Tuesday 23 May 2017

Classic talk: Reviving the musical rivalries of old Vienna

Different tune: Gustavo Dudamel with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra last Sunday
Different tune: Gustavo Dudamel with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra last Sunday

George Hamilton

Before we finally close the book on the last incomplete working week until St Patrick's Day, I thought we might revisit the city that gave us the holiday concert that salutes the New Year - where else, but Vienna. Last Sunday brought the 77th edition of what has become an essential part of the celebrations.

To be part of the audience at the Vienna Philharmonic's morning event - the orchestra strikes up at 11.15am local time - is no easy feat. You have to register your interest by the end of the previous February, and hope your number comes up in the draw.

But if you can't be there, it's easy to enjoy. It's so popular that it's broadcast around the globe.

Given the stamp of approval that history has bestowed on their music, it's easy to imagine that the family Strauss ruled the scene, but this year's programme clearly showed there were others who made their mark. The dance music of Vienna is more than just a Strauss family thing.

Alongside the waltzes and polkas of the Strausses, there was music from a separate clutch of composers. Von Suppé and Lehár were there, alongside Emile Waldteufel's Skaters' Waltz, as well as compositions by Otto Nicolai and Carl Michael Ziehrer.

Nicolai was the first conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and is best remembered as the man who turned Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor into an opera.

Ziehrer was something else entirely, a dance band leader and a composer to rival the greatest of the best-known dynasty, Johann Strauss the younger.

In the way that, in modern times, record labels battle it out to get the most successful artists on to their discs, so it was the music publishers, back in the day, who promoted the talent.

Ziehrer was signed up by one Viennese house as a clear rival to Strauss. His career took a broadly similar path. Starting in the ballroom with dance music, he moved on to operetta, in his case by way of a diversion into military bands.

But while the music of the Strauss family continued to dominate across the years, Ziehrer's success didn't last, and he's heard now only in stand-alone pieces - waltzes and marches - from his operettas.

In that respect, he's much like Joseph Lanner, the real father of the waltz, whose hiring of the elder Johann Strauss as a player in his dance orchestra was to prove seminal in the development of 19th century ballroom music.

Lanner was huge in Vienna and stayed there, enjoying the fruits of his success. Strauss took his talents abroad and laid the foundations for the international reputation that's attached to the name today.

There's another musical family of the time and place that you won't hear much of any more. The Hellmesbergers - Georg and his sons, Georg Junior and Josef, and the latter's two sons, Josef Junior and Ferdinand. They were top violinists who were at the forefront of Viennese musical life for well over half a century.

Their Hellmesberger Quartet promoted lesser known work by Beethoven and Schubert and premiered material by Brahms and Dvorák. With the emphasis on performing, they left little original music behind, but Ball-Szene - a waltz by the younger Josef Hellmesberger - did make it on to the programme of the Viennese New Year Concert 12 months ago.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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