VIENNA — The Blue Danube Waltz" has never been on my Top 10 list of musical favorites. But here I was, sashaying off to Vienna, the waltz capital of the world, where such music is as important to life as breathing. This year that's especially so, as Vienna marks a number of musical anniversaries, including one for "Blue Danube" composer, Johann Strauss (1825-99).
I was determined to keep an open mind, but my exposure to waltz music was mostly through American pop culture - Bugs Bunny cartoons, movie soundtracks, and Lawrence Welk. How could anyone think of waltz music as a serious pursuit?
Strauss himself longed for recognition as a serious composer. There was no doubt he was popular: His concerts sold out; the Viennese couldn't get enough of his danceable tunes. He was prolific, writing about 400 waltzes. And he was probably the world's first pop star, touring with his orchestra to Paris, London, St. Petersburg, and Boston. In later years, he tried writing operas, with dismal results. His operettas fared better: "Die Fledermaus (The Bat)," remains one of the most-produced operettas in the world.
The public esteem for Strauss was not limited to the 19th century. In World War II, when the Nazis took over Austria, they discovered in church records that Strauss had a Jewish great-grandfather. The Nazi leadership expunged the records - in effect "Aryanizing" Strauss - rather than prevent Austrians from playing his music.
The Viennese truly dote on the memory of their Waltz King. A gilded statue in the Stadtpark stands as a monument to the man who gave Vienna its most recognizable musical signature.
The figure is resplendent with flowing hair, a handsome mustache, and a violin tucked under the chin. But few public memorials are without controversy. The composer's great-grandnephew, Edouard Strauss, points out that the left foot is forward, which, for a right-handed violinist, is incorrect. Also, Strauss would not have sported a mustache during the period that he accompanied his orchestra on violin - a detail only a historian would notice.
Leaving Strauss behind (which is nearly impossible in a town where his music is piped into every elevator and lobby), I went in search of other cultural treasures around Vienna.
I wandered through the Upper Belvedere Palace, not far from the city center. The Belvedere complex was built in the 17th century for a victorious general, Prince Eugene of Savoy. It houses a small but remarkable cache of paintings by Viennese Expressionist artists Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and Gustav Klimt (1862-1918).
If I was hoping for tortured and brooding instead of bright and romantic, I found them in the paintings of Schiele. His figures are usually unclothed, painted in stark colors. In "The Family (Squatting Couple)" (1917-18), the artist paints himself crouched behind his wife and young son. They are together, but alone and disconnected.
Klimt's work is more decorative and demands less of the viewer. His subjects are sinuous, sensuous maidens in gowns littered with gold and silver. The canvases are as intricately colored as mosaics: Every sweep of hair or robe is graceful and blithe. Even the landscapes are filled with jewel-bright colors.
Visitors to the Belvedere go there not just for the paintings, but for the sweeping view of the city. The grounds are magnificent, with formal gardens spreading down a gentle slope.
The No. 1 attraction
But nothing at the Belvedere prepares you for the Versailles-like opulence of Schnbrunn - the onetime summer palace of the imperial family and Vienna's No. 1 tourist attraction.
Schnbrunn is vast enough to house concert halls, a theater, a restaurant and cafe, and upwards of 220 residential apartments (rented mostly to civil servants). The massive ballroom and receiving rooms are undergoing restoration, but visitors can get a strong flavor of the impressive public display put on by the emperor and his court.
It's a fact of traveling that the insides of most palaces begin to look alike, so I headed outside into the spectacular gardens. While Versailles was definitely the inspiration, the feeling of these gardens is more intimate. The design is completely integrated with the rear of the palace - the garden's trellises and pergolas echo the palace's massive wooden shutters. Gravel paths crisscross like latticework, and their network reaches into the distance, leading you uphill or toward the zoo.
The menagerie has been enlarged significantly since Emperor Franz Josef's time. It and the gardens are probably the most magical places in all of Vienna for strolling. Peacocks strut about the grounds, and the chatter of monkeys lends a surreal feeling to the park.
The emperor's breakfast pavilion is open for light lunches, and during this Strauss anniversary year it features waltz concerts on the terrace. It's a memorable spot.
Couches for kings
Traveling back into the city center, I paid a visit to the Imperial Furniture Collection, a repository of Hapsburg artifacts such as the cradle of Crown Prince Rudolf (1858), and re-created rooms of Empress Elisabeth.
It's remarkable that so many furnishings remain. The Viennese were rather fond of their rulers; they didn't subject palaces to torchings and lootings during revolutionary times, unlike the French and Russians. When the Austro-Hungarian monarchy ended in 1919, the imperial court's belongings became property of the Republic of Austria. Today, the museum's collection includes not only gorgeous examples of Biedermeier furniture, but also seminal works by 20th-century designers.
Visitors enter the museum through its new addition, designed by Alessandro Alvera. It's a large, open lobby constructed of satiny blond wood with accents of ebony and brushed steel.
Moving from room to room filled with imperial bric-a-brac, the soundtrack in my head was decidedly waltz music - beautiful, refined, and very courtly.
If you go
In this year of the Waltz King, Strauss works dominate Vienna's music scene. Numerous productions of his operettas (including "Die Fledermaus," "The Gypsy Baron," and "A Night in Venice") are being staged. And on weekends through September, Strauss waltzes will be played on the terrace of the emperor's breakfast pavilion at the Schnbrunn Palace zoo from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
For a calendar of events, contact the Austrian National Tourist Office, 500 Fifth Avenue, Suite 800, New York, NY, 10110. Phone: (212) 575-7723.
MUSEUMS Upper Belvedere Palace Prinz Eugen Strasse 27 1030 Vienna Tel: 011-43-1-79557-134 Open daily except Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Imperial Furniture Collection Andreasgasse 7 1070 Vienna Tel.: 011-43-1-52433-570 Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Schnbrunn Palace Schnbrunner Schlosstrasse 1030 Vienna Tel: 011-43-1-81113-239 Open daily April to October, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and November to March, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.