top of page

Ranking the Top 15 Viennese Waltzes

By Alkis Karmpaliotis

Founder and Editor-in-Chief


With the 2024 Vienna New Year's Concert swiftly approaching, there is no better topic for an article than the Viennese waltz. Waltzes, along with polkas, galops, and marches, dominated the 19th-century Vienna music scene, and are celebrated annually at the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Concert and Vienna Philharmonic Ball.



In the early years of its history, the Vienna Philharmonic shied away from performing the most distinctly Viennese music, as its musicians did not want to tarnish its elite reputation with "popular music." However, today no orchestra is more closely associated with waltzes, performing them as encores in concerts all around the world. Zubin Mehta, who has conducted the New Year's Concert five times in his storied career, has said that when he hears a waltz, he can identify immediately whether it is being played by the Vienna Philharmonic based on the orchestra's unique style.


Johann Strauss II

This list is dominated by the Strauss family, specifically the "Waltz King" Johann Strauss II; although there are few composers to choose from, there are enough amazing waltzes, each rich and unique, to fill dozens of lists. You can listen to almost all of them in Willi Boskovsky's cohesive recording of the Strauss family's masterpieces.


Without further ado, let's look at the top fifteen Viennese Waltzes, with a recommended Vienna Philharmonic recording for each one.


 

1. An der schönen blauen Donau (Along the Shores of the Beautiful Blue Danube)

By Johann Strauss II


Originally written for chorus — to an underwhelming premiere — The Blue Danube is one of the most famous works not only within the Viennese waltz genre but in all of classical music. It is said that if The Blue Danube was Strauss II's only waltz, he would still be considered the greatest waltz composer of all time. Not much can be said about this genius work, as we all recognize and love its marvelous tune. The piece ceremonially serves as the second of three encores at the New Year's Concert.


Recording: Carlos Kleiber, New Year's Concert 1992


2. Frühlingsstimmen (Voices of Spring)

By Johann Strauss II

Karajan & Kathleen Battle (1987)

This short waltz's classic tune can be recognized immediately by its opening notes, which, instead of a long introduction, jump seamlessly into the jolly melody. The piece contains an optional virtuoso soprano part with lyrics by Richard Genée, which was sung by Kathleen Battle in the 1987 New Year's Concert under Herbert von Karajan.


Recording: Carlos Kleiber, New Year's Concert 1992

Kaiserwalzer passage

3. Kaiserwalzer (Emperor Waltz)

By Johann Strauss II


The famous Emperor Waltz, composed for the visit of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I to the German Emperor Wilhelm II, begins with a quiet march, underlined by a rhythmic snare drum accompaniment, before diving into one of the most powerful and triumphant themes in the canon. This piece has it all: it can be danced, hummed, but also performed as a deeply intricate and meaningful standalone work.


Recording: Riccardo Muti, New Year's Concert 2018



4. Sphärenklänge (Spherical Sounds)

By Josef Strauss


Josef Strauss's most famous waltz, Sphärenklänge is truly a gem of the Viennese repertoire and has been performed at the New Year's Concert by several notable conductors, including Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Daniel Barenboim, and Christian Thielemann, each bringing unique colors and distinct interpretations to the music. It is a beautiful standalone piece and was recently performed by the Vienna Philharmonic as an encore at Carnegie Hall.


Recording: Carlos Kleiber, New Year's Concert 1992


5. Wiener Blut (Viennese Blood)

By Johann Strauss II

Vienna Philharmonic Summer Night Concert Schönbrunn

This touching waltz marked Strauss II's debut with the Vienna Philharmonic in the late 19th Century and traditionally closes the annual Vienna Philharmonic Summer Night Concert at Schönnbrunn Palace. You'll often see couples dancing along on the palace's picturesque lawns as the music radiates across the air. From its bel-canto-like central theme to its exciting finale, this waltz epitomizes the classic Viennese sound.


Recording: Andris Nelsons, Summer Night Concert 2022


6. Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (Tales from the Viennese Woods)

By Johann Strauss II

Zither

This enchanting piece is a personal favorite of mine, as it is one of only a few Strauss waltzes to contain a solo part for zither. The 119-bar introduction, one of the longest Strauss ever composed, is based on the folk music of the Vienna woods.


Recording: Daniel Barenboim, New Year's Concert 2014


7. Dynamiden

By Josef Strauss


With a melancholic introduction almost Beethovenian in its romanticism, this waltz is one of the most unique in the repertoire. Its principal theme is very reminiscent of Wiener Blut, although it is more developed and takes on a more romantic — and less dance-oriented — tone. Richard Strauss quoted parts of this waltz in his opera Der Rosenkavalier — you can even hear it in the Rosenkavalier Suite!


Recording: Andris Nelsons, New Year's Concert 2020


8. Seid umschlungen, Millionen! ("Be embraced, you millions!")

By Johann Strauss II


You may recognize the title of this waltz from Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy, the famous text of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. With its blissful yet captivating score, constantly variating in tempo and dynamics, the piece perfectly follows the powerful tone of Schiller's poem. Fun fact: the waltz was dedicated to Strauss's good friend and fellow composer Johannes Brahms!


Recording: Andris Nelsons, New Year's Concert 2020


9. Künstlerleben (Artist's Life)

By Johann Strauss II


Strauss II followed the famous Blue Danube waltz with a deeply personal work, composed after the tragic defeat of the Austrian army in the battle of Königgrätz. The piece showcases Strauss II's unique ability to bring joy through music, even in the darkest of times; in line with this message, Christian Thielemann performed the waltz with the Berlin Philharmonic with no audience during the COVID-19 pandemic. The maestro cleverly noted, "Who isn't fascinated by the Viennese waltz?"


Recording: Christian Thielemann, New Year's Concert 2019


10. Wiener Bonbons (Viennese Sweets)

By Johann Strauss II


This delightful waltz, characterized by its cheeky coda and brass-heavy finale, is set to be performed by Christian Thielemann in the 2024 New Year's Concert. Each theme is more beautiful than the one before it in this wonderful waltz.


Recording: Willi Boskovsky, Strauss, J.II: Waltzes, Polkas & Marches


11. Schatz-Walzer (Treasure Waltz)

By Johann Strauss II


This simple and happy waltz, comprised of melodies from Strauss II's operetta Der Zigeunerbaron, is perfect for dancing, with a brief introduction well-suited for a debutante procession and a consistent series of waltz themes throughout.


Recording: Mariss Jansons, New Year's Concert 2016


12. Rosen aus dem Suden (Roses from the South)

By Johann Strauss II


This rather pensive waltz appears more in popular culture than any other Strauss work besides The Blue Danube, featuring in an episode of Star Trek and the film The Dark Knight Rises. The piece showcases the variety there is within the genre of Viennese waltzes.


Recording: Riccardo Muti, New Year's Concert 2018


13. Accelerationen (Acceleration)

By Johann Strauss II


The aptly named Acceleration Waltz is well known for its main theme, which appears about forty seconds into the piece and speeds up as the melody progresses. The work is undoubtedly beautiful — although it can be tricky to dance to!


Recording: Carlos Kleiber, New Year's Concert 1989


14. Fesche Geister (Clever Ghosts)

By Eduard Strauss


The list would be incomplete without a waltz by Eduard Strauss, the most underappreciated of the three brothers. This playful waltz hasn't featured in the New Year's Concert since the old days of Willi Boskovsky (at least, not yet!).


Recording: Willi Boskovsky, Strauss, J.II: Waltzes, Polkas & Marches


15. Aquarellen (Watercolors)

By Josef Strauss


This exciting F major waltz was brought into the limelight when it was performed by Franz Welser-Möst in the 2023 New Year's Concert. Its main theme is quite peculiar, with accentuations on the third beat of every measure. It feels strange at first, but by the time the theme is revisited, you realize just how thrilling it is!


Recording: Franz Welser-Möst, New Year's Concert 2023



If you want to break out of the mainstream, classic repertoire, I recommend you try some non-Strauss-family waltzes, such as Carl Michael von Ziehrer's In Lausiger Nacht, which was recently performed in the 2023 New Year's Concert by Franz Welser-Möst, and the short-and-sweet Entr'acte valse by Joseph Hellmesberger Jr., performed in the 2019 New Year's Concert by Christian Thielemann.

 

I'm Alkis Karmpaliotis, I'm a Junior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, and I founded AppreciateOpera.org in 2019. You can support my work by becoming a member and reading some of my other articles!

375 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page