An audience with the Waltz King

It's that time of the year when everything in the world seems to be swinging in three-four time. As the Vienna Philharmonic prepares to give its traditional New Year's Day Concert of waltzes, polkas and marches, the late Johann Strauss grants Piers Burton-Page an exclusive interview
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The house out in the Leopoldstadt, not far from the Prater, is replete with imperial solidity. The varnish on the dark wooden floors gleams brilliantly, the furniture is large and heavy, the hangings and drapes all velvet and plush. Ignoring the branch of McDonald's nearby, I ring the bell and am shown into the music room. He is already there: full head of hair slightly greying, self-consciously handsome, smoking a cigar, slightly nervous. In fact, well-preserved after all these years.

There are three basic questions one has to ask Johann the Younger, as he hates to be called. In order: Wine? Women? Song?

It is not a good start. "As any Viennese will tell you, there is nothing wrong with the good life. Why are you British always so puritanical?" But the three wives? "Jetty's death was a catastrophe. Angelica was simply ... unfaithful. And Adele is my muse." On cue, Frau Strauss brings coffee - Blue Mountain, if not Blue Danube. She is evidently much younger than her husband, evidently worships him, and is evidently Jewish. Some bulls have to be taken by the horns.

"Yes, we met in the middle. I was a Catholic. She was a Jew. Now we are both Protestants. And not Austrians either: for the difficulties to be overcome we both had to become citizens of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha." So we fall to talking about Austria, and the Austrians. Would he call himself a patriot? "Hardly." And then silence. The tangled web of Habsburg politics has even the Strausses enmeshed. But the question will not go away. "I was Imperial Court Music Director, kaiserlich und koniglich - my loyalties are clear." I gently remind Herr Strauss that it was not always so.

"1848, you mean? An aberration! Youth must needs have dalliance - it was my means of getting back at my illustrious father, also Johann, also a musician. We were on opposite sides. But enough said. Politics! Art and politics shouldn't mix, ever!" The famous Strauss brow furrows. "I know what happened in this city after I died. I know about the wars. I know about Hitler. I know about anti-Semitism. I know that Austrian complicity is not exorcised even yet - as 1996 slides uneasily into 1997, and the memory of Dollfuss and Schusnigg and Waldheim is still strong. I have Jewish blood in me; the Nazis forged my grandfather's marriage certificate to hide the fact. Nothing can surprise me any more. But it wasn't all Roses from the South in my day, either..." At this point, though, Adele Strauss lays a firm but gentle hand on her husband's shoulder. His reddening visage slowly lightens. He stares distantly out of the window and hums, waiting for the next question. The Perpetuum Mobile, is it?

Immortality seems a suitable topic. Beethoven! Brahms! Bruckner! Surely a composer of such fluency as Johann Strauss, with such a tenacious grasp of music's fundamentals and appeal, would have wanted to enter the Pantheon alongside the immortals?

"Self-expression is best left to those with an inflated idea of the Self! I know my limitations - except when I don't know them. Besides, surely you know that I had designs on the opera house. Unfortunately, my operas turned out to be operettas. At the end I was even diversifying into ballet. Aschenbrodel - Cinderella to you - practically killed me."

But the three Bs? "Bruckner worshipped me, I'm told. Even though he was a man for the Landler rather than the waltz. That's an Upper Austrian dance, three-four again, slower, statelier - very Brucknerian. Originally they danced it with hobnailed boots on. And they yodelled as well, sometimes. Very Brucknerian again! Well, he was basically a peasant, wasn't he?" The suspicion of a leer curling above the Straussian moustache is not a pleasant sight.

"Brahms was a different matter. He worshipped me, too. But we were friends. He came regularly to my villa in Bad Ischl in the Salzkammergut. In fact, there's a photograph of us there together. Fetch it please, Adele." And sure enough, there they are: on the veranda, formally dressed, the mountains in the background, the one tall and unabashed next to the heavy, corpulent and very hairy composer of the Liebeslieder Waltzes but also of the German Requiem.

"He died only a year or two before I did. We were very sad. May I tell you a story? My wife had a decorated paper fan for the heat in the Viennese summer. There was a little musical quotation from the Blue Danube on it. One day, Brahms saw it and asked permission to add something. And do you know what he wrote? Leider nicht von Johannes Brahms. `Sadly, not by Johannes Brahms.' How touching! But imagine if I'd done that to the German Requiem." A throaty chuckle, followed by a fit of coughing. Maybe the years have taken their toll after all.

How has the Strauss family flag been kept flying all these years, then? "Well, there was a whole army of brothers and cousins for a start. I had to watch Joseph and Eduard like hawks. There was a grandson - I forget his name - and there is even a direct descendant in Vienna today, another Eduard. But he has seen sense and become a lawyer."

So is it technology to the rescue?

"I've heard an old record of someone who may be Brahms playing the piano. I was alive long enough to hear talk of cylinders and 78s. Then newspapers, radio and television - I owe them a lot. A shame that copyright only lasts for 70 years after one's death, what with all the new CDs - I have a huge collection. Did you know, by the way, there's a company with the wonderful name of Marco Polo that announced seven years ago they would record every note I ever wrote? And they have! Even the Blue Danube with chorus, and old Joseph Weyl's terrible verses. They're about to start on my father's work. Personally, I'm hoping soon for a Strauss CD-Rom. And perhaps even my own Web site. Do you think Hot Java would be a good name for a new Polka? A bit advanced, perhaps."

And so to that concert, broadcast live from the Musikverein on New Year's Day, with its audience of millions around the world. What does the Waltz King make of what has now become an established ritual? "I'm all in favour, especially of having it on television. And I'm sure this new lad Brian Kay will be every bit as on the ball for the BBC as dear old Richard Baker was. But it's a pretty spurious tradition, you know: the Philharmonic only started the concert this century for a money-spinner, long after my demise. The Vienna Phil were very iffy about my music in my lifetime - just as they were with dear old Bruckner, to name but one. I blame the critics - Eduard Hanslick, and all his tribe. He wrote a book called The Beautiful in Music, but he couldn't recognise it at 100 paces. It was depressing for a while, but the Whirligig of Time and all that. In fact, that would be a good title for a new waltz..."

Indeed. The very titles of the Strauss family waltzes are enough to set the blood racing. Where did they come from? "Aha! Well spotted! Most of them were born out of desperation on press day for the printed programme at the Sperl Rooms or the Sofiensaal. I scoured the newspapers for ideas, or looked at the Vienna street map, or made something up that had no meaning at all. Tritsch-Tratsch, that sort of thing. And, of course, the Danube never was blue, not even then."

At that moment, the mobile phone that has lain unobtrusively alongside the venerable Bosendorfer piano in the Strauss music room springs into full digital life. The Waltz King seizes it with alacrity, gabbles into it for a moment or two in his still incomprehensible Viennese dialect, and is already calling for his camel-haired ankle-length coat. "Forgive me, I must dash. I am talking to America via satellite. Adele will show you out." Outside, I hear the jingle of the harness as the waiting fiacre, blinds down, bears off along the snow-lined Vienna streets the man the Austrians seem to have crowned their new Emperor of Music.

The Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Day Concert, presented by Brian Kay, is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 today at 10.15am (with Part 2 also on BBC2 from 11.15am). During the interval, David King plays Bruckner in Piers Burton-Page's `The Linz Version'