Johann II’s grandfather was a humble innkeeper on the outskirts of Vienna and committed suicide after his second marriage; Johann I (1804-49) picked up a love of music from the itinerant musicians who played at his father’s inn. His ambition was to play the kind of entertainment music he had grown up with and he set about learning the violin with a will. Within a year he was playing the viola in an orchestra. Here he befriended the charming Josef Lanner (1801-43) and joined him when Lanner started up his own orchestra. So successful was the venture that they decided to run two bands – Lanner conducting one, Strauss the other, and although they soon went their separate ways, Strauss the composer and conductor was firmly established with the Vienna public. Before long they were touring all over Europe and were the official dance orchestra for Austrian court balls, and when Queen Victoria was crowned, it was the Strauss orchestra that came over to play at the coronation ball. That’s how the dynasty began. (It died out in 1939 with the death of Johann Strauss III, son of Eduard, one of Johann II’s brothers.)
Johann I had six children by his wife Anna – Johann, Josef, Nelli, Therese, Eduard and Ferdinand (who died after a few months). He also had five illegitimate children by his mistress Emilie Trampusch and eventually left his family in order to live with her. The opposition that he had put in the way of Johann II’s musical ambitions thus disappeared. Johann II assembled his first orchestra at the age of 19, making his debut in October 1844. His success was instantaneous. ‘Good night, Lanner. Good evening, Father Strauss. Good morning, Son Strauss’, ran the headline in a Viennese paper. The two Strauss family orchestras ran in open rivalry with one another until 1849 when the elder Strauss contracted scarlet fever from one of his illegitimate children and was found dead in his apartment.
Johann Strauss II now combined both orchestras and for the rest of his life enjoyed a career of fabulous success, composing and conducting all over Europe. Eventually he ran six orchestras running simultaneously. With his assistant conductors, copyists, librarians, publicists and booking agents, the Strauss music business was a highly lucrative concern. In 1872 he was invited to America to conduct his Blue Danube for the colossal fee of $100,000 for 14 performances (at one concert he conducted a choir of 20,000 in front of an audience of 100,000). He then went on a short tour, doubled his money and returned to Europe, by which time he was a millionaire.
Johann’s brother Eduard took over as conductor of the court balls after 1871 so that Johann could concentrate more on composition. And that might have been that, turning out waltz after polka after march after galop from an inexhaustible gold mine of melody. But in 1863 he met Offenbach, then at the height of his fame as the composer of French operettas (he came to Vienna for a production of Orpheus in the Underworld). They became involved in a competition to write the best waltz for a ball – and Offenbach won. This, as much as Offenbach’s suggestion that Strauss should try his hand at operetta, was the spur to writing something for the stage. After a few flops, Strauss came up with one of the most perfect examples of the genre, Die Fledermaus (1874), followed in 1885 by another – Der Zigeunerbaron.
His flair, energy and creativity never left him until the last few years of his life. His third wife, Adele, had introduced him to Brahms and the two became close friends.