“Danube so blue, / so bright and blue" - Johann Strauss the Son’s “An der schönen blauen Donau”

15 February 1867, Johann Strauss the Son’s “An der schönen blauen Donau” (“The Blue Danube”) was performed for the first time in Vienna.
“Danube so blue, / so bright and blue, / through vale and field / you flow so calm, / our Vienna / greets you, / your silver stream / through all the lands / you merry the heart /with your beautiful shores. (Franz von Gernerth, lyrics to the “Blue Danube” from 1889)

A detail of the Austrian painter Raimund Ritter von Wichera’s (1862 – 1925) wonderfully kitschy imagination of “Johann Strauss in Elysium”*


The waltz was democratic. A counterdraft to aristocratic French dances, not without irony, since the French were busy beheading their own aristocracy when the waltz became popular at the turn of the 18th century and dance halls opened in Vienna that accommodated literally thousands of waltzing couples. The British, in splendid isolation, were a bit slow on the uptake, but during the Regency and after the war, the waltz became all the rage, was considered quite racy and Lord Byron, not exactly an expert on dancing himself, did strike the pose of a “country gentleman of midland country” and got a bit exited about the new-fangled nonsense in his poem “The Waltz” along with the German origins of the dance and nonsense and insensibility of House Hanover, but at least the latter was to be expected. Nonetheless, the triumphant advance of the waltz from John O’Groats to Siberia was inexorable. By mid-19th century, it was still regarded as a wee bit risqué with skirts slightly lifted and couples dancing rather close together, while especially the Viennese Waltz became, in the words of the contemporary music critic Eduard Hanslick, the “Marseillaise of the heart“ and Johann Strauss, ingenious apical ancestor of Viennese composers, claimed that the Waltz saved Vienna the revolution. At least a serious one. The situation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire might have been hopeless, but it was never quite serious. Not with the waltz.



Wilhelm Gause (1853 - 1916): "Ball in der Wiener Hofburg" (1900)


And while the Austrians got a serious trashing by the Northerners at the Battle of Königgrätz in 1866 and the consequently lost Austro-Prussian War ended any Habsburgian aspirations to rule again over the headwaters of the Danube west of Passau forever, at least the majority of carnival balls of 1867 in Vienna were cancelled. Johann Strauss the Son already had a new waltz in his composer’s drawer that was about to premier on the occasion and together with the Vienna men’s choir, they agreed to perform the piece with lyrics in a song recital two weeks before Rose Monday. It was “An der schönen blauen Donau”, the “Blue Danube”, and the original lyrics ended with the words “Was nutzt das Bedauern, / das Trauern, / Drum froh und lustig seid!“ (“What use is sorrow / mourning / thus, be happy and gay“). The “Blue Danube” became a smashing success and for the first time Austrian newspapers used the now well-known German word for a hit song, “Schlager”. The premiere of the piece in its now popular variant as orchestra waltz took place during the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris half a year later and gained world fame as “Le beau Danube bleu“ 



There is an anecdote about Brahms, who, asked by Strauss’ stepdaughter for an autograph, had written the first bars of the “Blue Danube” and added Alas! not by Johannes Brahms. And while the piece got new, more patriotic lyrics in 1889, the original Viennese charm and irony of the first version was never quite lost, along with the tale, that the idea of singing songs about the beautiful Blue Danube originated in the picture of a French regiment in their blue uniforms pushed into the river and drowned there in 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars, a typical example of “Wiener Schmäh”, Viennese snide humour. Kubrick had revived the tune in his epic “2001”, even for non-Austrians and classical music refuseniks and the “Blue Danube” is still broadcasted on New Years Eve all over Austria and forms an encore piece of the famous Vienna New Year's Concert, something of an unofficial national anthem.



* The whole painting in its sugar-coated splendour can be seen here:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:R_R_von_Wichera_Vetr%C3%A4umte_Ballszene.jpg


And more about the “Blue Danube” on 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blue_Danube