Tuesday 27 September 2016

Classical: Charge of the light brigade during ­ Vienna's golden era

George Hamilton

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Niche: Franz von Suppé
Niche: Franz von Suppé

There's a composer of the Romantic era by the name of Franz von Suppé whose star no longer shines as brightly as those of his Austrian contemporaries, the brothers Strauss, but he had a pivotal part to play in the evolution of one strand of classical music - what you might call light classical.

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Vienna's place at the heart of the musical universe was underpinned by the thinking of the 18th century emperor Joseph II. Alongside improvements in education and the emancipation of the agricultural working class, he'd allowed the opening of new theatres in the capital.

There was an outlet now for music that might never have made it into a concert hall.

Suppé carved a niche for himself as the originator of light Viennese opera.

He wrote over 30 operettas, and even if they haven't stood the test of time, the music most certainly has. Sparkling overtures, like Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna, Poet and Peasant, and Light Cavalry still count as concert favourites, even if they're now just standalone pieces, devoid of their original context.

Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna was Suppé's first successful operetta. The same year he staged it - 1844 - the teenage Johann Strauss was setting up his first dance band, in opposition to his namesake father. The music was flowing.

Ironically, similar to the disappearance of Suppé's operettas, the name of the man who could rightly lay claim to the title of 'Father of the Waltz' has been forgotten.

It isn't Johann Strauss, but Joseph Lanner, another Viennese musician, who hired the elder Strauss to play in his band.

Lanner had taken a simple country dance and transformed it into a sophisticated musical entertainment.

Strauss, whose viola had expanded what had originally been the Joseph Lanner trio, soon found himself the member of a fully-fledged orchestra, as the popularity of the waltz took off.

Strauss and Lanner would go their separate ways, and maintained a friendly rivalry. The fact that Strauss went touring abroad while Lanner stayed in Vienna and died young, at just 42, has meant that the legacy belongs to Strauss, but it was Lanner who laid the foundations.

Funnily enough, it's not a waltz that the elder Johann Strauss is remembered for at all - the Radetzky March is now his signature tune. Johann the son was responsible for putting the waltz at the heart of the repertoire.

He wrote over 400. Virtually all the big ones are his, the Blue Danube being the most famous.

He followed Suppé into operetta, Die Fledermaus (The Bat) being the stand-out one of these.

Two younger brothers - Josef and Eduard - made their contributions to the Strauss catalogue.

Eduard took the limelight more as a conductor, Josef being best remembered for Music of the Spheres and a polka called Feuerfest, written for a factory ball to celebrate the production of the 20,000th cast iron safe, which had, as a principal selling point, the fact that it was feuerfest or fireproof!

The golden age of Viennese music lasted into the 20th century. Franz Lehár has the wonderful, swirling Gold and Silver waltz to his name, but like Suppé he majored in operetta, though his haven't slipped into obscurity with the passage of time. His masterpiece, The Merry Widow, first presented in 1905, is as popular now as ever it was.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday. ghamilton@independent.ie

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