Johann Strauss II was born in St. Ulrich near Vienna, the son of Johann Strauss I, another composer of dance music. His father did not wish him to become a composer, but rather a banker. Nevertheless, Strauss Junior studied the violin secretly as a child and when his father discovered his son secretly practicing the instrument one day, he gave him a severe whipping, saying that he was going to beat the music out of the boy. Fortunately, this did not discourage the budding musician.
Strauss found his early years as a composer difficult, but he soon won over audiences after accepting commissions to perform away from home. When his father died from scarlet fever in Vienna in 1849, the younger Johann merged both their orchestras and engaged in further tours. By the 1850s he'd surpassed his father's fame, and was recognized as the most sought-after composer of dance music.
Strauss wrote over 400 waltzes, most notably "An der schönen blauen Donau" (better known to the English-speaking world as "The Blue Danube"). Written to celebrate the River Danube that flows through Vienna, it was premiered as a choral piece on February 13, 1867 at a concert of the Vienna Men's Choral Association. Its initial performance only got a lukewarm response and Strauss is reputed to have said "The devil take the waltz, my only regret is for the coda - I wish that had been a success!"Strauss adapted it into a purely orchestral version for the World's Fair in Paris that same year, and it this form that it is best known today.
The German composer Johannes Brahms was a personal friend of Strauss. An anecdote dating around the time is that Strauss's stepdaughter, Alice von Meyszner-Strauss approached Brahms with a customary request that he autograph her fan. Brahms cheekily inscribed a few measures from the "Blue Danube," and then wrote beneath it: "Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms."
The piece's popularity was bolstered after its prominent use in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was used to accompany the scene in which a spaceplane is seen docking with a space station after Kubrick made an association between the spinning motion of the satellites and the dancers of waltzes. The waltz was also used to accompany the film's closing credits.
The piece was also used as the gastrointestinal bypass surgery music in the 2003 film Super Size Me.