The Last Waltz: The Strauss Dynasty and Vienna

The Last Waltz: The Strauss Dynasty and Vienna
By John Suchet
Thomas Dunne Books; 265 pages
A review by R.C. Speck
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No name in music history is more synonymous with a single city than that of Strauss. That city, of course, is Vienna. The musical culture created by the Strauss family not only defined Vienna for nearly a century but continues to reverberate around the world. The culture encapsulates the music for the three-quarter time–dance known as the waltz as well as images and stories of the Viennese swirling and spinning in cafés and concert halls.

Like a whirlwind waltz itself, John Suchet’s easy-breezy The Last Waltz spins us through the Strauss dynasty from beginning to end.

Broader than it is deep, the narrative introduces us to all the principals in the story and ties them in nicely with the political fortunes of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, from the revolutions of 1848 to the advent of the First World War. From the ambitious and authoritative patriarch Johann I, to his brilliant, romantic eldest son Johann II, to his talented and tragically short-lived second son Josef, to his unfortunate youngest son Eduard, the story is, above all, about music. If there a constant theme, it is that of overwork. Both Johanns and Eduard suffered from it as they conducted grueling tours across the world. It arguably killed the middle son Josef in 1870 when still in his forties.

The Last Waltz focuses much on the how the elder Strauss abandoned his family for a mistress and was openly antagonistic to young Johann’s chosen profession. For a time, he even competed with him for work. This dynamic undoubtedly left a mark on the three sons.

Johann II, prolific as he was, suffered from a fear of death and, thanks to constant touring, was often in ill health. Sibling rivalry often threatened the family business, especially since Josef initially wished to have no part in it (ironically, Johann II considered him the best composer of three). And Eduard remained bitter his entire life for having to shoulder the burden of conducting the family orchestra after his eldest brother became too important to conduct.

Suchet offers many pages on the women in Johann II’s life, including his indispensable wife Jetty, and later, after Jetty’s death, Adele. Without the secretarial, managerial, and moral support of these two, Strauss might not have amassed the fortune he did. Suchet also evocatively describes two of Johann II’s best known pieces: his Emperor Waltz and his only successful operetta, Die Fledermaus.

Suchet tells his story amid the sad backdrop of the slowly dying Hapsburg dynasty, a juxtaposition that is fitting given that the Strauss dynasty is about more than just music. It’s about an entire culture that is no longer with us, but lives on in our imaginations…in three-quarter time.

This book review appeared in the fall 2016 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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