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Waltzing from the Blue Danube to Outer Space

Johann Strauss II

We’re celebrating the Classical California Ultimate Playlist with a series of fun and informative blogs about the music you love.

If you’ve ever taken a stroll through Vienna, you’ve probably heard about 20 different performances of a Viennese waltz within a five-block radius. If you’re a gambler, it’s a pretty safe bet that 15 of those were written by Johann Strauss II and half of those were almost certainly the most famous of them all – the one and only Blue Danube Waltz.

Rightfully nicknamed the Waltz King, Strauss II came from a family of Viennese composers who were masters of dance music – but he perfected the craft, writing about 500 dance pieces during his lifetime, 150 of them being waltzes.

Surprisingly, the Blue Danube waltz – or ‘An der schönen blauen Donau’ (‘By the Beautiful Blue Danube’) – wasn’t well received originally as audiences disapproved of the lyrics. Lyrics you ask? Yes! The piece was originally written as a choral work. Strauss was commissioned to write a piece for the Vienna Men’s Choral Society to uplift the people of Vienna who were reeling after losing the Austro-Prussian War. He was inspired by Karl Isidor Beck’s poem about the ‘beautiful blue Danube.’ Unfortunately, the Danube section he was writing about was in Baja, Hungary and not Vienna. Plus, the text for the choral piece was written by a satirical writer, Josef Weyl, who wrote a more dispiriting version than anticipated. The text reads:

Viennese, be happy! Oho, but why so?
Just turn around and see! – But why should we?
See the shimmer of light – We cannot see it yet.
Well, carnival is here – Oh, well, so what.
So defy the times – Oh god, the times of cheerless dismal.
Ah! This would be clever!
No use lamenting or mourning, so be happy and smile.

The waltz became much more popular when Strauss II wrote the orchestral version, the one we all know and love, later that year.

The Blue Danube gained mainstream popularity in the late 1960s as the score for the famous space docking scene in Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick originally commissioned composer Alex North (A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?) to write the score for the entire film, but during post-production, and after North had already finished the entire score, Kubrick decided to use classical pieces in the film instead. It’s rumored that North didn’t find out that his score had been replaced until he showed up to the screening of the film.

Listen to the original score for the scene and let us know if you think Kubrick made the right choice.

And while you’re at it, check out The Simpsons take on the iconic scene.

Written by:
Ricardo Barton
Ricardo Barton
Published on 09.15.2021

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