Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Time to Ring in the New Year: A Tale of Two Composers: Johann Strauss and Diko Iliev

With January 1 just around the corner, it's almost time for the annual New Year's Concert from Vienna. While the rest of my compatriots park themselves in front of the TV watching the college football games, I'm enjoying music by the Strauss family and other composers who wrote dance music during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What few people are aware of is that the Johann Strausses, father and son, wrote music based on folklore themes. The Austrian ländler, a dance in 3/4 time, was the forerunner of the waltz.

Here's a demonstration of this dance, which is very popular in Austria and Bavaria:

Johann Strauss Sr., along with another composer, Josef Lanner, incorporated the ländler into many of their compositions and popularized the waltz, a more refined form of the countrified Austrian folk dance, in Vienna. Strauss Sr.'s most famous piece, however, was not a waltz, but the Radetsky March. There is a connection between Radetzky and Bulgaria's most famous poet, Hristo Botev. You can see a video of the Radetsky March, played as an encore in every New Year's Concert, here:

The Vienna of the Strauss family was, and still is, a multi-ethnic cosmopolitan city. It was one of the capitals of the great Austro-Hungarian empire, which encompassed most of Central and Eastern Europe. It included the two ruling countries of Austria and Hungary, and also what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, western Romania, northern Italy, parts of Bosnia, Serbia and Poland. This empire was home to people who spoke many different languages and were of different nationalities. They did not always get along.

Somehow the emperor, Franz Josef, managed to hold this polyglot empire together for nearly 50 years, until his death in 1916, when it started to break apart. Two years before, all hell broke loose in Austria-Hungary when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand, who was to inherit the empire. This was the event that precipitated World War I, and the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918.

It's time for some music by Johann Strauss, Jr. This is a polka (a folk dance native to Bohemia, located in the present day Czech Republic) with a spicy Hungarian theme. This performance of Eljen a Magyar is from a telecast of the 2009 New Year's concert.

The German name for the Austro-Hungarian empire was "Die Donaumonarchie" (Danube Monarchy) after the river that held it all together. As for the color, Strauss got it wrong. The German language has a number of words for a person who's had a little too much wine (or any other kind of booze). One of them is "blau" (blue). So it's possible that when Strauss wrote this magnificent piece of work, he may have had one too many at the tavern, and in his alcoholic stupor, thought the Danube was flowing with wine. (By the way, the Wachau region of Austria, along the river, is an important wine producing area).

The footage, from the 2010 New Year's Concert, is amazing, especially if you've seen it on TV instead of that little YouTube screen. And if you have actually been there, like I have, the scenery is out of this world. The video is but a shadow of the real thing.

The Danube, the River of Many Names (read this for an explanation:) flows through a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, most of which are mentioned in the video. However, the Austrian TV, who produced this, omitted a few important ones. One of them was Bulgaria, the birthplace of composer Diko Iliev.

Diko Iliev was born in a small town across the Danube from Romania in 1898 (a year before the death of Johann Strauss the 2nd). He wrote music based on Bulgarian folk dances for brass and wind ensembles. His most famous work, Dunavsko (Danubian) Horo, begins the New Year all over Bulgaria, and everyone dances to it at midnight.

The next video from the Universe of YouTube celebrates Bulgaria's entry into the European Union on the first of January, 2007. The first piece is a choral rendition of the Bulgarian national anthem, which leads into Dunavsko Horo at minute 1.50, then concludes with the finale of the last movement of the Beethoven 9th Symphony, the end of which was unfortunately cut short. Notice how the fireworks are in time with the music!

For more on the life and music of Diko Iliev, click here:

Diko Iliev was a versatile musician. Not only did he compose music based on northwestern Bulgarian folk motifs, he wrote marches, tangos and waltzes. His music is well known and loved in Bulgaria, and always played during celebrations such as New Year's Day and national holidays. Unlike Strauss, who composed primarily for the aristocracy and the upper classes, Diko Iliev was a composer of the people. When he died in 1984, busloads of mourners travelled to Montana, a town in Northwestern Bulgaria, for his funeral.

Diko Iliev's music captured the soul of the Bulgarian people as much as the music of the Strauss family did in Austria. Give it a listen, and you'll understand why.

Happy New Year 2011 to all!

This post is dedicated to an old friend, Don, who passed away suddenly in September, 2010. He especially loved the music of Beethoven and the Strauss family. My husband and I spent New Year's Eve with him and his wife when we lived in New York in the 1980's. He left this world much too soon and we miss him very much.

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