On the Beautiful Blue Swimming Pool

March 02, 2017

No, the chorus didn’t end up in the water. But how can you help but wonder once you’re told that the performance was presented on top of a covered swimming pool?  Millions of people are all too familiar with the legendary event that takes place on a covered swimming pool (which is uncovered by a retractable gymnasium floor above) in one of the best loved films of all time. Yes, it’s the famous Charleston dance contest at Bedford Falls High School in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Well, it was nearly 80 years before the film that a program took place during the Carnival (Fasching) season in Vienna. The locale was a public swimming hall that served as a music and dance venue during the colder months. Though the pool was covered, one of the works on the program would go on to make quite a splash and become one of the most famous pieces in classical music history.

It was Johann Strauss Jr.’s famous Blue Danube Waltz or On the Beautiful Blue Danube (An der schönen blauen Donau) to be more precise. Originally it was written for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association for a program which took place on February 15,1867 – 150 years ago. According to Strauss biographer Peter Kemp, the waltz originally was written for 4-part unaccompanied chorus. Then the composer decided to add a piano part. He substituted the famous orchestral introduction and accompaniment at the last minute.

Kemp notes it was the 6th of 9 works on a cabaret style program that lasted some 5 hours. The composer and his orchestra had another engagement that evening.  So an army orchestra accompanied the chorus.  Given that, you’ve probably ruled out any mischief as in the Charleston dance contest. Actually there was some. A Viennese poet had written the original lyrics which were satirical verses appropriate for Carnival. There was no mention of the Danube. I understand those original lyrics might well have made waves in their time even with a covered swimming pool.

Within a month the first performance of the orchestral version without chorus took place in Vienna. “On the beautiful blue Danube” was a phrase borrowed from a poem of the time.  And nearly 25 years later, a text about the Danube – the one that’s still used today when the work is sung - replaced the Carnival lyrics.

The original venue where the Blue Danube was first performed, the Dianabad, no longer exists. It has been replaced a few times. The current Dianabad, which opened in 2000, is billed as an adventure facility, complete with water slides. It doesn’t seem like they’ve left open the possibility that the Vienna Philharmonic could perform the famous waltz there instead of in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein, where the New Year’s Day concerts have taken place since 1939.

The hideaway pool that hosted the legendary Charleston dance contest still exists – not at Bedford Falls High School, but at Beverly Hills High School, where the scene was filmed. In fact, the 1939 gymnasium/pool just had a new floor installed last year. The film event will always have an Illinois connection. Carl Switzer (better known as Alfalfa of the Our Gang/Little Rascals comedies) from Paris, Illinois was featured in the role of Freddie Othello, who played a “key” part in turning the scene into a Hollywood free for all.

Speaking of Illinois connections – legislation establishing the University of Illinois was signed just weeks after the first performance of the Blue Danube in 1867. That’s not a bad pairing of sesquicentennials. Fortunately the U of I event was on February 28th, and not a day later during a leap year. Otherwise it would have suffered perhaps the same fate as Gioachino Rossini, born on February 29th, 1792.  He doesn’t get a birthday celebration most years including 2017, which marks 225 since he was born.

I’m guessing that even a bicentennial may not result in the average classical music listener becoming all that familiar with the music of Niels Gade (1817-1890).  He’s considered the most important 19th century Danish composer – up until the time that Carl Nielsen was coming of age and eventually would claim the title for the early 20th century. We celebrated Gade’s birthday on Classic Mornings back on February 22nd.

One thing that often comes up when mentioning Gade is the pronunciation of his name. I wasn’t surprised by the fact that if you search for it, the first thing that pops up beyond the name is “pronunciation.”  It’s not pronounced in English the way it looks. Simply said, it doesn’t rhyme with “made,” “fade” or “lemonade.”  I invite you to go online and listen to a native speaker pronounce the composer’s last name, which also is the Danish word for street. To help folks out, a pronunciation closer to the German way of saying the name has pretty much been accepted, which comes close to the word “gotta,” as in that phrase they use on the busses around here: “gotta get there.”

Gidon Kremer has gotten around over the years as a soloist and chamber player. In 1981, he founded the Lockenhaus Festival in Austria and served as its artistic director for 30 years. 20 years ago, he founded the ensemble Kremerata Baltica. According to the group’s website, it was the Latvian violinist’s gift to himself at the time of his 50th birthday. He wanted to share his experiences as a soloist and chamber music player with younger colleagues from the Baltic countries.

Kremer turned 70 on February 27th. Over the years he has introduced music listeners to an adventurous and sometimes amusing repertoire. A 2002 release titled Happy Birthday (Nonesuch 79657) features Peter Heidrich’s “Happy Birthday” Variations, in which the famous tune by the Hill sisters of Kentucky travels throughout music history, trying on various composers’ styles and the rhythms of several well-known dances. It seemed most appropriate to play that on Kremer’s birthday, guessing that he might not play it for himself.

Years ago I had a little fun juxtaposing performances by Gidon Kremer, the Argentinian violinist Manfredo Kraemer and the British harpsichordist & conductor Nicholas Kraemer. I called the segment “Kremer v. Kraemer v. Kraemer” – inspired by the film title Kramer v. Kramer from 1979.  It might be fun to have Dustin Hoffmann and Meryl Streep, the stars of that film, show up at a music awards ceremony and make presentations to the 3 musicians. Hopefully they’ll get to know the players beforehand to avoid any embarrassing confusion in handing out the honors. That may not be necessary if the event is held at the Beverly Hills High School Gym where it already has been demonstrated that things can be retractable.

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