My favourite broadcaster on Classic FM is John Suchet. I find he has a light touch and a non-intrusive manner and, even more importantly as far as I am concerned, he gives the ending of a piece of music the grace of a few seconds silence before he makes any comment. There are various other presenters on Classic FM who would do well to do the same...
I have found over the last year or so that I listen to John a lot when I am driving along the North Circular to see my grandchildren. Colney Hatch, Henley's Corner, Neasden, all these glories are helped by listening to his programme in the morning and, when I have been stuck in a traffic jam, his mellifluous tones calm me down.
Another reason for being fond of John is his love of Beethoven. If I was told that I could only listen to one composer for the rest of my life then Beethoven would be the one so I feel a kinship with him as I listen along.
Now he has written this lovely book, The Last Waltz, The Strauss Dynasty and Vienna, and when my friendly postman dropped it off last week, I sat down and started it immediately even though I was still in my dressing gown and hobbling round trying to get my dysfunctional leg on the move. Cup of tea to hand and I was off.
I remember years ago being enchanted by a TV series on the Strauss family, I think it was back in the seventies, and all I can recall of it now was a scene in which a young girl in a white dress with hair in ringlets waltzed on her own in front of Johann Strauss the Elder and he fell in love with her. Romantic at the time but when I read about this domestic life and that of his son, you soon realise that it wasn't all waltzes and whipped cream.
But oh how I love Vienna and anything to do with it. It is a city I simply have to get to see and there seems to be an air of enchantment about it that my soul responds to. I am pretty sure that it is not all Strauss and coffee houses but its history is fascinating. When I was a teenager I read The Lonely Empress by Joan Haslip and thought Empress Elizabeth was hard done to and married to an overbearing Emperor. Of course, I now know differently. I also realise that much though I loved the film Mayerling, with my pin up Omar Sharif as Rudolf the Emperor's son, it was total fantasy but overall it added to this glorious picture in my mind.
If you want to read all about the political history of Austria at this time, there are plenty of resources, if you wish to read about the Strauss family, also easy but this book marries the two so we have the life and career of the Strauss family put into a historical context. It makes for engaging reading and the narrative style is very beguiling and draws the reader in very quickly. I could not put this down once I had started it and, with a bad leg as the perfect excuse, spent an entire morning in the company of Johann the Elder, Johann the Younger, Josef and Eduard.
I was totally appalled to find out that in 1907 Eduard Strauss, who had made enquiries of oven manufacturers and incinerator plants in Vienna, transported several hundred kilos of waste paper which he wanted to get rid of. The factory owner, on looking at the papers, noted that it was manuscript paper covered in staves and musical notes and knew that he was looking at compositions of the famous Strauss family. When he raised the matter with Eduard asking is he had made a mistake, Eduard assured him this was indeed the paper he wanted burned. It took five hours to incinerate it all and Eduard stayed and watched it be destroyed.
He said that it was to prevent the papers falling into the hands of unscrupulous persons who might try to pass the works off as their own but I am not sure that this can be the real reason. Thousands of letters, articles and compositions all destroyed. Too awful to contemplate.
While reading this book and indeed, while writing this post, I am listening to Strauss. I never ever tire of hearing the music no matter how many times I listen. Some composers I have to have a rest from every now and then as they can get a bit too much, but never Strauss. The Blue Danube, Tales from the Vienna Woods, Emperor Waltz, Music of the Spheres, so many favourites.
As many of you know, I adore Wagner's music and was delighted to see the following quote from him re Strauss:
"A single Strauss waltz, as far as gracefulness, refinement and musical contents is concerned, towers above the majority of the often laboriously procured foreign-produced creations"
This book, as well as being immensely readable, entertaining and beautifully written, is also beautifully produced. The paper is of a high quality, the kind that you want to stroke, the illustrations are superb and the layout of the whole book is a joy.
I loved it.
And a final word from Andre Rieu, when asked what is it about the music of Johann Strauss that beguiles and bewitches - his response "Simple" he said "Strauss makes you happy"
And so does this book.