Daily Archives: February 8, 2010 6:57 pm

Johann Strauss the African

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Andre Rieu’s album of Strauss Waltzes and other bon-bons, Forever Vienna, is number 1 in the classical album charts this year, and beat Susan Boyle’s album in the top ten of the pop album charts.  This isn’t  particularly fresh news, even though the BBC only reported it today: the Telegraph had the same story on 18th January.

It’s interesting how this story has been kept out of the mainstream media, but not altogether surprising: it’s just not damn cool enough. Philip Tagg, musicologist and specialist in popular music studies delivered a wonderful speech in 2000  called ‘High and low, Cool and uncool, music and knowledge: Conceptual falsifications and the study of popular music’ in which he showed how popular music studies is prone to a ‘cool’ agenda where music which is genuinely popular doesn’t get studied because it’s not ‘cool’.  On a straw poll he conducted at the conference, he found that there was only a 27% likelihood of the Blue Danube being studied on the popular music curriculum (compared to 92% for the Sex Pistols  God Save The Queen). Rieu’s first album in 1995 apparently beat Michael Jackson’s in the European charts, but that’s not going to be a popular story. How uncool does that make us. All those ‘Cool Britannia’ years, with MPs singing pop songs and inviting rock stars to No. 10 were a misrepresentation on every level: they should really have had Susan Boyle and Andre Rieu in Downing Street.

What I like to believe about this story is that it shows just how important the body in music is. “Waltzes were not meant to be conducted,” [Rieu] says firmly. “I lead with my bow, my head, my whole body, just as Johann Strauss did.” (source).  Will ‘serious’ music ever get this kind of audience, without some kind of movement involved? Did ballet evolve as a means of making up for the boredom of sitting in the dark watching an orchestra?

Perhaps the most challenging thing here is the racist stereotype of the starched white urban European compared to the globally southern native, in touch with their body, a Descartian split across racial lines with the European as the brain, and the African as the body.  Heinrich Laube, describing  Johann Strauss I in 1833 wrote:

The man is black as a Moor; his hair is curly; his mouth is melodious, energetic, his lip curls, his nose is snub… Typically African too is the way he conducts his dances; his own limbs no longer belong to him when the desert-storm of his waltz is let loose; his fiddle-bow dances with his arms; the tempo animates his feet; the melody waves champagne glasses in his  face; the ostrich takes a swift run preliminary to beginning his  flight . . . The devil is abroad.

From Jacob, H. E. (1940) Johann Strauss father and son: A century of light music. (Wolff, M., Trans.) New York: Greystone Press. Available from Internet Archive.

As Dahlhaus wrote in The Idea of Absolute Music, our concept of what music was in the 19th century is skewed by the fact that we got aesthetically fixated in the 20th century on ‘absolute music’, whereas in the nineteenth century this was just an ‘enclave’ as Dahlhaus puts it, in a mass of what we’d call popular classics – opera, romances, virtuoso pieces and salon music and so on.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised if Strauss makes it to the pop charts. In the wider scheme of things, Strauss played by a violinist who moves is probably going to be more popular than rock music played by someone who stands still, because we like movement. The popular/classical divide is a misleading category, and it’s the omission of the body that misleads, as this story illustrates beautifully.