, too. Even today, they remind one of the fascinating power of that "operetta of dreams" which effortlessly survived the collapse of the Austrian monarchy which occurred between the premiere and the fiftieth performance of the work.


After the collapse of the monarchy, Oscar Straus left his native city, which was no longer "imperial", but merely the over-large capital city of a poverty-stricken minor state, the Republic of Austria, and moved to Berlin. When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, Straus returned to Austria to escape the inevitable persecution, lived for a time in Switzerland and eventually, when Austria became part of the German Reich in 1938, fled to France. His works were successful everywhere, and thus it was no longer important that he should take French citizenship. For a long time he had been recognised as "a citizen of the world of music". When France was overrun by German troops, Oscar Straus fled to America, which he knew well from several guest appearances there. He became an American, but when Austria once again became an independent republic in 1945 he returned to his homeland, though not to Vienna, but to Bad Ischl in Upper Austria.


There the composer's last major works were written. For the enchanting Parisian actress Danielle Darieux he wrote the waltz song "Einmal im Leben" ("Once in a Lifetime") which she performed in the film "Madame de ...", released in 1952.


Above all, it was Oscar Straus' music for the film "La Ronde" (based on Arthur Schnitzler's "Reigen") which spread throughout the world in innumerable arrangements in the years following the appearance of Max Ophul's film (1950). The "La Ronde Waltz" had Parisian flair, and yet was Viennese in all its fine nuances. It was once again "pure Oscar Straus".


Oscar Straus, the "citizen of the world of music", died on 11 January 1954 in Bad Ischl.


@ 1993 Translation by Peter Eustace

The Johann Strauss Society of Great Britain  

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