Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, sleigh bells), glockenspiel, harp, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 12, 1924, Alfred Hertz conducting.
Johann Strauss the younger is arguably the most popular composer of all time: not only the Waltz King, but the king, too, of crossover long before the term existed or was deemed necessary, the composer of "light music" that aroused the admiration, even adulation, of such super-serious types as Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg and their audiences. Not only is his operetta Die Fledermaus paid the homage of never having its title translated into English ("The Bat" does sound rather unappetizing), even when performed in that language, it has found a home beside the works of Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi in the world’s great opera houses.
The success of Die Fledermaus was so great -- although, ironically, it had to wait for approval from Berlin and Paris before its hometown, Vienna, took it to its heart -- that it proved at once blessing and bane. Equaling its brilliance and charm proved difficult, to say the least; the seven Strauss operettas that followed were all failures in their time (and are rarely revived), failing to achieve Fledermaus’ winning blend of music and book, the latter by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée, from a French original.
It was the composer’s wife Adele who introduced Strauss to the novel Saffi by the Hungarian writer and patriotic icon Mór Jokai, suggesting that it might provide the inspiration for an operetta that would offer a fusion of Gypsy hijinks and Viennese sophistication (and waltzes).
When Strauss and Jokai met in Budapest in 1883, the writer was immediately taken with the idea of his lighthearted novel being turned to musical purposes. He suggested as librettist a Viennese journalist of Hungarian extraction named Ignaz Schnitzer. And Schnitzer did indeed provide Strauss with the text for his second -- and last -- great stage success, Der Zigeunerbaron ("The Gypsy Baron"), equal parts lyric schlag and rhythmic paprika with a plot involving mistaken identity, young lovers, old lovers, comic rustics, and buried treasure, to say nothing of both csárdás and waltz.
Strauss took his time with the music, to the dismay of Jokai, who wanted the work finished for the Budapest World’s Fair of the summer of 1885. As a result the premiere, conducted by the composer, took place a few months later at Vienna’s venerable Theater an der Wien, to waves of applause, with encores demanded of most of its big solo and choral numbers, and enjoyed an initial run of 85 performances. It has since been, if not as frequent a visitor to the opera house as Fledermaus, hardly a stranger either.
The substantial, richly-orchestrated overture is a tasty Austro-Hungarian stew of a half-dozen of the operetta’s high points, including Saffi’s "Habet acht," one of Strauss’s grandest "gypsy" arias, and the ultra-Viennese Schatzwalzer ("Treasure Waltz").
Herbert Glass, a columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1971 through 1996, is also a frequent contributor to Gramophone and The Strad. He is English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival.