What Do I Have To Do To Earn The Nickname "Waltz King"?

Classical Music Hour with Fran

Image: Robert Patton

I went to go see The Lost City Of Z the other weekend (which, if you haven’t seen it, GO, please, it’s astoundingly good), and there’s a scene early on in the film where the main characters attend a party and there’s a Strauss waltz playing. I nearly had a fucking aneurysm in that moment, not only because I could not figure out which Strauss waltz it was — if you know, please tell me, also: all waltzes sound the same — but also because I realized I had yet to write about Strauss for this column. What a gargantuan disappointment I am to myself and others!

By Strauss, in this case, I’m of course referring to Johann Strauss II, often confused with Johann Strauss I, his father. It’s not that I have no interesting in Strauss I — I do, in a passive but respectful way — but it’s Strauss II who is really responsible for all of the essential bangers of the late 19th century. I say this, and I know it sounds insane, but after the past couple of weeks of late Romantic era weirdness, wouldn’t it be great to listen to some pop music? It did exist during this time! It wasn’t all moody Brahms. Because that’s what Strauss II was, the so-called “Waltz King,” the savior of dance halls and fancy parties and Friday nights. It is diminutive (maybe) to write something like “Strauss II was the Katy Perry” of the 19th century but oops, there it is, please do not send me to music criticism Hell, thanks and goodbye.

There is such a fantastic discography of Strauss pieces — all special and fun in their own way — that it is genuinely impossible for me to pick one to share with you, so I’m going to share three: an overture, a waltz, and a polka.

The overture is from his operetta Die Fledermaus which translates to The Bat in German (“the flying mouse,” obviously). The plot of Die Fledermaus is: it doesn’t matter. Honestly it doesn’t. The overture was one of the first classical music pieces I can remember hearing in my whole life (it is a favorite of pops orchestras and community orchestras and the like), and the less you know about it, the more you can enjoy it, in my opinion. Whereas other overtures I’ve written about are not overtures in the Broadway sense, that’s almost literally what the Die Fledermaus overture is: a preview of the music to come later on in the operetta. It’s instantly fast-paced and broad and enjoyable; it sparkles with personality. Despite this not being a waltz (at least, not on paper; in pure form, it’s kind of a rondo), it has those signature waltz themes. It sounds like you can dance to it, is what I’m trying to say.

Do you have a favorite melody within it? Is it the one at 1:46 — airy, light, and playful? What about the one at 2:50? Heavy and saccharine, like a flourless (German? Strauss was Austrian so nvm) chocolate cake? Here’s mine: it’s at 5:13. It builds so perfectly and quickly. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type of section, brassy and strong, but by no means heavy, and it’s finished less than a minute after it started. This is a good introduction to Strauss because it’s an impossible-to-dislike piece of music. Honestly. If you don’t like this, do you also dislike dogs? Or ice cream? Or the hit television show Chef’s Table, the only good show on any channel or streaming service combined?

Anyway, let’s get into waltzes. It is impossible to pick a perfect Strauss waltz, so I won’t pretend that this is the best one. It’s just one I’m partial to, and it’s Rosen aus dem Süden aka Roses from the South. Here’s what I like about Rosen aus dem Süden: it tricks you. It starts so slowly and sweetly. It’s a grand romantic gesture for a full freaking minute. You wouldn’t even know it’s a dance at its inception. Waltz, yes, dance, no. It’s almost a little bit meek or unassuming, and then around the 1:03 mark, it absolutely pulls the rug out from under you. The crash cymbals are more or less calling you an idiot for thinking otherwise. Roses aus dem Süden is such a wonderfully textured waltz; it’s lush as fuck. Dense and perfect in every way. Can’t you imagine literally any movie setting a scene to this and having it be perfect? Can’t you imagine cleaning your apartment to this? Can’t you imagine lying down on the floor after reading a day’s worth of Twitter dot com to this? According to a basic search, it has been used in both an episode of Star Trek and in Sophie’s Choice, of which I’ve seen neither because I’m not a goddamn nerd.

And then: a polka. You’re welcome for this one, truly; I expect thank you emails from everyone. Here is Strauss’ Tritsch-Tratsch Polka to which you might be saying, “what???” but it more or less translates to Chit-Chat Polka and is somewhat unofficially dedicated to the Viennese habit of gossiping????? But in a nice way?????????? Because it was an essential part of their culture?????????????????

Wow, okay, let me recover for a moment.

The Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, besides being a nightmare to type over and over again, is a joy unto itself. This is a dance. It’s short and abrupt and aggressive in nature. It demands attention and not politely. And you’ll have it stuck in your head the rest of the day, which again: you’re welcome. Want to listen to a fun thing in it? Okay, trust me here. There’s a melody that starts around the 0:50 mark. You’re listening? Good. There are some timpani notes throughout that melody and they sound… weird…? Right? That’s because the timpanist is doing a glissando on the drum. This occurs when the timpanist hits the drum, and then she (all timpanists are women, btw) leans forward on the tuning pedal to shift the note up the scale as it reverberates. I’ve written about glissandos before, on the xylophone, previously, in Pétrouchka. But on a timpani they’re so much more comedic. This is a noise for a clown. I love it.

It is good this column comes out on Thursdays (ed. note: Wednesday today, but just pretend), because I’ve more or less given you three different examples of what “going out” music would sound like approximately 150 years ago. Go have fun out on the town and be thankful for Johann Strauss II for inventing what it means to party.

Fran Hoepfner is a writer from Chicago. You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.