Joseph Strauss: The Dragonfly, Polka Mazurka, Opus 204
BORN: August 20, 1827. Vienna, Austria
DIED: July 20, 1870. Vienna
COMPOSED: Summer 1866
WORLD PREMIERE: October 21, 1866. The composer conducted the Strauss Orchestra at the Volksgarten in Vienna
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—At these performances
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (1st doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, harp, percussion, and strings
DURATION: About 5 mins
The second child of Johann Strauss, Sr., Josef disappointed his father by not entering the military, but at least he did not at first seem pointed toward music, earning his degrees in technical draftsmanship and mathematics at Vienna’s Polytechnic Institute. He became an accomplished visual artist and landscape architect, studying for six years at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts; he completed an apprenticeship in stonemasonry and bricklaying; he published poems and a drama, in addition to books on mathematics; and he co-invented a street-cleaning machine with rotary brushes that was initially rejected but eventually adopted for use by the City of Vienna.
In 1853, his brother Johann, Jr. was overtaxed to the point of suffering a nervous breakdown. Josef filled in as conductor of the Strauss dance orchestra; and he also deputized by writing a waltz to unveil at one of the orchestra’s engagements. At its premiere, the waltz had to be encored six times, and an enthusiastic journalist expressed “the agreeable hope that this composition will not be the last, but that Josef Strauss. . . will soon produce a sequel.” Thus encouraged, Josef made another professional side-step and began his professional career in music.
Ever the student, he polished his expertise by taking lessons in thorough-bass, composition, and violin. A bit of sibling rivalry flared up once Johann, Jr. returned to health, but soon enough the two sorted things out and shared conducting duties with the orchestra. Josef, however, would not enjoy a long career. He suffered from increasingly troublesome headaches and vision problems. In the summer of 1870, he collapsed on the podium while on tour in Warsaw, likely the effect of a ruptured brain tumor, and was brought back to Vienna to die. He left a legacy of some 300 original dance compositions in addition to about 500 orchestral transcriptions of pieces by other composers.
As a dance composer, he was particularly adept with waltzes and polkas. The Dragonfly (Die Libelle) belongs to the category of polka known as the polka mazur (or polka mazurka), which was extremely popular in the 1850s and ’60s. To listeners today, a polka mazurka very much resembles a relaxed waltz, with which it shares a triple meter. The two genres are nonetheless distinct, with the polka mazurka laying a heavier stress on the downbeat of each measure; and they were danced differently, with the steps for the polka mazurka resembling those of the standard polka, though translated into 3/4 time. The opening phrases of Die Libelle do suggest the flight of a dragonfly hovering above and skimming along the surface of a pond. It was a great hit at its premiere. The next day, the Neue Fremden-Blatt stated: “Last evening in the Hall of the Volksgarten, Mr. Josef Strauss drew great applause with the new polka mazurka Die Libelle. The delightful polka had to be played four times in succession.”—James M. Keller