The Strauss Family: Kings of the Blue Danube
Music megastars are the kings: the king of pop, the king of rock, the king of the guitar. Vienna’s were the waltz kings: Johann Strauss I and his three sons, Johann II, Josef and Eduard, whose dance music dominated the entire 19th century. Even today, a silhouette of Johann II (1825-1899) – flowing mustache, head tossed back, violin in hand – still glitters faintly with celeb vibes.
The Museum of the Johann Strauss Dynasty on Müllnergasse in the 9th district is dedicated to their music, their lives and their world. It is far more than just a memorial room. The private museum, supported by a cultural association, is the result of 25 years of collecting Strauss-related documents. Its director, Helmut Reichenauer, is an encyclopedia of knowledge about the Strauss family and their era.
“In the most modern sense of the word, they were international stars,” explains Reichenauer – incredible musical prowess combined with business savvy, in a world clamoring for new music. The twenty concerts of Johann Strauss II’s 1872 U.S. tour, for example, earned him $100,000 at the time, more than $1,700,000 today. In Boston, his 800-man orchestra played to 30,000 in the specially erected Jubilee Coliseum – beat that, Lady Gaga!
Opened just two years ago, the Museum of the Johann Strauss Dynasty was named a Best European Tourism Project last year by the British Guild of Travel Writers. “We receive our guests personally,” Reichenauer explains. “Our goal is to make the Strauss family’s music understandable within the context in which it was created.”
While the walls are covered with images, this is a museum about music: There are 14 listening stations with sophisticated Bose hi-fi systems – sound quality as if musicians were in the room. A 100 page notebook contains detailed descriptions of every image, already in eight languages. (Volunteers needed for Japanese and Chinese!)
Currently featured is Johann Strauss II’s An der schönen blauen Donau (On the Beautiful Blue Danube). Known in Austria as the Donauwalzer, the world’s most famous waltz premiered in Vienna 150 years ago, on 15 February, 1867.
Why was it such a hit? “It simply had its own momentum,” Reichenauer says. In the first decade, the piano arrangement was reprinted a million times. “The publisher made a mint. Crate after crate was shipped to America, not to mention all over Europe.” Today it is hard to imagine 19th century marketing on that scale, before radio or any sort of recording.
A second Strauss museum is on Praterstraße in the 2nd district, where Johann II lived from 1863 to 1870. Run by the Wien Museum, it is the actual place where the Donauwalzer was composed. Then, the Praterstraße was not one of the major arteries into the city, but a chic neighborhood of cafés, theaters, dance halls and the circus. A perfect address for an entertainer at the height of his career.
This little museum is not much more than a pilgrimage site for classical music fans. But it does leave a taste of its former glamor: the dark green silk wall coverings, the Bösendorfer piano, a gilt vitrine with a somewhat dusty violin.
There are also two Strauss exhibits currently at the Wienbibliothek im Rathaus (Vienna Library in City Hall). One is also about the Donauwalzer, the other evaluates the Russian reception of Johann Strauss II, who performed there up to five months a year.
The Vienna Library has an impressive collection of music manuscripts, which can be viewed directly if you have research or musical credentials. Many are also digitalized, including 307 works by the Strauss family. Even for the non-musician, seeing the handwritten final page of the Donauwalzer, with its inked out scratches and wobbly lines, lets you experience a moment of genius. In this case, a rather messy moment. As Strauss himself wrote to the ensemble just before the premiere: “Please excuse my bad handwriting, I had to get it done in a hurry.”
The Museum of the Johann Strauss Dynasty is well worth a visit. If you are lucky, Herr Reichenauer will have time for a personal tour (also in English), giving you a remarkable view of the musical life of 19th century Vienna, an era whose pop stars were not so different from our own.