All in the Family: Your Guide to the Strauss Musical Dynasty | Nashville Public Radio

All in the Family: Your Guide to the Strauss Musical Dynasty

Jul 24, 2018

Each weekday on 91Classical we celebrate the end of the workday with a 5 o'clock waltz, and often our selection comes from a member of the Strauss family. Together, the composers in the family were largely responsible for the popularization of the waltz, which swept through Vienna's ballrooms beginning in the late 18th century. They're also known for composing a number of polkas, marches and other orchestral music. 

But with so many composers in the same family, and all with similar names, you might find yourself listening and wondering, "now, which one is that?" Should you find yourself in such a quandary, use our guide below, including a family composer tree and individual profiles, to help keep your Strausses straight. 

Credit Kara McLeland / Nashville Public Radio

Johann Strauss I 

Johann Sr. first became interested in music as a boy when he heard wandering musicians playing along the Danube in his Vienna neighborhood. As a young violinist, he joined a quartet with Joseph Lanner, who would be his friend and rival throughout both of their careers. Together, and eventually separately with their own ensembles, Lanner and Strauss would spark the waltz craze in Vienna and beyond. Strauss discouraged his children from pursuing musical careers, but after his vigorous touring schedule and a romantic affiar put an end to his marriage, his ex wife Maria Anna sought to support the musical development of their eldest son, Johann II. Here's one of his most well-known works, the Radetzky March, written for Field Marshall Joseph Radetzky von Radetz and reportedly incorporating melodies Johann heard Radetzky's men singing after winning the battle of Custoza in 1848. 

Apparently, the musical tension between Johann I and his sons was so heightened that over a century later in 1972, a soapy, British miniseries was produced, dramatizing the family's dysfunction. Here's a clip from the show that involves Johann I weeping over the splinters of his son's violin... the same one that he smashed just moments before: 

Johann Strauss II 

Not long after Johann Sr. left the family, a teenaged Johann II (also frequently called Johann Strauss, Jr.) formed his own band. Suddenly, father and son found themselves in competition with one another, with the younger Strauss quickly gaining popularity and adept composition skills. When his father died, Johann Jr. merged their ensembles and his career continued to soar. As he stood at the helm of his band, violin in hand, he sent closely entwined couples whirring around the dance floor in an age of moral and sexual repression; his popularity reflected a brief release from conservative Victorian ideals. He would go on to earn the nickname "The Waltz King," as well as the admiration of musical heavyweights like Johannes Brahms and the unrelated Richard Strauss. Johann Jr. penned perhaps the most popular waltz of all time, The Blue Danube, which along with his father's Radetzky March, has become an unoffical anthem of Austria. 

Josef Strauss I

Despite having initially followed his father's urgings to pursue a career outside of music and work as an engineer for the city of Vienna, Josef eventually found his way into the family business. He was evidently as skilled in music as he was in engineering, as he composed hundreds of original works and arrangements. Referencing his younger brother, Johann Jr. once said: "he is the more gifted of us two; I am merely the more popular." Critics today generally aknowledge Josef's melodies and harmonies as more inventive and subtle than his older brother's, but it was Josef's shy nature and poor health that ensured that he never reached the level of noteriety that Johann Jr. did. A fainting fall off the conductor's podium lead to his death in 1870. Below is his Music of the Spheres waltz, considered one of his best works. 

Eduard Strauss I 

Stage fright cut Eduard's tenure as a harpist in the Strauss orchestra short, although he was confident enough to step in as its conductor after Josef's tragic death. He was also a prolific composer and tried to put his own spin on his compositional work (he was generally better at penning polkas, like his "Bahn frei!" polka below, than other dance forms his family was known for), but he remained in the shadows of his two older brothers. Business squabblings between the siblings almost led to Eduard's retreat from music, and after his brothers' deaths, he saw his family surpassed in popularity by the music of Karl Michael Ziehrer. In 1901, Eduard disbanded his orchestra, and in 1907 he ordered that the family scores in the Strauss Orchestra Archives be burned.

Johann Strauss III

Of Eduard's two sons, only Johann III became a musician. After his father's disbanding of the Strauss Orchestra and burning of the family scores, Johann III's task of continuing the Strauss musical tradition was not a light one. He's best remembered as a conductor today, as the operettas of Franz Lehár and Oscar Straus (no relation) were preferred over his own compositions during his lifetime. However, he was the first Strauss to conduct recordings of the family music, ushering Strauss family compositions into the recording era. 

Eduard Strauss II 

Eduard II is, to date, the last musician in the Strauss family. He made his career as a conductor, focusing most of his energy on interpreting the music of his family. His tours with the newly-founded Vienna Johann Strauss Orchestra brought the Strauss musical legacy to countries all over the world, but it was Eduard II's time in Japan that caused a notable boom in popularity in the music of the Strausses in a new market. 

Eduard Strauss III 

Johann Strauss I's great-great-grandson may practice as a lawyer today, but he emphasizes the important impact music has had on his life. He has spent years studying the family history and maintaining the Strauss legacy, both as an honorary member of multiple international Strauss societies and as the president of the Johann Strauss Society-Vienna, which works to publish the first comprehensive catalogue of the works of Johann Strauss II and the composers of the family. 

Tune in each weekday at 5:00PM on 91Classical for our 5 o'clock Waltz.