Viennese Waltz
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The Blue Danube and the Viennese Waltz


Artist Vladimir Pervuninsky


Rick Archer's Note:  These marvelous pictures depicting the Era of the Viennese Waltz are the work of talented artist Vladimir Pervuninsky

My hunch is that Mr. Pervuninsky was actually painting the Imperial of Russia rather than the Grand Ball of Austria.  On the other hand, since he now lives in Vienna, perhaps these paintings are indeed the Austrian Grand Ball.

Fortunately, I don't think it matters.  His paintings are perfect. 

I find Mr. Pervuninsky's paintings to be glorious and inspiring. I consider myself blessed that this gentleman's vivid imagination has given me such an exquisite picture of how the Grand Balls of the Nineteenth Century must have appeared.  I would loved the chance to participate in an activity of such splendor.

Vladimir Pervuninsky was born in 1957 in the Russian town of Chelyabinsk. Recognized at an early age for his artistic talent, he went on to attend the Omsk Pedological Institute, where he majored in painting and graphics.

Vladimir, in search of a more focused and complete training, set off for Moscow, where he was accepted into the acclaimed V.I. Surikov Moscow State Art College. There, he studied under the tutelage of the well-known academician D.M. Mochalsky. While Vladimir, always, was fascinated by Impressionism and Belle Epoque painting, the strict curriculum of the Soviet Ministry of Culture allowed no latitude for students or instructors to stray from the state sanctioned style of Socialist Realism.

Despite these restrictions to his personal style, Vladimir’s work flourished under the Soviet System and he gained entry to the Union of Artists, the official Soviet umbrella system. With the Union, he participated in All-Union, Republic, and Moscow exhibitions, as well as the Urals Exhibition in the town of Kurgan in 1992, the exhibition "Landscape of Russia" in 1989, and the "Memorials of the Motherland" exhibition of 1990-91.

During the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Vladimir took advantage of the loosening regulations on travel and went to Paris. There, he was exposed to a wider variety and more expressive type of painting than he had experienced in Russia.

Over time, he incorporated a more gay, light Salon style to his compositions, using the works of the La Belle Epoque painters of the turn of the century for inspiration. His work was very well received in Paris and throughout Europe, and Vladimir began to exhibit and sell his paintings in the annual Parisian art auctions at Arcole. He now enjoys enormous popularity in Europe, and particularly Vienna, where the artist resides.

Vladimir’s paintings executed in an Impressionist manner, call to mind eras past. His paintings engage the viewer in scenes from the last century, and transport one to the streets of Old Moscow, the rivers cafes of turn-of-the-century France, and the Grand Balls of nineteenth century Vienna. His use of color and light creates paintings of an unusual and rare beauty.

His works can be found in private collections throughout Russia, Europe and America. His beautiful and engaging compositions remain one of the more popular elements of our gallery.




History Of The Viennese Waltz

By Melanie LaPatin  (source)

The product of a more elegant age, the Viennese Waltz was introduced in Vienna in the early 1800s.  Immediately the dance was roundly condemned in England.  
The Times of London had this to say about the Prince Regent's grand ball in 1816,


We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last.

It is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressor on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females.

So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.

Of course, we now know such condemnation did not deter the upper crust from eventually indulging in the Viennese Waltz.

The renowned German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote,

Never have I moved so lightly. I was no longer a human being. To hold the most adorable creature in one's arms and fly around with her like the wind, so that everything around us fades away.

When Lord Palmerston of England gave the royal stamp of approval by dancing the Viennese Waltz in public, the rest of English Society joined in for a brief spell.  That changed in 1914.

When World War I broke out, the waltz orchestras left England due to the fact that they were largely made up of Austrian musicians.  Nothing of Germanic origin was in vogue due to the war.  Consequently the Viennese Waltz pretty much died out as England and Germany battled each other. 

As the entire world joined in the Great War, the last thing people worried about was dancing.  In the few places where social dance still existed, only the Slow Waltz variation that had originated in England continued beyond the Austrian borders.  The Viennese Waltz would have to wait till the end of World War II to make a comeback. 

Fortunately, over the next thirty years, Austria kept this faster form of Waltz alive as a folk dance.  After the end of the Second World War, the original Viennese Waltz made a resurgence.  This when the Viennese Waltz began to migrate here to America.   

In America, Dr. Lloyd Pappy Shaw, who revived the Square Dance in the early 1900s, wrote,

In close embrace, the dancers turned continually while they revolved around the room. There were no steps forward or back, no relief, it was all a continuous whirl of pleasure for those who could take it.

Today the Viennese Waltz is accepted as one of the staples of Ballroom dance.  The Viennese Waltz remains essentially the same now as when it was introduced two centuries ago. The music continues to thrill.  Some of the greatest composers have written truly beautiful music to accommodate the dancers.  For this reason, the Viennese Waltz echoes the glories and the romance of a more genteel age.  

This is a dance that requires a great deal of stamina as the dancers twirl constantly around the floor at a dizzying pace.  Although it takes a bit of practice, the basic steps of Viennese Waltz can be mastered easily enough.  The major drawback is the rapid speed of the music.  Assuming one has the stamina to keep up, the Viennese Waltz with its wonderfully energetic swirling motion is a beautiful and quite elegant dance to behold.


The Danube River

When people think of Austria, they quickly think about the Sound of Music as well as Amadeus, the movie about Mozart.

The beautiful Alps and the Danube River come to mind as well. 

For me, I always think of the beautiful Viennese Waltz As it turns out, the Danube River plus a nasty Prussian guy named Otto von Bismarck inadvertently helped to popularize the Viennese Waltz

It makes for a a very interesting story that we will get to shortly.  However, first let's talk a bit about the Danube River.

In the case of the fabled Danube River, it is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga in Russia.  The Danube starts in the Black Forest mountains of southwestern Germany and flows for some 1,770 miles (2,850 km) to its mouth on the Black Sea.

Along its course the Danube passes through 10 countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine. 

From the first recorded history, the Danube served as the northern border of the Roman Empire.  It was Romans on one side, barbarians on the other. 

Indeed, for centuries the Danube has formed the boundary between great empires.  One need only look at its banks lined with castles and fortresses to know the Danube has long served an important military purpose.  In addition, its waters have served as a vital commercial highway between nations.

Thanks in large part to the natural beauty of the river, the Danube's majesty has long been celebrated in romantic music. 




No story about the Blue Danube would be complete without a look at Johann Strauss, the famous Austrian composer.  Strauss is best remembered for the Blue Danube, but in his day he wrote many other classics such as the Emperor's Waltz and Tales from the Vienna Woods.

Indeed, Strauss composed over 500 waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, and other types of dance music, as well as several operettas and a ballet for good measure.  In his lifetime, Johann Strauss became known known as "The Waltz King".  He was largely then responsible for the popularity of the waltz in Vienna during the 19th century.

Johann Strauss II (1825 – 1899) had to overcome considerable hardship to begin his career.  Born in Austria, it turns out that his father, Johann Strauss I, was a well-established composer.  For whatever reason, the elder Strauss forbade his son to attempt a career in music.

Nevertheless, Strauss Junior studied the violin secretly as a child with Franz Amon, the first violinist of his father's orchestra.  When his father discovered his son secretly practicing on a violin one day, he gave him a severe whipping, saying that he was going to beat the music out of the boy.

It was only when the father abandoned his family for a mistress that his son was able to concentrate fully on a career as a composer with the support of his mother.  No doubt his mother was keen to see her talented son irritate her deserted husband.  And that is exactly what happened.  Once the younger man began to achieve success, an intense rivalry between father and son developed.

The elder Strauss' influence over the local entertainment establishments meant that many of them were wary of offering the younger Strauss a contract for fear of angering the father.  Finally in October 1844, Strauss Jr. was able to persuade Dommayer's Casino, located in a suburb of Vienna, to allow him to perform.

Dommayer's Casino had been the site of many of his father's triumphs.  The elder Strauss, angry at his son's disobedience and at the disloyalty of the proprietor, refused to ever play at the Dommayer's Casino again.  The feud was on.  The father blocked his son wherever he could. 


Vienna was wracked by the revolutions of 1848 in the Austrian Empire.  Now the rivalry between father and son became much more apparent.  Johann Jr. decided to side with the revolutionaries. It was a decision that was professionally disadvantageous as the Austrian royalty snubbed him. 

Meanwhile the elder Strauss remained loyal to the monarchy and enjoyed consideralbe patronage while his son struggled from lack of work.  Fortunately, fate intervened.  The elder Strauss died from scarlet fever in Vienna in 1849.  Now the younger Strauss merged both their orchestras and engaged in further tours and took over all of his father's engagements.

In particular, Strauss Jr. learned to play politics.  Franz Josef ascended to the Austrian throne after the 1848 revolution.  By composing a number of patriotic marches dedicated to the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef I, the younger Strauss ingratiated himself in the eyes of the new monarch. 

Strauss Jr. eventually surpassed his father's fame.  He became one of the most popular waltz composers of the era, extensively touring Austria-Hungary, Poland, and Germany with his orchestra.




It must be hard to imagine the most dangerous man in Europe played a key role in the writing of the Blue Danube, but Otto von Bismarck, prime minister of Prussia, did just that. 

Bismarck was a political genius who is considered the father of modern Germany.  In his day, Germany did not exist.  Where Germany stands today, this area was a Swiss cheese conglomeration of 300 different territories and city-states each with their own sovereign and their own armies. 

Originally Prussia was a small territory located in what is now the corner of northeastern Poland.  Through marriage, Prussia gained ownership of the valuable Germanic territory known as Brandenburg which contains Berlin.  Around the same time as the American Revolution in 1776, Frederick the Great expanded Prussia's strength and territory dramatically.  That set the stage for Bismarck in the following century. 

When Bismarck came to power in 1862, Prussia was strong, but at best the fifth strongest European power behind England, France, Spain, and Austria.  Bismarck changed that in a hurry.  In the 1860s Bismarck engineered a series of wars that unified the divided German states into a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership.

From this point on, Bismarck skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to preserve German dominance in a Europe which, despite many disputes and war scares, remained at peace.  It was said that Bismarck remained the undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost thirty years.  What a shame it was the Bismarck had to die. 

Once he was gone, Germany no longer had someone with the diplomatic skills to keep Germany out of trouble.  The powerful nation Bismarck had built became Europe's bad boy of the 20th Century.


In European politics, for every winner there is usually a loser.  It was Bismarck who caused the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Austria was more powerful than Prussia.  Austria was the dominant force among the German-speaking territories.  Prussia was its main rival.

In 1866, Austria reneged on a territory agreement.  Bismarck used this as an excuse to start a war with Austria.  Bismarck sent Prussian troops to occupy Holstein. Provoked, Austria called for the aid of other German states, who quickly became involved in the Austro-Prussian War.

Unbeknownst to Austria, Bismarck had made a secret alliance with Italy, who desired Austrian-controlled Venetia (Venice).  Just when Austria began to move northward to take on Prussia, Italy's entry into the war forced the Austrians to divide their forces.  It was a master stroke on Bismarck's part.

Meanwhile, thanks to the work of Albrecht von Roon, the Prussian army was nearly equal in numbers to the Austrian army.  With the strategic genius of Roon and Chief of Staff Moltke, the Prussian army developed a new fighting technique known as "Blitzkrieg" ("lightning war")

The war lasted seven weeks Austria had a seemingly powerful army that was allied with most of the north German and all of the south German states. Nevertheless, Prussia won the decisive Battle of Königgrätz.

The King and his generals wanted to push onward, conquer Bohemia and march to Vienna, but Bismarck, worried that Prussian military luck might change or that France might intervene on Austria's side, insisted that Prussia quit while it was ahead.  Bismarck insisted on a "soft peace" with no annexations and no victory parades, so as to be able to quickly restore friendly relations with Austria.

Nevertheless, Austria was not only defeated, it was humiliated.  The damage was done.  Mighty Austria would never be the same again. 

 Bismarck with Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army, and Albrecht von Roon, Minister of War



The Story of the Blue Danube


And now it is time for the story of the Blue Danube.

Post-war Austria was in disarray.  Vienna was stunned by its defeat at the hands of the upstart Prussia.  Whatever could go wrong, did go wrong.  To begin with, the Danube flooded and damaged the outskirts of Vienna badly.  But that was nothing compared to the problems the war had caused.  In addition to losing considerable northern territory to Prussia, due to the secret Prussian-Italian alliance, Austria no longer had a port.

Thanks to that scoundrel Bismarck, Italy had caught Austria totally unprepared to defend its southern border against a surprise attack.  Gone was that pearl known as Venice to Italy, Prussia’s ally.  Without a port, the Austrian economy totally collapsed.  Half the people in Vienna were out of work. 

Furthermore, the bitter defeat signaled the end of Austrian influence as a major world power.  No longer proud and haughty, Austria finally gave in and allowed Hungary, a country it had dominated for centuries, to become an uneasy yet equal partner in the new Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The morale in Vienna was absolutely the worst.  The carnival festivities were muted; the balls had none of their usual gaiety. 

Meanwhile, Johann Strauss had problems of his own... he was too successful.  In 1865,  Johann Herbeck, master of the Vienna Men’s Choral Society, had commissioned Strauss to write a choral work. 

However, shortly thereafter Strauss was suddenly deluged with work that paid more money.  Due to these more lucrative offers, Strauss put the Choral Society piece on hold.

One year later following the horrible defeat at the hands of the Prussians and the Italians, in desperation, the choirmaster revisited Strauss.  He begged him to write something cheerful… preferably a Waltz…. to lift the spirits of the people.  

Strauss was no longer nearly quite so busy.  The war had taken a toll on his commissions and now he had some free time.  Furthermore, he felt a genuine tug on his sense of patriotism.  Yes, indeed, perhaps Austria could benefit for uplifting music.

By coincidence, Strauss had just read a poem by Karl Beck.  Each stanza ended with the line: ‘By the Danube, the beautiful blue Danube’.

Now Strauss had both the inspiration and the title he needed for his new work. 

Only one problem... oddly enough, at the moment the beautiful blue Danube could hardly be described as blue.


It seems that ever since the recent flood, the muddy Danube had been closer to red-brown in color.

Nor did anyone in Vienna even like the Danube River.  All the Danube ever did was cause problems.  Not only was an entire season of crops ruined by the flood, no one dared live anywhere near it.  Due to flooding concerns, Viennese engineers avoided going anywhere close to this dangerous river

Consequently, unlike Budapest, Vienna's downstream neighbor, Vienna didn't want anything to do with the massive river.  Therefore at the time Strauss wrote his waltz, the river didn’t even flow through Vienna. 

It wasn’t until 1970 that technology made it safe to finally allow Vienna to expand to the banks of the Danube.

But Strauss didn’t let small details like these deter him.  He took to to writing his uplifting song with great passion.  In1867, Johann Strauss composed a Waltz titled An der schönen, blauen Donau.



In time, On the beautiful blue Danube would become the everylasting symbol of imperial Vienna.  However the song was not even remotely an immediate hit.  The song got off to a very slow start.

To begin with, Strauss didn't even bother debuting his song.  Strauss was preoccupied with his orchestra at the Hofburg fulfilling an obligation he had made four years earlier.  With Strauss out of town for a month, an army band performed der blauen Donau instead to little fanfare.

It didn't help that Josef Weyl ruined the song.  Weyl was an Austrian humorist affiliated with the Choral Society.  Weyl decided to add humorous lyrics to the song. 

Wiener seid’s froh! Oho! Wieso?”  (“Viennese be happy! Oho! But why?”).

Weyl's satirical lyrics ridiculed the lost war, the bankrupt city and its politicians.  The political bent to the song left a lot to be desired.   Due to the scorn everyone felt for the hapless military leaders who had let Grand Austria be defeated on its home turf, it was understandable why the people didn’t immediately warm to the song. 

Strauss had an idea.  He believed in his Waltz, but agreed the lyrics were pure sabotage.  So he debuted an orchestral version of his song in Paris later in the year at the 1867 World Exhibition.  Without the lyrics, the song was greatly improved. 

This time the reception was electric.  The Parisians and the visitors to the World Exhibition absolutely loved the song.  Once the Parisians made such a fuss, now the Austrians began to pay better attention.  With the lyrics removed, they too embraced the song.  So did the rest of the world.  The song became a world-wide sensation. 

When Johann Strauss made his American debut in Boston on June 17, 1872, he conducted The Blue Danube for the World Peace Jubilee.  For the occasion, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, an Irish bandmaster, assembled an orchestra of 2,000 pieces and a choir of 20,000.   The experience was absolutely sublime.

The Blue Danube would go on to become the most famous Waltz in the world. 

German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms was not only a close friend of Strauss, he was also a fan of the piece.  Years later Strauss’s stepdaughter, Alice von Meyszner-Strauss, asked Brahms to sign her autograph fan.  First Brahms wrote down the first bars of The Blue Danube as a tribute and then added a peculiar touch at the bottom.

Leider nicht von Johannes Brahms

What Brahms was trying to say was “Alas, this song was not written by Johannes Brahms”.  This was Brahms' way of signaling his admiration for a magnificent song.   


Trivia Question:

Without a doubt, the Blue Danube is the most famous song ever written about a river.  

However, can you name another famous song that is also a Waltz and also refers to a river?  I will offer the answer shortly.


Final Thoughts about The Blue Danube


Rick’s Note:  Strangely enough, the new-found popularity of the Blue Danube coincided with a distinct upturn in the fortunes of Austria.  It turned out that the elevated alliance with Hungary produced something of an economic miracle. 

For the next six years, the harmony between the two countries translated into bumper crops and astonishing prosperity.  Noting that the appearance of the Blue Danube coincided with the upturn in fortune, the Austrian people embraced their song warmly.  From that point on, the Viennese sentiment associated with the Strauss melody has made The Blue Danube the unofficial Austrian national anthem. 

Today the waltz is traditionally broadcast by all public-law television and radio stations exactly at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day it is a customary encore piece at the annual Vienna New Year’s Concert.

I know a funny story about the Austrian tradition of playing Blue Danube on New Year's Eve.  One night I mentioned to my Waltz dance class that I was burned out on Christmas music.  It was December 2009 and I was complaining to my Western Waltz class just how sick and tired I was of hearing Christmas music everywhere I went. 

I told my class that if I heard “It’s a Holly Jolly Christmas” one more time, I thought I would lose my mind! 

A young man named Steven was in my class.  As he listened to my rant, I noticed he was grinning.  

Sure enough, I had struck a chord.  At break time, Steven came up to me.  He laughed about my Christmas music complaint and said he once had a similar experience.  Steven said that back when he was a high school student, he had lived in Austria for a year as an exchange student.  He could have sworn that the Blue Danube was the national anthem. 

Steven said that everywhere he went… grocery store, restaurant, shopping mall, coffee shop… they played the Blue Danube over and over and over again.  In just a matter of months, he was already sick of hearing it.

Steven said that New Year’s Eve was the worst.  As he and his girlfriend walked the snowy streets of Linz, an Austrian city on the banks of the Danube, it felt like someone was playing the song on both sides of the street wherever they went.  Steven said it was so bad that he couldn't take it any more.  Losing all patience, he suddenly began screaming to stop it already!  Then he ran home with his bewildered Austrian girlfriend in tow just to get away from the song.  Steven said he played Led Zeppelin music for two solid hours trying to get that song out of his mind.

Steven was a very good Twostep dancer.  However, Steven said he had never learned to Waltz as a form of protest against his hated song.  Then he heard about “Western Waltz” and decided he was just being silly.   What could be less Blue Danube than a Western Waltz sung by George Strait?

At this point, Steven excused himself to use the restroom.  At this point I went to the DJ booth and got my CD copy of famous Viennese Waltzes.  When we started the second part of our class, I had my assistant Katrina innocently ask Steven to help her demonstrate our Waltz move from the previous hour.  Then with everyone watching, I shocked Steven by playing the Blue Danube.   Poor Steven turned purple.   Everyone was in on the joke and had a good laugh.  To my relief, my friend Steven somehow managed to smile a little.  

From that point on, I started every class with a slowed-down version of Blue Danube.  It became our theme song.  Steven didn't mind because he had become ridiculously popular thanks to my goofy joke.

Every week, some pretty girl would go up to Steven and ask him to tell his story again.  Next thing he knew, Steven and the girl would be dancing.... and that is how he met his next girlfriend.  Romance sure works in funny ways.


Trivia Question:  Another Waltz about a river….Did you name Moon River?  

If so, I’m impressed!  Go to the head of the class.

This very beautiful song has seen many different arrangements, but the version sung by Andy Williams is a Slow Waltz.

Moon River was composed by Henry Mancini with lyrics written by Johnny Mercer. 

It received an Academy Award for Best Original Song for its first performance by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany's.

It became the theme song for Andy Williams, who first recorded it in 1961 and performed it at the Academy Awards ceremonies in 1962.

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