Strauss’s Blue Danube keeps waltzing at 150

Born out of defeat, initially not that popular and dedicated to a river that's more greeny-grey, the beginnings of "The Blue Danube" 150 years ago this week were inauspicious.

Strauss’s Blue Danube keeps waltzing at 150
The bronze monument of Johann Strauss in Vienna's Stadtpark. Photo:

But Johann Strauss Junior's rousing waltz, first performed on February 15, 1867, is now one of the world's most famous and catchiest pieces of classical music.

It features in movies galore and is being performed and danced to still.

“An der schönen blauen Donau”, as it is known in the original German, began life as a choral work commissioned by the Vienna Men's Choral Society.

The main aim was to cheer people up after Austria had lost an important and bloody battle against Prussia, at Koniggratz, the previous summer.

The title was said to have been inspired by a poem but the words were penned by the society's own lyricist, a policeman who humorously bemoaned the state of the defeated country.

It was not an immediate runaway success, although an exhibition marking the anniversary at Vienna’s Rathaus (City Hall) seeks to refute the belief that it was a total flop.

One glowing contemporary account even calls it a “schlager” (German for “hit”) — supposedly the first recorded use of the term.

But the piece only really took off once an orchestral version was performed in Paris later in 1867, to a rapturous reception, and soon afterwards in London.

In a tour of the United States in 1872, Strauss conducted a performance by a 2,000-piece orchestra and a 20,000-strong choir to 100,000 people.

“How am I supposed to conduct this mess?” the composer reputedly said.

The rest is history

Today “The Blue Danube” evokes like no other waltz the elegance of Vienna's 19th-century heyday — which lives on in the city's ball season, currently in full swing.

It also takes pride of place in the Vienna New Year's Concert every January 1, and is Austria's unofficial national anthem.

When Austria declared its independence from Nazi Germany in April 1945, it was “The Blue Danube” that was performed since at the time the country had no official national anthem of its own.

The national airline Austrian Airlines plays the music to passengers before takeoff and after landing. A survey in 2016 of customers found 72 percent in favour of the practice continuing.

It is also a perennial favourite on the silver screen, most famously in Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey” but also in “Cool Runnings” and “Titanic”, to name but a few.

More irreverently, a sketch by British comedy troupe Monty Python showed members of an orchestra exploding one by one as they played the piece in a field.

It has also featured in madcap animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants” while in “The Simpsons”, Homer, in homage to Kubrick, floats around a spaceship eating potato chips.

But apart from it simply being a nice tune, how to explain the popularity, particularly considering that Strauss wrote almost 500 other waltzes?

“There is no definitive answer,” Thomas Aigner, curator at the Rathaus exhibition, told AFP. “It's a patriotic song, but not too much. Everyone can project their own memory linked to the river, to a visit to Vienna.”

By Sophie Makris


‘Mahleresque’: Austrian orchestra performs AI-written symphony

Can artificial intelligence turn out symphonies to match one of the greats of classical music?

'Mahleresque': Austrian orchestra performs AI-written symphony
Photo: DPA

That was the question posed by one unusual orchestra performance in the Austrian city of Linz on Friday, in which Gustav Mahler's unfinished Symphony No.10 was played — immediately followed by six minutes of “Mahleresque” music written by software. 

The project's creator says that the two are clearly distinguishable but not everyone in the audience agreed.

“I couldn't really feel the difference… I believe it was really well done,” Maria Jose Sanchez Varela, 34, a science and philosophy researcher from Mexico, told AFP.

The performance was part of Linz's Ars Electronica Festival, which aims to highlight connections between science, art and technology.

The brains behind the pioneering performance was AI researcher and composer Ali Nikrang, who works at the Ars Electronica Futurelab research centre affiliated with the festival. He used the open-source AI software MuseNet to write the music.

“It all sounds like music, there are emotions, but someone who really knows Mahler will notice immediately that it is not Mahler,” Nikrang told AFP, admitting Mahler's typical “harmonic expressions” were not quite there yet.

He said AI learned from “data from the past, from data left to us by Mahler” so it may be able to create an exact copy of Mahler, but it still could not come up with a “concept” or overall theme for the music the way the classical composer himself did.

But Nikrang says that AI has nevertheless made great strides. Working with the first 10 notes of Mahler's Symphony No. 10, the software gave him four suggested segments, out of which he chose one, following which it continued giving him four more segments and so on.

In all, Nikrang evaluated a few dozen pieces before choosing what spectators heard on Friday.

“All the suggestions were quite good… That is not obvious with AI, at least given the state of the technology five months ago” Nikrang said, adding that MuseNet had enabled a jump in quality. Christine Schoepf, the Ars Electronica festival's co-director, said that back when she took part in the very first edition 40 years ago, “of course we couldn't have guessed what would happen with AI”.

“The fact it would progress in such quick steps wasn't foreseeable,” she said. –

Lacking 'emotional depth'

Experts say the project highlights interesting questions.

“This is of course really exciting,” said Aljoscha Burchardt of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI).

“One wonders whether the machines are so smart that they can accomplish great music, or whether the music wasn't such a great accomplishment after all?,” Burchardt asks.

“Maybe the pieces followed a graspable logic that in the past only very good composers knew, and now a machine can do it. That's the question,” he told AFP.

With computers churning out work at a speed composers cannot compete with, prices could drop, but on the other hand — just as in other fields where “hand-made” commands more prestige — artists who write their music without software could be able to charge a premium, Burchardt said. Machines also still needed humans to guide them, Austrian music expert Christian Scheib said.

“Even with highly-complex AI, it depends on the artistic quality and skills of the respective composer,” he told AFP. And of course, AI isn't yet able to explain its projects to journalists either.

As Nikrang predicted, some spectators noticed when AI took over the composition in Friday night's performance.

One of them, Manuela Klaut, said: “I somehow thought suddenly: 'Ah, it is getting a bit more arbitrary' or something like that'.” But she admitted that it was hard to pinpoint what exactly changed, and the overall performance was still “great”.

“I felt slightly that the emotional depth that you have in a Mahler composition was missing, maybe also the melancholy,” the 39-year-old from Germany told AFP.