J. Strauss, Jr.: Overture to Die Fledermaus (The Bat)

JOHANN STRAUSS, JR.

BORN: October 25, 1825. Vienna, Austria

DIED: June 3, 1899. Vienna

COMPOSED: 1873-74

WORLD PREMIERE: April 5, 1874. The composer conducted at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 24, 1936. Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—January 6, 2014. Plácido Domingo conducted as part of Gordon Getty’s 80th birthday celebration

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, chime, and strings

DURATION: About 9 mins

THE BACKSTORY Sorting out all the musical Strausses can be confusing. In the beginning was Johann Strauss (1804-49, later known as Johann Strauss, Sr.). The son of a dance-hall proprietor, he developed into an accomplished violinist and then a terrifically successful orchestra leader and bandmaster, composing a multitude of waltzes, quadrilles, polkas, and other dances. He made up his mind that his three sons (Johann, Josef, and Eduard) should become businessmen or soldiers, and certainly not musicians. In this regard, and this regard only, he was a failure, since all three entered the musical trade; and his failure was perpetuated when Eduard’s son, Johann III, carried on the waltz profession until his death in 1939.

Other famous musical Strausses were apparently sprung from separate family trees altogether: the waltzing Strausses, the eminent hornist Franz Strauss and his composer-son Richard, and the operetta composer Oscar Straus (who dropped the final “s” that appeared on his birth certificate to help differentiate his lineage)—these were three unconnected clans. Johann Strauss, Jr. was in fact greatly admired by many more “serious” musicians of the day.

Richard Strauss remarked that in an era “when everything surrounding him had already evolved towards the complex and the premeditated, [he] was one of the last to have primary inspiration.” Gustav Mahler, who had conducted Die Fledermaus in Hamburg, complimented Strauss’s waltzes for “their uniqueness and delightful inventiveness.” Johannes Brahms is said to have never missed a performance of Die Fledermaus. Jules Massenet observed, “Brahms is the spirit of Vienna, but Strauss is the perfume.”

Johann Strauss, Jr. began achieving success as an orchestra leader at the age of nineteen, and he quickly achieved such popularity as to emerge as something of a rival to his more established father. Initial uneasiness over this situation was overcome, and when Johann, Sr. died in 1848, Johann, Jr. merged his late father’s orchestra into his own. From 1863 to 1871 he served as director of Viennese court balls, just as his father had, and when he relinquished the position he merely handed the reins off to his brother Eduard.

Overture to Die Fledermaus 

In addition to the nearly 500 pieces of dance music he published, Johann Strauss, Jr. scored important successes as a composer of operetta and light opera. Die Fledermaus has proved the most enduring, but Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) and Eine Nacht in Venedig (A Night in Venice) remain in the active repertory even outside German-speaking lands. Strauss, Jr. was just coming off a fifty-performance run of his now-forgotten Karneval in Rom (Carnaval in Rome). Fortunately cushioned from the effects of a financial meltdown that shook international stock markets in May 1873, he plunged into his Fledermaus project without delay. It was based on a French script, Reveillon (the term refers to a long, festive dinner on the eve of a holiday), by Offenbach’s librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, refashioned for Viennese tastes by two German writers, Carl Haffner and Richard Genée. It proved a perfect tonic for a Vienna eager to have a good time again.

Die Fledermaus was successful from the outset. Its initial run ended after sixteen performances to make way for a visiting troupe that had previously been booked in the same theater. After that, it returned to the boards, picking up where it left off in charming audiences with its story of extramarital flirtation, spousal disguise, and clever revenge, all of which is washed down with a stream of laughter and a river of champagne. By the end of the year, productions were up and running in Berlin, Budapest, and New York, and it rapidly spread throughout the opera-loving world.

The Overture to Die Fledermaus provides a potpourri-style foretaste of several of the operetta’s principal tunes. The whole is dominated by a duple-time dance number and an infectious waltz whose bustling melody is announced initially by the strings, playing staccato and low in their range, before it is taken up by the entire orchestra. Other tunes intercede, but these two indelible melodies return to bring this overture to its buoyant end.—James M. Keller