Strauss, Isaac (1806-1888)

by Laure Schnapper

Isaac Strauss was born as Emmanuel Israel on June 2nd 1806 in Strasbourg. His father, a barber, played violin in celebrations, and probably gave their first violin lessons to Isaac and his brother Maurice. They formed a string quartet in Strasbourg with Simon and Salomon Lévy and left for Paris where Strauss entered the music conservatory in the class of the great violin player Pierre Baillot on January 31st 1828. He got out one and a half year later, interrupting his studies to earn a living.

He obtained indeed a position as a violinist at the Italian-Theatre, where Rossini continued to master the repertoire. Strauss will stay close to Rossini, to whom he will dedicate one of his waltzes, and will attend his funeral. In 1981, Claude Lévi-Strauss, his great grand-son, wrote the following :
"My grand-mother liked to tell that at the age of 7 I think [1849], kissed on the forehead by Rossini, she did the oath to never wash her face in order to keep the mark of the divine lips intact."

Although, that work at the Italian-Theatre was not enough for a musician to live on ; he is forced to perform by rich people and in public balls. In summertime one can find him in "spa-towns", Plombières (in the Vosges) and Aix-les-Bains (in Savoie).
During the same time, Strauss conducts the ball orchestras ; his name appears in the music press in January 1842, when he conducts the masked balls of the Comic-Opera. It’s at the end of the same month that Berlioz dedicates the famous chronicle of the Journal des débats (recovered in the Mémoires), which shows that he already gained a solid reputation, and that the homonymy with the Strauss of Vienna is a problem for him.

In summer 1842, thanks to many relations he built by performing in balls in Aix-les-Bains, his recognition goes beyond France : he is in particular in charge of the music for the wedding of the Duke of Savoie, the future Victor-Emmanuel II (1820-78), King of Italy. For this occasion, he hires an orchestra of 115 musicians and performs in front of Genoa’s court.

His reputation is now obtained. Also, the Trade Minister of Louis-Philippe, who looks to develop the "Spa-Town" Vichy, proposes to him in 1843 to become farmer of Salons of the thermal building of Vichy. Strauss has the monopoly of recreations, in exchange of what he promises to make expansions. He is thus at the origin of the development of Vichy (from 1852 to 1869 the number of bathers went from 5 000 to 25 000), where he makes build for himself a villa in 1858, where he welcomes Napoléon III during his health cures in 1861 and 1862 and that exists still under the name of Villa Strauss.

Once in Vichy, Strauss sees his successes happening one after the other : he is in charge in 1847 of the music of the double wedding at the Madrid court (Isabelle II of Spain marries her cousin and her sister Dona Luisa the Duke of Montpensier, the yougest son of the King of the French) and composes the waltz The Double Wedding, as well as a waltz for each of the brides (Luisa Wals, for the Duchess of Montpensier and Spain’s infant, El Besamanos for Queen Isabelle II. He receives in gratitude a ring with a ruby and diamonds that Henriette Nizan says having thrown to the fire by mistake, cornered by the Germans during the Occupation.

A few months after this double wedding, where he proved his talents in front of Louis-Philippe and met with Eugenia of Montijo, the future empress, he succeeds to Jean-Baptiste Tolbecque at the head of court balls of Louis-Philippe and the ball of the Winter Garden on the Champs-Elysées.

His reputation is now sufficiently affirmed, and two months later, the revolutionaries of 1848 ask him to organise the music for the Republican celebration in Versailles ; under the Second Empire, Strauss climbs the last step of his ascent by obtaining in 1854 the honours of the balls of the Paris Opera following Philippe Musard, position that he will keep until 1872. In particular, it is him who composed the Imperial March that accompanied the entering of rulers.

His work, composed exclusively of ball music (mainly waltzes, but also polkas, quadrilles and other dances dedicated to the great figures of the time) is today forgotten and he his more known for his art collections, in particular of Judaica, which are held by the Museum of Art and History of Judaism.

Listen Laure Schnapper’s radio show about Isaac Strauss

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