The Waltz King and the Land of Giants
August 9, 2005
When Johann Strauss, Jr. came to America in 1872, concert promoters in Boston went all out. They built a great wooden hall which held an audience of 100,000, not to mention an additional 20,000 singers and musicians. Strauss conducted his own music, communicating with the multitudes through 100 assistant conductors. A sincere expression of our love of Strauss' music (or celebrity?), or a megalomaniacal lust for spectacle? Strauss was pretty sure he knew.
St. Paul, Minn. —
We were young then, all of us. Our national celebration was a centennial, and we mourned the bloodshed of home-battles we're still trying to understand. The war accelerated the growth of industry; the railroad nurtured our love of open space, unlimited potential, and techno-speak (trans-continental, telegraph). We hadn't yet entered the treacherous Empire Games, but we were in serious training for them.
It began to dawn on us how big and strong we were.
Prompted by the imagination, and the humor, of a Sam Clemens, the scale of our spirits might have grown to match the scale of our geography. But conquering a continent took the muscle of a man and the implacable will of a child. We knocked things down, built things up, swept the dust out of the way.
We were young, and despite all that we had, we wanted something more. We wanted Culture--and that meant European culture. So we bought it.
It was 1872. In the seven years since the end of our Civil War, Germany had defeated Austria and crushed France. War, globally, was beginning to resemble a natural phenomenon, like locusts, or the plague.
In America, a peace movement developed. It was like a pre-echo of events a century hence, right down to the festivals and monster concerts staged in the cause of world peace. The concerts needed name acts--the Hendrixes and Joplins and Cockers of the day. The call went out to the great composers and conductors. Giuseppe Verdi, Hans von Bulow, Johann Strauss, Jr. They all accepted.
In the case of Strauss it was surprising. Strauss hated, even feared, travel. On Austrian trains he was known to pull the curtains, sink to the floor of the car, and tremble. Why would he voyage into the wilderness?
A fortune. A Fortune. American was giving it up for music making at the end of its first century. And Strauss, the Waltz King, was paid a king's ransom.
The city of Boston deposited in the composer's Viennese-Anglo Bank account a sum of $100,000--plus traveling expenses for Strauss, his wife, and two servants. 1872. $100,000. Excess and largesse. America!
Johann Strauss, for all his genius and musical sophistication, wasn't a particularly well-read man. America was a dark continent to him, an absolute mystery. He knew nothing about its history or its society. He was completely at the mercy of first impressions.
When the boat entered New York Harbor he was somewhat relieved. New York was a relatively small, relatively flat city then. The downtown towers came later. It didn't look too outlandishly big.
But then began Strauss' American nightmare.
Despite his fame, his adoring public, the sincere admiration of great composers from Wagner to Berlioz to Brahms, Strauss was a genuinely modest man. So when Boston promoters decorated street corners with gargantuan posters showing the Waltz King standing on the globe, his baton transformed into an imperial scepter, Strauss was baffled. It was intended as a sincere welcome for someone Americans really considered a king, the natural response of a people who for the most part knew Strauss' celebrity much better than his music.
But it was precisely the kind of gross publicity Strauss did not understand, and it frightened him. He had let himself be taken from his home and be carried to a land of madmen--and women. Oh, the women! They pushed, they screamed, they swooned. The Beatles in the first flush of their ecstatic New York reception had nothing on this juicy piece of Austrian star-meat. Strauss' Newfoundland dog sacrificed his coat to satisfy the demand for locks of his master's own black curls.
He hated every moment of it. He was Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag; disoriented, menaced, cornered, he feared he would be crushed under foot. And America tried so hard to please him, in the only way we knew how. With unrivalled dimensions. With unprecedented numbers.
A great wooden hall was built for the Boston concerts. Again, this was 1872. It held 100,000 people--as many as the Rose Bowl.
Six policemen, ancestors of future NFL defensive ends, cleared the way for Strauss to reach the platform at his premiere appearance. Of singers and orchestra members there were 20,000--Biblical syntax best reflects the scene--and also assistant conductors numbering 100 did relay the directions of the King to the multitudes.
A cannon shot indicated that Strauss should lead his people into battle with the Blue Danube Waltz.
Strauss' own report:
"I gave my signal, my 100 assistant conductors followed me as quickly and as well as they could and then there broke out an unholy row such as I shall never forget. As we had begun more or less simultaneously, I concentrated my whole attention on seeing that we should finish together too! -- Thank heaven, I managed even that. It was all that was humanly possible. The 100,000 mouths in the audience roared and I breathed a sigh of relief when I found myself in fresh air again and felt the firm ground beneath my feet."
The next day, Strauss said he had "to take flight before an army of impres arios, who promised me the whole of California if I would undertake an American tour." Considering what he was paid for his Boston concerts, he might have done well to take them seriously. But he declined, led the rest of the series in Boston, a couple of concerts in New York, and then returned home.
Strauss was unable to understand the outsized scale of his American welcome as a tribute to his own greatness. He decided it was just a megalomaniacal lust for spectacle.
What a thought! As we all know--then and now--only beauty transports us, and unbounded fame never made a single American swoon.
These days, California may be out of the question, but Idaho--maybe an offer of the whole of Idaho would get Elvis to emerge from this ridiculous retirement masquerade.