It is interesting to reflect that Johann Strauss II’s An der schönen blauen Donau (By the beautiful blue Danube), the most famous of all orchestral waltzes, was conceived and first performed as a showpiece for male voice choir. The work was Johann’s first choral waltz, written as a commission for the Wiener Mannergesang-Verein (Vienna Men’s Choral Association) with whom he was to enjoy a close association over the years, creating for the choir a total of six choral master waltzes, two polkas and a march.
Strauss began sketching themes for the waltz, which would eventually bear the title An der schönen blauen Donau, in autumn 1866, and originally submitted to the Association a four-part unaccompanied chorus comprising just four waltz sections and a brief Coda, but without Introduction. A hastily written piano accompaniment followed soon afterwards, and then a fifth waltz section. The orchestral accompaniment, together with the distinctive Introduction, was provided only shortly before the first performance which took place at Vienna’s Dianabad-Saal ballroom during the Association’s “Faschings-Liedertafel” (Carnival Programme of Songs) on 15 February 1867. In the absence of the composer, who was appearing with the Strauss Orchestra at the Imperial Court on the night of the première, the members of the Wiener Männergesang-Verein were conducted by their chorus-master, Rudolf Weinwurm, and accompanied by the orchestra of the ‘Georg V, König von Hannover’ Infantry Regiment No. 42, which was temporarily stationed in Vienna. The original, satirical, text had been furnished by the Association’s own ‘house poet’, Josef Weyl (1821-95), although a new text was added in 1890 by Franz von Gernerth (1821-1900) which was more suited to non-carnival occasions and commenced with the now familiar words: “Donau so blau …” (Danube so blue…)
The Viennese were treated to the first purely orchestral rendition of An der schönen blauen Donau – complete with Introduction and full-length Coda – on Sunday 10 March 1867 in the Volksgarten at the Strauss Orchestra’s annual “Carnival Revue”, which took the form a “Benefit Concert by Josef and Eduard Strauss, with the participation of Johann Strauss, Imperial-Royal Court Ball Music Director”. This date is further confirmed by an entry in Josef Strauss’s diary. Johann himself conducted this performance of his waltz, which featured as the third item on a programme presenting no less than twenty-four novelties composed for that year’s carnival celebrations by the three Strauss brothers. Perhaps surprisingly, in view of the unanimous praise lavished by the Viennese press upon the choral première of the work, the orchestral version of An der schönen blauen Donau did not attract special attention from the critics, the Neues Fremden-Blatt (11.03.1867) merely noting that “every piece met with the most undivided applause, which now and then increased to tempestuous enthusiasm, and everything had to be repeated. The three brothers celebrated in this concert the greatest triumph in the sphere of Viennese dance music”.
During the 1867 Carnival, An der schönen blauen Donau was merely regarded as a pearl amongst many others, and only a little later did the unique position which it was to assume, and maintain, as the unofficial national anthem of both Vienna and Austria, become evident. The new waltz was in the composer’s luggage which he took with him to Paris in summer 1867, where it was played on 28 May at the glittering Austrian Embassy Ball given by the Ambassador, Prince Richard Metternich, and his wife, Princess Pauline, benefiting considerably from an attendance by the élite of international society. An Englishwoman who was present at this event, Mrs Charles Moulton (later Madame de Hegermann-Lindencrone), wrote home enthusiastically the following day: “The famous Johann Strauss, brought from Vienna especially for this occasion, stood waiting with uplifted baton and struck up the ‘Blue Danube’, heard for the first time in Paris… And how Strauss played it!… With what fire and ‘entrain’!”. It did not take long for the reputation of the work to spread much further afield, and on 1 July 1867 Theodore Thomas conducted its first American performance in New York with his own orchestra, an ensemble which later became the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A little less than twelve weeks later, on 21 September 1867, the composer conducted the British première of the work (in a choral version with a 100-strong male voice choir) at London’s Royal Italian Opera House, Covent Garden, afterwards noting in his diary: “tremendous tumult and rejoicing!!!”.
Conductor: Franz Welser-Most
Orchestra: London Philarmonic Orchestra
WE&P by: EZorrilla