On the Beautiful Blue Danube

Johann Strauss

The Viennese waltz, dating from the1800’s, is one of the oldest of ballroom dances. Couples (in closed position) move in a rotary style, clockwise and counter-clockwise, spinning constantly, but never passing one another. Imagine a large wheel; with each spoke holding a spinning pair. The large wheel moves counter-clockwise, as do the individual couples.

In the nineteenth century, the dance captivated Vienna and all of Europe, especially in the salons of the aristocracy. “The advent of the waltz in polite society was quite simply the greatest change in dance form and dancing manners that has happened in our history. “ (Belinda Quiry, May I Have the Pleasure) Tempi differed; the Viennese waltz was the fastest in the European settings. The waltz was first danced in Boston in 1834.

In England, the position of the couples was suspect. In the early nineteenth century, The London Times reported, “We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the waltz was introduced at the English court. It is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressor on the bodies in their dance. We feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.” However, the fun could not be quenched; it was irresistible. Vienna was the generator and hotbed of waltzing and waltzes, and sensual pleasure was rampant and addictive.

The iconic waltz On the Beautiful Blue Danube, premiered in 1867 (both in Europe and in New York) as an orchestral piece. The original version was a choral work, written the previous year, with words submitted by the Vienna Men’s Choral Association resident poet, Joseph Weyl. In ten verses it sings of the wondrous river: “giving your blessing to everything.  A picture of peace for all time.” Mermaids whisper amid the dancing waves, a boat with lovers travels along, and unity for Vienna is assured by its presence. “The waltz king”, Johann Struass, whose lighthearted music beguiled Vienna throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, created the music. In this case, he had been commissioned to write something for the Paris exhibition. The waltz became so well known that some called it the unofficial Austrian national anthem.

This waltz begins with bustling strings and a romantic horn call (a melodic forecast), a response by winds before the first melody emerges in totality. In total, there are five melodies (in succession) with a beautiful coda. Listen for the einschliefen, one of the most tantalizing features of the waltz performance, a slowing down, or a hesitation of the tempo, and then a re-gliding into the waltz tempo. Per Maestro Raymond Leppard, this is often “greatly affected by orchestras” but actually happened quite naturally in the dance after the left foot moved and the right foot “dragged in a bit later.”

The ISO’s last performance of On The Beautiful Blue Danube was May 2013 conducted by David Glover.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

See all Program Notes

Program Notes