Almost the last waltz – thanks to Derby doctor
The ministrations of a Derby doctor meant that a concert tour of Britain in 1838 was very nearly the last waltz for Johann Strauss. Vivienne Smith tells this remarkable story.
JOHANN Strauss the elder almost lost his life when he visited in Derby in 1838 as part of a nationwide tour.
The Viennese musician had begun to earn an international reputation only five years earlier, when he became the first to take dance music on the road. His orchestra was soon invited to play at the royal courts of Europe.
In the spring of 1838, Strauss decided to travel to England. It was the coronation of young Queen Victoria on June 28 and the country was in festive mood.
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The 34-year-old composer and conductor made his first appearance, with his band of 28 musicians, at the Queen's Concert Rooms in London on April 17. Over the next three months, they gave nearly 80 performances in the capital, attracting packed houses wherever they went. Strauss's orchestra appeared at state balls, public concerts and private functions, including one hosted by the Duke of Devonshire.
The unrestrained enthusiasm of the Morning Post newspaper was typical: "So perfect a band was never heard on this side of the Channel."
When engaged to perform at the palace of the Russian Embassy, however, Strauss and his players were hardly treated as VIPs.
As musicians, not guests, they were refused entry via the main staircase, as this was used by the aristocracy. Yet neither was the servants' entrance deemed appropriate.
To reach the ballroom on the first floor, they had to climb a ladder outside!
For Strauss, the high spots of his stay in London were the performances he gave at Buckingham Palace. The first was at the opening state ball of the season on May 10, two weeks before the young Queen's 19th birthday.
Especially for the occasion, the Viennese composer introduced his Hommage a la Reine de la Grand Bretagne (Homage to the Queen of Great Britain). Victoria, who was very fond of dancing, much admired the piece.
After the coronation, Strauss embarked on a six-week tour of the country before departing to France for more engagements. However, his visit to England had proved so successful that almost immediately he was invited back.
That September, he and his musicians embarked on a whirlwind concert tour of Britain for a further nine weeks. Travelling between venues mostly by coach, they were in a different town almost every day.
In Derby, there was a buzz of excitement. Strauss would perform at the lecture hall of the Mechanics' Institute on Tuesday, October 9. The Waltz King was to present a selection of his music as performed in the courts of Europe and at the recent coronation. There were complaints, however, about the price of the tickets. At an exorbitant seven shillings per person, and a guinea for a family of four, this effectively stopped members of the general public from attending.
On the night, about 200 nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood turned out to hear the celebrated band. As was his habit, Strauss led his musicians while playing the violin at the same time. One local newspaper commented: "The exquisite aplomb of the leader, influencing and inspiring the rest, produced an effect unequalled in the annals of music."
Strauss and his entourage duly departed for the north to continue their tour. But his music had proved such a hit in Derby that a repeat visit was arranged and the musician agreed to give a second concert on November 30 on his way back from Scotland.
Meanwhile, the cold and fog of the British autumn, combined with the effects of too many months on the road, began to take their toll. By the time they arrived in Edinburgh, the entire entourage was ill. Most of the musicians rallied once treated to a few hot toddies. But Strauss was suffering from shivering fits, a bad cough and chest pains.
To him, there was no question of cancelling the tour. The show must go on. On their way south, the band appeared at Newcastle, Leeds, Hull and Wakefield as planned. But the concert in Derby had to be brought forward by four days to Monday, November 26, because of other engagements.
In recompense for this alteration, Strauss promised to play his new waltz Hommage a la Reine de la Grand Bretagne, which he had first performed for Queen Victoria earlier in the year. A bonus was that both single and family tickets had been reduced by a shilling, while seats at the back were available for just four shillings each.
When the band arrived in Derby, Johann Strauss took rooms for them at the Tiger Inn in the Cornmarket. Still unwell, he secretly visited a local doctor in the hope of effecting a cure in time for his Monday night performance.
There is no record of who he consulted for medication to ease his raging fever and cough. But the Derby physician resorted to the latest cure-all and prescribed a massive dose of opium, with almost disastrous consequences, for the Waltz King "was almost relieved of all earthly sufferings".
There was tremendous disappointment on Monday evening when the concert had to be cancelled. Some people had travelled considerable distances to be there.
Two days later, on November 28, a bulletin was issued from the Tiger Inn: "Mr Strauss deeply regrets his inability, through illness, to lead his orchestra on Monday evening, but all the medical aid he could obtain after his arrival in Derby could not enable him to rally sufficiently to give his concert."
Little did anyone realise at the time that this medical aid had almost killed him.
Ever the trouper, Strauss concluded his bulletin by announcing that he was now sufficiently recovered to perform the very same night.
There were concerns that the turnout would be poor. Yet that evening the hall at the Mechanics' Institute was so crowded that a large number were forced to stand throughout the concert.
The Waltz King gamely completed the first half of the programme, before illness compelled him to hand over leadership to an assistant.
Nevertheless, his Derby audience were delighted. In fact, many thought that the concert was, if possible, even better than the first one.
The Derby Mercury reported: "The music was given with such thrilling effect that the feelings of the audience were completely carried away with admiration and astonishment ... the effect was completely electrical."
It was certainly a night that all those present would long remember.
Two days later, Strauss was in Leicester, where once again he attempted to perform. Still sick, he only managed part of the programme before having to retire.
At last the composer decided enough was enough and, immediately after the concert, he told his musicians to pack for home. All further engagements in England were to be cancelled. But, after crossing the Channel to Calais, Strauss could not resist giving a farewell concert before returning to Vienna. To the audience's horror, he collapsed during the performance and had to be carried from the stage.
Physicians warned that the only cure was complete rest and relaxation.
Strauss eventually arrived back in Vienna three days before Christmas. Waiting for him there were his wife and five children.
One wonders what the musician told his family of his time in England as he was nursed back to health.
Johann Strauss may even have revealed the name of the Derby doctor who, albeit unintentionally, had nearly killed him.