Overture to Die Fledermaus

            Johann Strauss the elder and Joseph Lanner are responsible for turning the modest waltz—of humble Austrian, rural origins—into the celebrated Viennese Waltz.  For over a century and half the Viennese Waltz has attained a status as the acme of sophistication, beauty, and elegance.  What would New Year’s Eve be without visions of swirling dancers in gowns and tailcoats accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic?  The tradition is founded upon the incredibly active musical entertainment tradition in Vienna’s cafes, gardens, salons, palaces, and annual carnival.   There was money to be made in popular dance music, and in the second quarter of the nineteenth century Lanner and Strauss the senior brought their considerable talent and entrepreneurship to the scene and dominated it.   Strauss went on to build a career around frequent and peripatetic touring with his 28-man ensemble and became the toast of Europe from Budapest to Glasgow, all built upon a foundation of high musicianship as conductor and composer, and a remarkably astute business sense.

            And all of this may largely be said of his son, Johann the younger.  Whatever his father did, the son took inspiration and did more.   Our favorite Viennese waltzes today are predominately those of the son, and his gift for melodic invention, harmonic grace, and rhythmic verve was recognized early on by the world’s great composers.  Strauss composed not only the waltzes that practically have come to define the genre for the world, but was also a highly successful composer of polkas, marches, gallops, quadrilles, and other works, including operettas such as The Gypsy Baron, A Night in Venice, and, of course, the universally-loved Die Fledermaus. 

            By the 1860s the operettas of the Parisian, Jacques Offenbach, had come to dominate musical theatre in Vienna, and who better to counter the blandishments of the Frenchman than the local “Waltz King?”  Turning to the composition of operetta, by 1899 he had composed over a dozen of them.  But, none succeeded as did Die Fledermaus (The Bat).  First performed in 1874, the infectious melodies, zany stage shenanigans, and general light-hearted élan have firmly established the operetta as an audience favorite everywhere.  There is no sinister little furry creature in this work, rather, the title stems from a ludicrous incident before the comedy even begins:  a drunken notary, dressed in a risible bat costume, awakens the morning after a revelry lying in a public park, ridiculed by the local children.  A plot of revenge, a sparkling masked ball replete with mistaken identities, and other humorous incidents take it from there.   The overture features the immortal central waltz from the show, woven together with zestful polkas and other familiar tunes from the drama.  The immense appeal of Strauss’s inimitable melodies is enhanced with the essential nuances of coy Viennese musical styling that have no peer in creating grace, refinement, and—pleasure!

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan