Podium: Unhappy dance of the Waltz King

From a lecture by the curator of the exhibition The Strauss Century at the European Academy of Arts in London
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The Independent Culture
WHAT SORT of a man was Johann Strauss II, composer of the Blue Danube and countless immortal melodies? Hollywood's popular and utterly fictionalised conception of a romantic hero, violin in hand, beloved of women and with all of Europe at his feet is deeply ingrained - and only partly correct. The whole truth is far more fascinating.

The so-called "Waltz King" was a poor inn-keeper's grandson, with Jewish grandparents and a brutal father (Johann I) who did everything he could to prevent his gifted son and his equally gifted brothers from becoming musicians - and to denigrate their efforts when they did. As a result of this perverse relationship with his father, Johann II grew up with a mass of personality disorders and complexes which would have delighted Sigmund Freud. Here was a man who, in spite of composing more than 500 works for dancing, could not dance a single step himself.

Like a character in a Kafka novel, he hated the sunshine, was convinced the great outdoors was nothing better than an opportunity to catch cold, was afraid of storms, afraid of becoming poor, becoming old and especially of becoming blind. A pathological hypochondriac, he became hysterically nervous when travelling by train. Even in brightest daylight, he insisted on drawing the curtains in the railway carriage as the changing landscape made him nervous.

A highly sexual person, Strauss's acute nervousness was exceeded only by his sexual peccadilloes. He addressed a number of letters to his sister- in-law about her sexual relations with his own brother, asking in one - "Is your husband screwing you diligently? Are you also fond of screwing?" On the envelope of this same letter, he actually wrote: "Madame Lina Strauss... who would like to copulate daily."

When we turn to the question of his racial origins and religion, the facts are perhaps the most interesting of all, casting a sad and sombre cloud over his heritage given later events after his death in 1899 - and the horrific fate of some of his relatives in the 1930s.

Those who assume he was indifferent to his Jewish origins are mistaken. In December 1887, he wrote to his brother-in-law Josef Simon: "I'm not at all sure any more to which religion I belong... although in my heart I am more Jewish than Protestant."

These Jewish antecedents of Strauss became particularly problematical for the Nazis when they annexed Austria in 1938. Clearly the subjugation of the Austrian nation could not proceed smoothly if the most popular music of the country was suppressed on racial grounds. Besides, Hitler (who was Austrian himself) loved the music of Strauss.

As with Franz Lehr (another Hitler favourite, whose wife, Sophie, was Jewish, but who was made an "honorary Aryan"), Johann Strauss II and his father (who composed the famous Radetzky March, practically a second national anthem in Austria) were to be protected. In 1938, a Viennese Gestapo official confiscated marriage register number 60 from the archives in St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna and took it to the Reich Race Commission in Berlin. Here all the pages that recorded Strauss's Jewish connections were removed and altered fake copies of these pages were inserted before the book was returned to Vienna.

Thus Strauss was efficiently "Aryanised", but the Nazi propaganda machine still had work to do concerning his relatives in Vienna -- especially his step-daughter, Alice, whose married name was Meyszner and who lived in Strauss's handsome villa at 12 Gusshausstrasse, following the death of her mother, Adele, Strauss's third and last wife, who was a full Jew.

In this beautiful house were all of Strauss' most precious possessions. A Nazi propaganda paper reported: "The disgusting old Jewish hag Alice Meyszner-Strauss still possesses a huge collection of valuable memorabilia belonging to the Waltz King including two violins kept in a precious shrine... The swift intervention of the authorities succeeded in confiscating these valuable objects from the Jewess Meyszner... and bringing them into safety."

The fate of Alice's two sons is unknown. Tully fled to America, while his brother, Hanns, failed to obtain a passport. He was described in the Nazi paper as a "racial pest" to whom "pesticide" must be applied.

These tragic events present a shameful episode in the glorious legacy of the Waltz King, barely suspected now as the world tunes in on 1 January each year to watch the annual televised New Year's Day Concert from Vienna.