Johann Strauss Sr., Die vier Temperamente (The Four Temperaments Waltz), Op. 59 (1832)
By Peter Laki, Visiting Associate Professor, Bard College
Written for the concert Human Elements, performed on Nov 18, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
To the first Viennese Waltz King, Johann Strauss Sr., the four temperaments meant little more than an attractive way to allude to the contrasting musical characters animating this showpiece for the famous Strauss orchestra. The same year the waltz The Four Temperaments was written, a 19-year-old student from Leipzig, whose name happened to be Richard Wagner, visited Vienna for the first time in his life. Many years later, Wagner penned a vivid account of his impressions of Strauss:
“I shall never forget the extraordinary playing of Johann Strauss, who put equal enthusiasm into everything he played, and very often made the audience almost frantic with delight. At the beginning of a new waltz this demon of the Viennese musical spirit shook like a Pythian priestess on the tripod, and veritable groans of ecstasy which, without doubt, were more due to his music than to the drinks in which the audience had indulged, raised their worship for the magical violinist to almost bewildering heights of frenzy.”
In those days—just a few years after the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert—Strauss was probably the greatest musician working in Vienna. His talent is evident in the present waltz, which opens suspensefully, with some “dark” harmonies that are resolved when the first brilliant dance strain gets underway. A jaunty first melody, constantly mixing duple and triple rhythms, is followed by a more lyrical tune, followed by a return of the earlier material. Like its composer, this waltz is nothing if not—well, temperamental.