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Ronald Merlino from New York worked for years as an agent for renowned conductors and musicians. Today he advises wineries on how to combine classical music with wine. The trained sommelier tells how champagne helped the Viennese waltz dynasty Strauss to success and fame.

At the world-famous New Year's Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on 1 January 2023, compositions by the Strauss family will take centre stage. Could they perform works related to wine or champagne?

Ron Merlino: There would have been quite a few to choose from. Anyway, both Johann Strauss father and Johann Strauss son wrote some pieces with "champagne" in the title.

Where did their fondness for champagne come from?

Ron Merlino in front of the Schubert memorial plaque in Tattendorf.
© Alexander Lupersboeck

Ron Merlino: The Napoleonic Wars had only briefly interrupted the admiration for everything French. Ludwig van Beethoven is known to have enjoyed drinking Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne, at least until Napoleon occupied Vienna for the second time in 1809. At the Congress of Vienna, State Chancellor Metternich had wines served from all the participating countries, including France. And the enthusiasm for sparkling wines was enormous. It should not be forgotten that all sparkling wines were called champagne at that time - no matter where they came from.

How did this enthusiasm for sparkling wines become noticeable?

At the beginning of the 19th century, many ballrooms, so-called casinos, were opened in Vienna. There were dances, concerts, restaurants and other attractions such as zoos. These temples of entertainment also cultivated an upscale culinary scene, and the best wines of the time were available there.

Did this have an influence on the composers of the time?

Johann Strauss' father grew up in an inn. It was called "Zum guten Hirten", and Franz Schubert and many other composers and literary figures were guests there. That's how Johann Strauss father came into contact with this culture and its protagonists. Later he played with Josef Lanner in an entertainment orchestra in the casinos. They made a big business out of it and composed special pieces for such performances, which were not only meant for dancing but as accompaniment to meals. Unlike Lanner, Strauss also wrote music with a decided reference to wine and champagne. This boosted sales and made him interesting to restaurant owners and wine merchants. Lanner, the first king of the Viennese waltz, loved good wines, but he did not immortalise them in his music. It is clear that both were influenced by Franz Schubert.

Is it true that Franz Schubert drank excessively?

Ron Merlino: He drank a lot, but not to excess. His 'Schubertiades' in the 1820s were the same thing the Strauss brothers did later. There was music, food, drink, dance, poetry and art. They lasted whole nights -and Schubert was a master of this genre. These gourmet experiences had a direct connection to the waltzes that had developed from the simple music of the peasants. Schubert as a master of the song form had a great influence on its development. So he was not only one of the greatest composers, but an important figure on the art scene. There are few pieces by him in which wine does not appear at all, although not always directly mentioned. Wine was an integral part of his life. One cannot separate Franz Schubert and his work from what he saw, heard and experienced. He enjoyed wine very much and could tell good wine from bad. He drank Schilcher, Kadarka and Tokay. It is clearly documented that he chose his wines very carefully. Although he has the image of the "poor sipper", he was a member of high society.

The debut of Johann Strauss Sohn at the Casino Dommayer
© Vienna Museum

Why are there so many champagne-related compositions by the Strauss family?

Ron Merlino: It was at this time that the champagne industry began to commercialise and establish its still well-known global brands. I think - without being able to prove it - that Strauss' father wrote pieces like the Champagne Waltz and the Champagne Gallop because of this. At that time, in 1828, they held their own 'champagne balls'. Wine glasses or wine drinkers were even depicted on the covers of the music booklets. In one issue, notes were depicted like bubbles bubbling out of a champagne glass. So this was real "branding". Johann Strauss' father was the first composer to develop a sense of self-promotion. He gave his pieces appropriate titles, and that helped the restaurants and wine merchants sell them. They helped him by hiring him. He was focused on combining wine and music, he tried to use waltzes to increase sales of champagne. Today he would probably have his own champagne label. In 1837, Strauss' father moved to the much classier and famous "Sperl", one of the largest and most beautiful ballrooms, famous for great food and excellent wine selection. At dance competitions, French champagne was often offered as a prize.

Did Johann Strauss' son take advantage of his father's connections?

Ron Merlino: He became a musician against his father's will, but even more popular than his father and Josef Lanner. He made his debut in 1844 at the Casino Dommayer near Schönbrunn Palace. This was smaller than other dance halls, but high-class, which is why Strauss later lived in the immediate vicinity. With his brothers Joseph and Eduard, he ran an entertainment empire that produced music as if on an assembly line. They became very wealthy as a result. In his music, Johann Strauss Son referred to current affairs, trends, fashions, i.e. to the zeitgeist of high society. Like Franz Schubert, he lived from his participation in this "demi-monde". In 1858 he composed the Champagne Polka. Until 1871 he wrote exclusively dance music and thus became the 'waltz king', after which he devoted himself to operetta. These works are also often about celebrations, balls, eating and drinking. The operetta 'Die Fledermaus' with its big hit 'Trinke, Liebchen, trinke schnell' is still classically performed at New Year's Eve and carnival.

Did he have contact with other composers?

Ron Merlino: Johann Strauss Sohn was good friends with Johannes Brahms, they often drank together. He dedicated the waltz "Seid umschlungen, Millionen" to him in 1893, which refers to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. And so the century comes full circle.

The sheet music of the Danube Waltz shows the vineyards near Nussdorf with a view of Vienna as well as vine leaves.
© Wikipedia

Johannes Brahms is known as a wine lover.

Ron Merlino: Yes, he was a connoisseur. He spent a lot of time in the Rheingau, went for walks there and knew the vineyards as well as the wines. But he also loved Chianti and Sicilian wines, because he was often on tour in Italy. And he had a weakness for Tokaj. But he separated pleasure and work, he didn't write plays with wine references.

But it is important to me that the dance music of Lanner and Strauss is not valued less than the music of Beethoven and Brahms. They all had the same lifestyle and the same circumstances. Just because the Strauss family was more commercially successful, they were not cut off from the rest of the scene. The combination of music and wine must have been very powerful.

Title pic: © Wikipedia

More favourite wines of composers and other personalities here.

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