Johann Strauss, Sr., one of the most successful dance composers of his generation, famously did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. Johann Strauss, Jr. eventually eclipsed his father’s fame—despite the near disaster of the first of his orchestra tours.
When he was 19, Strauss Jr. enlisted 33 other young musicians and set out with high hopes and very little money. In Pancsova, a town in Lower Banat, they had run out completely. Strauss decided to play an impromptu concert under the window of the town’s mayor. The mayor agreed to lend Strauss and his orchestra some money. On the condition that they present concerts in Pancsova and repay him from the proceeds.
Unfortunately, any townspeople attended the concerts. It became apparent that the orchestra would not make enough money to repay the mayor. So the local police raided a concert in order to seize the instruments. After some long and heated negotiations, town officials gave Strauss and his musicians permission to continue their tour. But that offer had a condition, too. One of the town constables had to join them at the orchestra’s expense until he had collected enough money to repay the entire loan.
This early version of the Johann Strauss Orchestra played in at least six towns over the course of several with the constable in tow. He turned out to have a voracious appetite and thirst. Every time concert receipts exceeded expenses, Strauss gave him some money anyway. He finally declared that he had enjoyed himself immensely and that Strauss’ debt to the town of Pancsova had been fully repaid.
A band of bandits?
By that time, the musicians had no money left over to take proper care of themselves. As a result they had become quite bedraggled: dirty, unshaved, with clothes in deplorable condition. They did not look like musicians at all. Instead they looked like a band of robbers trying to pass themselves off as musicians. No inn in the town of Kronstadt would give them any food or shelter, and Strauss could not arrange any concerts. Instead, the whole orchestra got a military escort not only out of town, but out of the entire district.
At this point, the orchestra attempted to mutiny. Strauss made a stirring speech about how they were all in the same predicament and persuaded them to give a farewell performance in the next town, divide whatever profit there was, and then they could each return to Vienna as best they could.
That plan had only one problem. They would have to go through the Carpathian pass to Romania, a route notorious for its highwaymen. Strauss feared that prospect perhaps even more than the rest of the orchestra.
A desperate ploy pays off
So they decided to sell two violins and purchase some pistols. They could afford only a few rusty specimens and no ammunition, but Strauss distributed most of them, keeping three for himself. His trombone player, however, refused to take one, declaring that he could handle any ten bandits with his trombone.
Thus armed, they looked like a fierce gang of bandits, so much, in fact, that a real but much smaller robber band fled from them in terror on the way down the mountains. Eventually they made it to Bucharest. Somehow they managed to look enough like an orchestra to perform numerous times. The Johann Strauss Orchestra finally made some good money there.
Source: The Book of Musical Anecdotes, by Norman Lebrecht (Free Press, 1985). Lebrecht says that the story is not corroborated. But as I read at the start of a different anecdote once, “I don’t know if this story is strictly true, but it doesn’t matter.”