Johann Strauss II (also known as Johann Strauss the Younger, Johann Strauss Jr., or Johann Sebastian Strauss) (October 25, 1825 – June 3, 1899) was an Austrian composer famous for having written over 500 waltzes, polkas, marches, and galops. He was the son of the composer Johann Strauss I, and brother of composers Josef Strauss and Eduard Strauss, and is the most famous member of the Strauss family. He was known in his lifetime as "The Waltz King", and was largely responsible for the popularity of the waltz in Vienna during the 19th century. He revolutionized the waltz, elevating it from a lowly peasant dance to entertainment fit for the royal Habsburg court. His works enjoyed greater fame than his predecessors, such as Johann Strauss I and Josef Lanner. Some of Strauss' most famous works include The Blue Danube, Wein, Weib und Gesang, Tales from the Vienna Woods, Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka, the Kaiser-Walzer, and the operetta Die Fledermaus.
Strauss II studied counterpoint and harmony with theorist Professor Joachim Hoffmann, who owned a private music school. His talents were also recognized by composer Josef Drechsler, who taught him exercises in harmony. His other violin teacher, Anton Kollmann, who was the ballet répétiteur of the Vienna Court Opera, also wrote excellent testimonials for him. Armed with these, on the very same day his mother filed a divorce from her husband, he approached the Viennese authorities to apply for a license to perform. He initially formed his small orchestra where he recruited his members at the 'Zur Stadt Belgrad' tavern, where musicians seeking work could be hired easily.
Johann Strauss I's influence over the entertainment establishments meant that many of them were wary of offering the younger Strauss a contract for fear of angering the father. Strauss Jr. was able to persuade the Dommayer's Casino in Hietzing (a suburb of Vienna) to allow him to perform. As a result, the local press was soon frantically reporting a 'Strauss v. Strauss' rivalry between the father and the son. The elder Strauss, in anger at his son's disobedience, and at that of the proprietor, refused to ever play at the Dommayer's Casino again, which had been the site of many of his earlier triumphs.
Strauss II found the early years difficult, but he soon won over music-loving audiences after accepting commissions to perform away from home. The first major appointment for the young composer was his award of the honorary position of "Kapellmeister of the 2nd Vienna Citizen's Regiment", which had been left vacant following Josef Lanner's death two years before. Vienna was racked by a bourgeois revolution on February 24, 1848, and the intense rivalry between father and son became much more apparent.
Eventually, Johann Jr. decided to side with the revolutionaries, as evidenced in the title of his works dating around this period, such as the waltzes 'Freiheitslieder' (Songs of Freedom) op. 52 and 'Burschenlieder' op. 55, and the marches 'Revolutions March', op. 54 and the stirring Studenten Marsch op. 56. It proved to be a decision which was professionally disadvantageous, as the Austrian royalty twice denied him the much coveted 'KK Hofballmusikdirektor' position, which was first designated especially for Johann I in recognition of his musical contributions. Further, the younger Strauss was also arrested by the Viennese authorities for publicly playing the infectious La Marseillaise, which stoked revolutionary feelings, but he was later acquitted. Shortly after that, he composed the 'Geißelhiebe Polka', op. 60, which contains elements of 'La Marseillaise' in its 'Trio' section as a musical riposte to his arrest. The elder Strauss remained loyal to the Danube monarchy, and composed his Radetzky March op. 228 (dedicated to the Habsburg field marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz), which would become one of his best-known compositions.
When the elder Strauss died from scarlet fever in Vienna in 1849, the younger Strauss merged both their orchestras and engaged in further tours. Subsequently, he also composed a number of patriotic marches dedicated to the Habsburg monarch Franz Josef I, such as the 'Kaiser Franz-Josef Marsch' op. 67 and the 'Kaiser Franz Josef Rettungs Jubel-Marsch' op. 126, probably to ingratiate himself in the eyes of the new monarch, who ascended to the Austrian throne after the 1848 revolution.
Strauss Jr. would eventually surpass his father's fame, and become one of the most popular of waltz composers of the era, extensively touring Austria, Poland, and Germany with his orchestra. It would be a usual sight for his audiences to catch sight of Strauss for only one performance before he would quickly hurry to another venue, where he was commissioned to play via the traditional fiaker. It would be the ultimate showmanship and would be displayed on the placards at the venues to proudly proclaim 'Heute Spielt der Strauss!', or 'Strauss plays today!'.
Strauss also made visits to Russia, where he performed at Pavlovsk and wrote many compositions (such as the waltz Farewell to Saint Petersburg, Op. 210), Britain, where he performed with his first wife Hetty Treffz at the Covent Garden, France, and Italy. Later in the 1870s, he took his orchestra to the United States, where he took part in the Boston Festival at the invitation of the bandmaster Patrick Gilmore and was the lead conductor in the 'Monster Concert' of over 1000 musicians, performing his 'Blue Danube' waltz, amongst other pieces, to great acclaim.
Among the more popular dance pieces Strauss wrote in this period include the waltzes Sängerfahrten op. 41, Liebeslieder op. 114, Nachtfalter op. 157, Accelerationen op. 234, and the polkas Annen op. 117, and Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka op. 214.
Strauss was not granted a divorce by the Roman Catholic church, and therefore changed religion and nationality, and became a citizen of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in January 1887. Strauss II sought solace in his third wife Adele (whom he married on in August 1882), and she encouraged the creative talent to flow once more in his later years, resulting in much fine music such as those found in the operettas 'Der Zigeunerbaron' and 'Waldmeister', and the waltzes 'Kaiser-Walzer' op. 437,'Kaiser Jubilaum' op. 434, and 'Klug Gretelein' op. 462.
After establishing his first orchestra prior to his father's death, Strauss founded many others to be supplied to various entertainment establishments such as the 'Sperl' ballroom, as well as the 'Apollo', where he dedicated appropriately titled pieces to commemorate the first performances there. Later, he accepted commissions to play in Russia for the Archduke Michael and Tsar Alexander II, especially in Pavlovsk, where a new railway line was built. When the commissions became too much to be handled by him alone, he sought to promote his younger brothers Josef and Eduard to deputise in his absence from either poor health or a busy schedule. In 1853, Strauss was even confined to a sanatorium to recuperate as he was suffering from shivering fits and neuralgia. Anxious that the family business that she so lovingly nurtured would be ruined, mother Anna Strauss helped persuade a reluctant Josef to take over the helm of the Strauss Orchestra. The Viennese welcomed both brothers eventually and Johann even once admitted that 'Josef was the more talented of the two of us, I'm merely the more popular.' Josef went on to stamp his own mark into his waltzes, and this fresh rivalry did more good for the development of the waltz, as Johann proceeded to consolidate his position as the "waltz king" with his exquisite The Blue Danube waltz.
The highlight of the Strauss triumvirate was displayed in the concert of 'Perpetual Music' in 1860s, where his aptly titled 'Perpetuum Mobile' musical joke was played continuously by all three Strauss brothers at the helm of three large orchestras. At around the same time, the three Strauss brothers also organised many musical activities during their concerts at the Vienna Volksgarten, where the audience would be able to participate. For example, a new piece would be played and the audience would be asked to guess who the composer was as the placards would only announce the piece as written by a 'Strauss' followed by question marks.
Strauss was admired by other prominent composers: Richard Wagner once admitted that he loved the waltz Wein, Weib und Gesang op. 333. Richard Strauss (unrelated to the Strauss family), when writing his Rosenkavalier waltzes, said in reference to Johann Strauss the younger: "How could I forget the laughing genius of Vienna?
Johannes Brahms was a personal friend of Strauss, and to whom the latter dedicated his waltz Seid umschlungen, Millionen! ("Be Embraced, You Millions!"), op. 443. A story is told in biographies of both men that Strauss's daughter approached Brahms with a customary request that he autograph her fan. It was usual for the composer to inscribe a few measures of his best-known music, and then sign his name. Brahms, however, inscribed a few measures from the Blue Danube, and then wrote beneath it: "Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms.
Strauss' operettas have not had as much enduring success as have his dance pieces. Much of the success was reserved for Die Fledermaus, Eine Nacht in Venedig, and Der Zigeunerbaron. Notwithstanding the lack of popularity of his operettas, there are many dance pieces drawn from themes of his lukewarmly-received operettas such, as 'Cagliostro-Walzer' op. 370 (Cagliostro in Wien), 'O Schöner Mai' Walzer op. 375 (Prinz Methusalem), 'Rosen aus dem Süden' Walzer op. 388 (Das Spitzentuch der Königin), and 'Kuss-Walzer' op. 400 (Der Lustige Krieg). He also wrote an opera, Ritter Pásmán, which could be faulted on the libretto but nevertheless, many attribute his strong links to the waltz and the polka as his failure as this may well indicate that he may not be able to write serious music. In fact, for his third and most successful operetta of all time, Die Fledermaus, music critics of Vienna prophesied that his work would only be a 'motif of waltz and polka melodies'. Nonetheless, his fiercest critic, (and ironically a strong supporter) Eduard Hanslick, wrote at the time of Strauss's death in 1899 that his demise would signify the end of the last happy times in Vienna.
Strauss was diagnosed with double pneumonia in the spring of 1899, and died on June 3, 1899, at the age of 73. He was buried in the Zentralfriedhof. At the time of his death, he was still composing his ballet Aschenbrödel.
Strauss' music is now regularly performed at the annual Neujahrskonzert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, as a result of the efforts by Clemens Krauss who performed a special all-Strauss programme in 1929 with the Viennese orchestra. Many distinguished Strauss interpreters include Willi Boskovsky, who carried on the "Vorgeiger" tradition of conducting with violin in hand, as is the Strauss family custom, as well as Herbert von Karajan and the opera conductor Riccardo Muti. In addition, the Wiener Johann Strauss Orchester, which was formed in 1966, pays tribute to the touring orchestras of which the Strauss family are also known for.
It is to be noted that most of the Strauss works that we are all familiar with today may have existed in a barely different form as conceived by Johann Strauss, as Eduard Strauss destroyed a great amount of original Strauss orchestral archives in a furnace factory in Vienna's Mariahilf district in 1907. The Johann Strauss societies around the world have, however, painstakingly pieced together a large body of these destroyed works to be appreciated by future generations. Eduard Strauss, then the only surviving brother, took this drastic precaution to prevent Strauss works from being openly claimed as another composer's own. This may have also been fuelled by the intense rivalry with the other popular waltz and march composer, Karl Michael Ziehrer.
After a trip to Vienna, Walt Disney was inspired to create four feature films. One of those was "The Waltz King", a loosely adapted biopic of Johann Strauss, which aired as part of the Wonderful World of Disney in the U.S. in 1963 while it gained theatrical distribution abroad.
The lives of the Strauss dynasty members and their world-renowned craft of composing Viennese waltzes are also briefly documented in several television adaptations, such as 'The Strauss Dynasty' (1991) and 'Strauss, the King of 3/4 Time.' (1995)
Many other films used his works and melodies, and several films have been based upon the life of the musician, one of which is called The Great Waltz.