Holidays are the time for waltzes

Courtney Lewis

The air is a getting crisper this week, and as we finish off the Thanksgiving turkey and begin to think about December, I’m reminded of one of my favourite holiday traditions.

Every New Year’s Eve and Day the Vienna Philharmonic performs a concert of waltzes and polkas in the beautiful Grosser Saal of the Musikverein. The New Year’s Day concert is broadcast around the world, bringing the grace and charm of fin-de-siécle Vienna with it.

The concerts invariably feature music by the Strauss family. Not to be confused with Richard Strauss, the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Ein Heldenleben, the ‘other’ Strausses were a dynasty of composers beginning with Johann Strauss I, born in 1804. Strauss I popularized the still new waltz genre, bringing it into Vienna’s ballrooms with his orchestra. He wrote the famous Radetzky March that nowadays completes each concert with the audience clapping along. But his waltzes were eclipsed by those written by his son, Johann Strauss II. Strauss Jr. captured the imagination of the Belle Époque with a string of operettas, most famously Die Fledermaus (“The Bat”), and dozens of waltzes that perfectly conjure the spirit of Habsburg Vienna.

In 1928, at the peak of his fame, Johann Strauss Jr. began a series of New Year’s concerts, broadcast by Austrian radio, and a tradition was born. Since then, each set of concerts has been conducted by one of the day’s most famous conductors, the musical world eagerly awaiting the latest interpretations of this peculiarly affecting music.

I’m sure many of you know Strauss II’s most famous composition, On the Beautiful Blue Danube. I find something very special and beautiful in this and his other waltzes. Of course they are very much of their time, and can seem a little decadent and old-fashioned nowadays. But this is music of enormous style, sophistication and heart. It represents European culture at its pre-First-World-War peak, a window into a time untouched by conflict for decades, in which the decorative arts, painting, music, architecture, science and medicine had all blossomed in an extraordinary way. It’s generous music that invites you in to its intoxicating swirl.

This New Year’s Eve we bring the tradition to Jacksonville with a concert featuring the music Strauss and his contemporaries, and a party to welcome the New Year. I’ve been looking forward to it for months, and I hope you’ll join us!

By Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony