"At the Beautiful Blue Danube"
Austrian Cultural Forum
Embassy of Austria
January 25, 2017
by George Jackson
© 2017 by George Jackson
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the foremost waltz, Johann Strauss II’s “At the Beautiful Blue Danube”, the Austrian Embassy’s atrium was flooded with videofilms. A bravura flow of piano playing followed. Also on the program were two talks, as was a concluding toast with a glass of wine for everyone in the audience – a capacity crowd that seemed somewhat elderly. A little dancing was shown on screen in the opening, uncredited video: an orchestra playing what has become known as “The Blue Danube Waltz” with the musicians’ motions intercut by footage of young women in wafting long gowns. These female figures melded ballroom rotations, Isadora Duncan skipping and bit of ballet line into a pleasant accompaniment for the music. My guess is that this was dancing in the art nouveau manner of Grete Wiesenthal (1885 –1970) and her sisters. Strauss, though, had composed this waltz not for dancers but for men’s voices. He did so at the behest of his friend Johann Herbeck, choir master of the Vienna Men’s Chorus, which premiered the composition on February 13, 1867. The original title, which suggests being on the river’s banks, came from a poem by Karl Isidor Beck. Nevertheless, the actual text sung by the choir was written by Josef Weyl. There is also an alternate text by Franz von Gernerth. Despite the words of three poets, the choral version of the waltz has not had particular success. Later in 1867, Strauss revised the waltz for orchestra and it is this instrumental version that became a hit after premiering at that year’s World’s Fair in Paris. Many choreographers have been challenged by “Blue Danube” during the last century and a half.
Photo: Adele Krausenecker, Herma Berka, Gusti Pichler, Fritzi Fraenzl, Risa Dirtl.
Famous examples of “Blue Danube” choreography are by Isadora Duncan, Leonide Massine, John Curry (for four male ice skaters) and, of course, there are further instances on telecasts from the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day Concerts and from the Vienna Opera Ball. A rarity on the Internet’s British Pathe / YouTube archive dates from 1935 and shows Gusti Pichler, Willy Fraenzl and the female corps of the Vienna Opera’s Ballet in a “Blue Danube” choreographed by Fraenzl after Vienna’s legendary Josef Hassreiter (1845- 1940). Was there ever a setting of this waltz by George Balanchine? Part of Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes” is to the second most famous waltz – Johann Strauss II’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods” – which he had already set on an earlier occasion. Whether “Blue Danube” is among the Strauss compositions to which Balanchine had succumbed early in his career remains uncertain.
Eight short, recent films from Austria on Blue Danube themes and to the music were screened. Four of them were by women, one by a man, one by a woman and a man, one by a class group and one by someone disclosing only initials. Simon Valderamma’s “Vienna Walking” reminded me of Rudy Burckhardt’s documentary footage of New York pedestrians from decades earlier. However, Valderrama slowed down the replay and captured neither the pace nor the spirit of the Viennese walking or waltzing. Melanie Lassberger featured a little boy trying to bake a birthday cake for the “Blue Danube”, which was too cute. Others were of facial expressions or drops of ink dissolving in water or of chessboard figures in motion. My favorite was Stefanie Weberhofer’s “Saq en plastique”. Her camera followed a plastic bag tumbling in the wind down a Viennese street on a rainy day in autumn. Sometimes the bag looked just like any other discarded bag. At other times, with its two handle slits juxtaposed, it looked almost like a pair of waltzers. The audience was asked to rank the films from 1 to 8. Lassberger’s boy won; Weberhofer’s plastic sack came in second; Dolly Lewis and Bela Baptiste’s footage of a primary school class was third.
Of the two talks, Andreas Pawlitschek’s related the history of “Blue Danube” and Michael Pecnik’s previewed the 62nd Viennese Opera Ball on February 10 at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. With speech, however, the public address system used in this atrium has, for years now, produced an echo that makes much of what is said incomprehensible. For me the highpoint of the celebration was Burnett Thompson’s playing on the embassy’s Boesendorfer piano. Thompson and the instrument seemed to be watched over by a large statue of Johann Strauss II, a gilded plaster copy of the one in Vienna’s Stadtpark that shows the composer fiddling. For something like 3/4th of an hour, Thompson played variations and improvisations on waltzes by Wayne Shorter, Richard Rodgers, Scott Joplin, Frederic Chopin, W.A. Mozart, himself and, of course, Johann Strauss II’s “Blue Danube”.