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The Danube Waltzes On
The whole world sighs when it hears the opening strains of Johann Strauss II's "The Blue Danube" waltz. When Strauss composed this piece he was living on Vienna's Praterstrasse, a river's-breath away from the Danube Canal, and enamored of a poem by Karl Beck, whose refrain "By the Danube, beautiful blue Danube" he couldn't get out of his mind. It may come as a surprise to learn that the Waltz King was a terrible dancer and never took to the floor. But if you listen to the first motif of "An der schonen blauen Donau" (Strauss's title)—developing from the D major triad (D-F#-A)—it seems the composer must have been a wonderful swimmer. The melody suggests flowing waters—to be exact, the interplay of main current and subsidiary little whirlpools you often find on the Danube as you cruise its banks. Strauss composed "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" for a war memorial concert given by the Men's Choral Association at Vienna's Imperial Winter Riding School in 1867, where it was politely applauded, then forgotten the next week. Austria had been trounced by Prussia the year before and was licking its wounds, so hopes were high for the premiere, when the piece was accompanied by a chorus singing lyrics by poet Josef Weyl—"Vienna, be gay!"—but once the chorus was banished (the words fight the waltz rhythm), and once it was taken up at the World Exposition held that year in Paris,"The Blue Danube" exploded around the world.
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