Marble Surface

Josef Strauss

Die Libelle, Polka Mazur, Op. 204

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My transcription of the Neuausgabe Josef Strauss orchestral score of this polka mazurka by Josef Strauss.

It is probably one of the most famous polka mazurkas ever written and arguably the best, and there are very many recordings of the piece. So why do it? Well, I’ve been swearing at the phone again. I happened to hear a recording by Mariss Jansons and it was unbelievably slow – about 90 beats to the minute. It led me to the questions “How fast was a polka mazurka?” and “How fast was this particular polka mazurka?”

A quick trawl through the available recordings suggests it is normally played by real conductors at about 102-104 bpm. By “real conductors” I mean people who are not specialists in Viennese dance music but find themselves in front of the VPO on New Year’s Day and are maybe more at home with Brahms and Bruckner. They produce an excellent sound and a good musical interpretation but they don’t really want to make you dance. How many of these conductors do any research or at least sit down with a clean score and a clean mind?

Specialist conductors (Rothstein, Stolz) play it at about 118 bpm and it is much more dance like.

I did find one modern recording that played it at 140 bpm which sounded very quick.

However, a search through early cylinder and 78 rpm recordings of polka mazurkas produced tempi around 140 to 150 bpm. There were far fewer of these than of waltzes so the statistics aren't as good but I didn't find a single recording at less than 130 bpm. This would imply that it was a much livelier dance than modern recordings would suggest.

I haven’t done many polka mazurkas myself (three and a bit) but the tempos I played them at was between 130 and 150 bpm, although the 150 bpm one was an early example of the form by August Lanner and is much more Mazurka than Polka Mazurka.

So, I took my own advice and bought a clean score, treating myself to the Neuausgabe Josef Strauss edition. It was very pleasant having a score that someone else had done the grunt work of sorting out (most of!) the inconsistencies. I tried to put the recordings I had heard out of my head and transcribed it. I came out with a tempo of 117 bpm for the polka and slightly more for the trio. This is still slow compared to my other polka mazurka arrangements. I did try it at 130 but it did sound a bit uncomfortable.

Was that just memory, or was this particular polka mazurka intended to be played slower? I did have the thought that this might be the case as there are a number of polka mazurkas written by Josef and Johann II at about this time that can be played slower quite happily. Conversely, there are others that just can't be and there's no sign in any other composer's output that this happens, including Eduard's. I just eventually came to the conclusion that it was more to do with the quality of the music that made it possible to play it slower, rather than any deliberate intent by the composer.

Also, after I had got used to 117 bpm I found the 130 bpm version quite acceptable and was very tempted to load it here.

However, one thing that stopped me doing that was that I found an unlikely supporter of my tempo. Johannes Brahms, in his 1889 recording, plays this piece at about 118 bpm. Brahms was known for his wayward tempi, but he is likely to have heard this work played by the Strauss orchestra and possibly even by Josef himself.

I have stuck to my guns and my tempo. If there's a problem with that, Brahms can be found in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna. Or you could ask Josef, his near neighbour.