An der schönen blauen Donau (The Blue Danube)

 As a story goes, composer Johannes Brahms, when once asked by Frau Strauss for an autograph, wrote on her fan the first few bars of her husband’s ‘Blue Danube’ waltz. Under it he wrote “Leider nicht von Johannes Brahms” , or in English, “Unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms”.

An der schönen blauen Donau” (On the Beautiful Blue Danube) waltz, which is indisputably one of the most consistently popular pieces of music in the classical repertoire,  was composed by Johann Strauss II or Strauss the Younger, in 1866.

It was first performed February 13, 1867 at a concert of the Wiener Männergesangsverein (Vienna Men’s Choral Association) but only became a mild success. After the original music was written, words were added by the Choral Association’s poet, Joseph Weyl. However, Strauss adapted it into a purely orchestral version for the World’s Fair in Paris that same year, and it became a great success in this form.

The instrumental version is by far the most commonly performed today and who can resist their feet tapping as that melodic violin strains and a horn playing the familiar waltz theme float through the ether.

The sentimental Viennese connotations of the piece have made it into a sort of unofficial Austrian national anthem. It is a traditional encore piece at the annual Das Neujahrskonzert der Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna New Year’s Concert)…. (I really wish I get a chance to see it sometime.)

The Blue Danube (as it is popularly known) was one of the first pieces of Western classical music I had ever heard, courtesy of an old 78 rpm record of Strauss waltzes and our old Polydor record player, and has ever remained a favourite. There is no other tune that evokes the spirit of late 19th century Vienna.

For those who want to know more about it, please do read on. I guess after some time, those of you not blessed with a head for music will fully acknowledge the truth of the adage: “A picture is a worth a thousand words“, or more in this case, “Hearing a tune is worth a ten thousand words of description.” Those who would like to hear it are advised to see/hear a Karajan or Boskovsky conducted performance, if possible.

The waltz gets underway with an extended introduction in A major with shimmering violins and a horn, spelling out the familiar waltz theme, and answered by staccato wind chords, in a subdued atmosphere. The melody rises briefly into a loud passage but quickly dies down into the same restful nature of the opening bars. A contrasting and quick phrase in D major anticipates the waltz before a trio of quiet downward-moving bass notes usher in the first principal waltz melody.

The first waltz theme is familiar gently rising triad motif in cellos and horns in D major, accompanied by the harp; the Viennese waltz beat is accentuated at the end of each 3-note phrase. The Waltz 1A triumphantly ends its rounds of the motif, and waltz 1B follows in the same key; the genial mood is still apparent.

Waltz 2A, in D major only, glides in quietly before a short contrasting middle section in B flat major. The entire section is repeated.

A more dour waltz 3A is introduced in G major before a fleeting eighth-note melodic phrase (waltz 3B). A loud Intrada \is then played. Waltz 4A starts off in a romantic F major mood before a more joyous waltz 4B in the same key.

After another short Intrada in A, cadencing in F-sharp minor, sonorous clarinets spell out the poignant melody of waltz 5A in A. Waltz 5B is the climax, punctuated by cymbal crashes. Each of these may be repeated at the discretion of the performer.

The coda recalls earlier sections (3A and 2A) before furious chords usher in a recap of the romantic Waltz 4A. The idyll is cut short as the waltz hurries back to the famous waltz theme 1A again. This statement is cut short, however, by the final codetta: a variation of 1A is presented, connecting to a rushing eighth-note passage in the final few bars: repeated tonic chords underlined by a snare drumroll and a bright-sounding flourish.

For those, who would know more:

The Blue Danube is scored for the following orchestra:

Woodwinds – 2 Flutes (Fl. 2 doubling Piccolo) , 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets in C, 2 Bassoons. Brass – 4 Horns in F, 2 Trumpets in F, Bass Trombone, Tuba. Percussion – Timpani, Bass Drum, Triangle, Snare Drum. Strings – Harp, Violins I, II, Violas, Violoncellos, Double Basses


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