About this Recording
8.554466-67 - A Viennese New Year

Favourite Waltzes, Polkas and Overtures
from the programmes of the Vienna New Year Concerts 1939-1998

The association of New Year's Day with Vienna and the music of the Strauss family is so widespread and so popular (the annual concert in the magnificent Musikverein is regularly relayed to millions of listeners and television viewers the world over) that many assume it to be a tradition going back to the days of the Strausses themselves, and to have been a regular highlight in the life of the famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Not so. Indeed it was many decades before the names of Strauss and the Vienna Philharmonic were linked at all. Not until 1925 did the orchestra give an all-Strauss programme, and it was only in the late '30s that the celebrated New Year's Day connection was established by the conductor Clemens Kraus. These concerts and their attendant publicity have done more than any other single undertaking to familiarise the public not only with the works of Johann Strauss the Younger – known the world over as "the Waltz King" – but with those of his remarkable family.

The founder of the clan, musically speaking, was the formidable Johann the First (1804-1849), whose most famous work, the Radetzky March, brings the present collection to its rousing end. With the now little-remembered Josef Lanner (1801-1843), Johann senior laid the foundations on which his gifted sons, Johann II (1825-1899), Josef (1827-1870) and Eduard (1835-1916) were to build a tradition which made Vienna the undisputed capital of European light music for a good three-quarters of a century. In the view of most informed critics and musicians, his gifts were exceeded by those of his sons, but his authority in Vienna was absolute, and in his lifetime he proved a hard act to follow, however gifted his successors.

An event of major significance for Johann the Elder took place on 24 January 1846, for it was on this day that he was granted by decree the title of k.k. Hofball-Musikdirektor (Director of Music for the Imperial-Royal Court Balls). This purely honorary title, specifically created for him, was to remain within the Strauss family until 1901 when Eduard, his youngest son, relinquished it on account of his own old age. For many years, the senior Strauss's position in Vienna's musical life was unassailable, and with orchestral forces exceeding 200 musicians at his command, he dominated proceedings in the Austrian capital's major dance establishments. It was left to his eldest son Johann II, however, to lift the music of the ballroom to the status of high art, as suitable to the concert hall as to the dance floor. Johann Strauss II, the most famous and enduringly successful of all 19th-century light music composers (and one of the supreme orchestrators in musical history) was born in Vienna on 25 October 1825. Building on the foundations laid by his father and Lanner, the younger Johann (and to a lesser extent his afore­mentioned brothers) captivated not only Vienna but the whole of Europe and America with his abundantly tuneful waltzes, polkas, quadrilles and marches. The thrice-married "Waltz King" later turned his attention to the composition of operetta, and completed 16 stage works (chief among them the ever-popular Die Fledermaus and The Gypsy Baron, whose overtures are included here) and more than 500 orchestral compositions – including the most famous of all waltzes, The Blue Danube (1867), without which no New Year's Concert in Vienna would be complete. When he died, on 3 June 1899, he could hardly have dreamed that one day the Marco Polo Strauss Edition would establish a milestone in musical history by making his entire orchestral output available to millions of music-lovers all over the world (and he was a man who thought big: in 1872, in Boston, Massachusetts, he conducted an orchestra of 2,000 and a chorus of 20,000, though how they could see him, or he them, is anybody's guess). Johann the Younger combined a seemingly inexhaustible flow of melodic ideas with an enviable mastery of orchestration, yet he was not immediately able to capitalise fully on the success of his orchestral debut in October 1844, since Vienna's major centres of entertainment had existing contracts with the elder Johann. And in January 1845, it was again Johann Strauss the Elder and his orchestra who dominated that year's carnival festivities in the Austrian capital.

Not until the summer of that year was there a noticeable improvement in the younger Johann's circumstances, when he became Bandmaster of the 2nd Vienna Citizens Regiment and was also engaged to conduct his orchestra at soirées at the Casino Zgernitz in Oberdöbling. But if he believed these events to be a harbinger of better fortune, he was soon to be sorely disappointed. That autumn he was ousted from the Casino Zgernitz by a rival conductor, and the Sperl ballroom chose to replace him with his own father. Nor were circumstances in the natural world kind to him. His benefit concert planned for that September was twice postponed owing to bad weather before the elements finally disrupted it altogether. In fact it took him around three years to establish himself on Vienna's musical scene as a worthy successor to his father, following the latter's death in September 1849. During the 1852 Carnival he was summoned for the first time to conduct at the Court- and Chamber-Balls, and an article in the Theaterzeitung, praising his talents, affirmed "It is now certain that Strauss the Father has been fully replaced by Strauss the Son." But what about Strauss the brother (indeed both of them)? Eduard and Josef, though they played an important part in Vienna's musical life, were now fated, nevertheless, to work in the shadow of their more illustrious elder sibling, although a number of authoritative commentators have suggested that in sheer talent, if not in accomplishment, they were his equals. It was left to the traditional New Year's Day concert, however, to give them the widespread recognition they fully deserved, and now Marco Polo have honoured Josef, like his brother Johann, with a series of recordings devoted to enshrining for posterity his complete orchestral works.

Jeremy Siepmann

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