Classic Mornings

It’s Not All Rosas


I wonder whether he would have liked the lyrics. They were written for the opening tune of his most famous work.  As it turns out, it’s probably the only tune of his that anybody ever hears.

Many have come to know it from high-wire or magic acts that have adopted it over the years. The tune comes from a larger work titled Sobre las Olas (Over the Waves): a waltz comprised of several shorter waltzes – like the Blue Danube. In fact, the composer was born the year after the famous Strauss waltz was first performed.

Juventino Rosas was born 150 years ago, on January 23, 1868 in Santa Cruz de Galeana, Mexico. He was a violinist as well as a composer. As a child he helped to earn money for his family by playing in a quartet with his father and brothers. Years later he performed in a number of orchestras, one of which made an appearance at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Rosas became a popular composer of salon pieces: waltzes, polkas, mazurkas and other dances. Sobre las Olas was his most famous composition. I understand that it has been mistaken for a Strauss waltz. While that’s an indication of its “big league” status, that probably didn’t help audiences come to know more about Juventino Rosas, who died in 1894. But if the famous waltz didn’t “put him on the map” his hometown did in 1939 when it changed its name to Santa Cruz de Juventino Rosas.

Two different films based on his life were made in Mexico in 1933 and 1950. Both are titled Sobre las Olas. But it was in the 1951 American film about the life of the Italian-born tenor Enrico Caruso, The Great Caruso, that lyrics to Sobre las Olas appeared. The film, which starred Mario Lanza as Caruso also featured Ann Blyth in the role of Dorothy Benjamin, who became Caruso’s wife.  Blyth sings a song titled “When You Are in Love, It’s the Lovliest Night of the Year.”  The lyrics were written by Paul Francis Webster, using the tune by Rosas as arranged by Irving Aaronson. Given that Caruso was a contemporary of Rosas, it’s certainly possible that it was a part of the real life soundtrack of Caruso and Benjamin.

I have found it amusing that over the years Sobre las Olas has been confused with another waltz by a different composer, who also is known for just one of his waltzes. The Romanian composer and bandmaster Iosif Ivanovici wrote the famous Valurile Dunării ( better known as Waves of the Danube or Donauwellen in German). And in another film from the same era as The Great Caruso – one about the life of the American singer Al Jolson titled The Jolson Story (1946) -  lyrics were added that transformed Ivanovici’s waltz into the so-called “Anniversary Song” (”Oh, How We Danced, On the Night We Were Wed”).

The story is told that Al Jolson, who did not appear in the movie but sang on the soundtrack, remembered that his mother used to sing the tune. Jolson and Saul Chaplin added lyrics for the film, which starred Larry Parks as Jolson. That song has come to be called The Anniversary Waltz, though that was the title of another unrelated song from 1941 by Dave Franklin and Al Dubin, which was recorded by Bing Crosby. (I also learned that there is 1959 Romanian film titled Valurile Dunării, though it has nothing to do with the life of Ivanovici, nor does a Romanian cake that also bears the name of the waltz).

The tunes by Rosas and Ivanovici are not at all similar. Yet for some reason, when I have mentioned the story behind one of them over the years, I have had some listeners call to correct me and then tell me the story connected with the other.

Since we’re a bit removed from an earlier time in which Sobre las Olas suggested daredevil performers or the film The Great Caruso, perhaps it will come to be better known for what it is. It’s not as though those associations have been thorns for Rosas. They may have helped introduce the music to those who otherwise may never have heard it. And for many, the tune is just as sweet, whether by Rosas or any other name.