Johann Strauss, Father and Son

by H. E. Jacob
[Greystone Press, $3.25]
MR. JACOB’S A Century of Light Music, to use the more comprehensive subtitle of his book on the Strauss family of waltz composers, at once brings to mind to those of us who have been following books on music for the past few years another volume very similar in subject matter and treatment. This was S. Kracauer’s life of Offenbach, Orpheus in Paris. The similarity lies not only in the fact that both deal with composers of light music, but also in the general treatment, which is that of social history.
Unfortunately for Mr. Jacob’s more recent efforts, Mr. Kracauer’s is infinitely the better book and deals, furthermore, with almost exactly the same period. It has the virtue of limiting its social history largely to life in contemporary Paris, whereas Mr. Jacob has been much too diffuse. Again, in his enthusiasm for the picture of the times, Mr. Kracauer did not neglect his central figure.
It would be, perhaps, unfair to use this Offenbach biography as a stick with which to beat Mr. Jacob, except that it appeared only a year and a half earlier and had a good deal of the same ground to cover. it would be decidedly unfair if Mr. Jacob had managed his purely biographical side with greater skill.
Superficially the Strauss family, consisting of the elder Johann and his three musical sons, Johann Jr., Josef, and Eduard, should be an attractive subject for biographical study. They brought the Viennese waltz to popularity and revolutionized dancing. For a good seventyfive years, from the 1820’s to the turn of the century, they were first in the field. The younger Johann’s operettas took over the popularity that had been Offenbach’s. ‘ Que le lecteur ne se scandalise pas de cette gravité dans le frivole,' Mr. Kracauer quotes Baudelaire.
Mr. Jacob, too, finds historical lessons in the feverish labors of these composers and their successors. The fault of the book lies not in his facts but in his method. He never really gets to grips with the characters of the Strausses, at least fails to make them live. For example, we are left rather in the air over the famous quarrel between father and son. At first it looks as though the father were to blame through jealousy; yet later on we are shown one or two unpleasant traits in the son’s nature that cause us to ask whether the younger man had been so entirely innocent. Mr. Jacob slurs over these and other matters of personality in a way that leaves us unsatisfied.
Moreover, if the method is alarmingly diffuse, jumping all over the lot, the style is overblown. Take this typical passage, for instance: ‘And then suddenly there came the flood. The underground explosion, the sudden miracle of springs in which all those parts of Josef were drowned which till then had not consisted of musicianship. There followed the incredible: two hundred and twenty-two compositions by a man who had made difficulties about writing a single one. No æsthetic theorist can explain this. The phenomenon of fertility was revealed in Johann the Father, called forth by a strong will; in Johann the Younger it happened without his volition; in Josef the Astounding it happened against his will.’
It may be that Marguerite Wolff has translated clumsily, but it is our guess that the author is himself responsible. It is a pity that a book that contains so much incidental information and that held forth such promise should have been so disappointingly handled.
ALEXANDER WILLIAMS