Vienna is the home of the waltz, and in the 1800s, it seemed the whole city was dancing to the music of Johann Strauss, father and son. Vienna’s ballrooms could hold a quarter of the city’s population! Most famous of all is the Blue Danube Waltz, a joyous celebration of the pleasure of the dance.
The waltz, originally a rustic Austrian folk dance, became the height of aristocratic fashion in the late 18th century. We think of it now as a graceful, gliding dance, but it caused uproar at the time because it involved such close physical contact between the sexes — decent citizens were appalled at the ‘voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies’.
Despite (or probably because of) the moral disapproval, the waltz quickly became the mainstay of popular entertainment. Paris in the early 1800s had nearly 700 dance halls! But it was in Vienna that the waltz really took off: by the 1820s, the city’s ballrooms could hold about a quarter of the city’s population.
From the 1820s to 1900, the waltz scene was dominated by two extremely popular composers, a father and son both called Johann Strauss.
As well as writing over 250 waltzes, polkas, gallops and other dance pieces, Johann Strauss senior founded his own dance orchestra, which he toured throughout Europe to great acclaim. His most famous piece is the Radetzky March — to this day, it’s the triumphant closing number at the famous New Year Concert of the Vienna Philharmonia Orchestra.
Johann Strauss junior was even more famous than his father, and was known as the ‘Waltz King’. He wrote more than 470 pieces, including the Blue Danube Waltz, Tales from the Vienna Woods and Voices of Spring. His brother Josef was also a fine composer; among his best-known pieces are the Chatterbox Polka and the Fireworks Polka.