Prince of the Waltz

Here at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exhibition, in the middle of the Main Building, is a large concert hall. Of all the entertainers, the Mexican Brass Band seems to be the most popular with both visitors and locals. I decided to check them out.

I was expecting a small Mariachi Band, but this was a full size European style band with some string instruments. (Not unusual with brass bands in this period.)

The band leader announced that they would play a waltz, “Sobre las olas,” composed by one of their musicians. He had a violinist, of about seventeen, get up and take a bow. The band then began to play “Uber den Wellen.” My mouth flew open. This is one of the most famous waltzes in the world. I thought Johann Strauss II had written it.

Did the kid lie and just con the band leader into thinking he had composed it? No, surely the conductor would be familiar enough with Strauss’s waltzes to know he had been duped.

When the concert was finished I hunted the boy down to get his story. My Spanish is poor at best, but I was able to procure one of the other musicians who spoke English as my translator.

The kid said his name was José Juventino Policarpo Rosas Cadenas but he just went by Juventino Rosas. He was born to a poor Otomi Indian family. He bragged that his father, Jesus, had fought against the imperial forces of Maximillian of Hapsburg, freeing Mexico. He said his father taught him to play the violin. Rosas claimed he got his musical talent from his father. If that’s true he gave his son a far greater legacy than money.

Rosas’ musical ability was earning him a living at the age of seven. By the time he was twelve he was playing violin in a popular dance band in Mexico City. Now he was a member of the band representing Mexico at the World’s Fair.

Last year, at only 16, Rosas published what would be his most popular piece, Sobre las olas (Over the Waves,) here in New Orleans. (He will later publish the song in Mexico in 1888 and Europe in 1891, which has given a lot of confusion as to the official publishing date.) Rosas said he had been writing music since he was a child. I didn’t point out that he wasn’t an adult yet.

Rosas said he wanted to be a band leader someday. I later checked the historical records on my computer and found he will get his dream and tour the world. He will write 92 music pieces, making him one of Mexico’s greatest composers, if not the greatest. His hometown of Santa Cruz de Galeana will be renamed Santa Cruz de Juventino Rosas in his memory.

“Over the Waves” appear in concerts of Viennese waltzes, few realizing it’s not Austrian. It will also become a favorite with Tejano (Tex-Mex) bands, bluegrass fiddlers and is already drifting into New Orleans streets where it will evolve into Dixieland Jazz. Carousel horses will dance to it and circus trapeze artists will perform to it. The song will be an international hit and will survive into the 27th century. And few will ever be aware that this classic waltz was written by a Mexican teenager.

It’s a pity Rosas will die at the age of 26, contracting spinal myelitis while on tour. If only he could have lived longer. How much music did the world lose with his untimely death?

Over the Waves as a classic waltz: Sobre las olas

New Orleans fell in love with the song. This is their version:
The New Orleans Excelsior Brass Band

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