Dutchman Andre Rieu has long been dubbed ‘The Waltz King’ in a glittering career touring the world with his Johann Strauss Orchestra. But his life once appeared to be headed down a very different path. He shares some of his story with Rosemary Desmond.
His light classical concerts are ‘sell-outs’ with people dancing in the aisles – but world-famous Dutch violinist and conductor André Rieu once nearly threw away his musical career – for a pizza restaurant.
As a 26-year-old unemployed music student, newly married to language teacher Marjorie, he believed it was time to end the daily grind of violin practice and ‘go wild’ by wearing hippy-style shirts and earrings and cooking pizza.
“We found a beautiful little old house in the artist/student quarter of Maastricht (in south-eastern Netherlands) and wanted to call it ‘Pizzeria da André’,” Rieu told 50 something.
“Marjorie wanted to serve and I would do the cooking. ‘Pizza Paganini’ was supposed to be the highlight of the menu and I was to play Paganini when it was served.
“Then I thought: ‘if I am going to play Paganini, I better practice’! And a few months later I was back in class.”
The son of a conductor, Rieu has unhappy childhood memories of taking piano lessons in cold and dark De Torentjes Castle with a teacher he didn’t like.
Years later, he bought that castle, once the home of Charles De Batz-Castelmore, Comte d’Artagnan, captain of King Louis XIV’s Musketeers of the Guard and the inspiration for The Three Musketeers by 19th century French writer Alexandre Dumas.
Although now renovated, the castle retains its original 15th Century kitchen where D’Artagnan ate his last breakfast before dying at the Siege of Maastricht in the Franco Dutch War.
It’s taken Rieu decades of hard work to get to where he is now and ever the showman, he knows how to create the escapist illusion his fans crave.
“I love to entertain people, take them away on a romantic musical journey and enchant them with our costumes, melodies and sets,” he said.
He’s also hands-on with every aspect of The Johann Strauss Orchestra, founded and named after his musical hero. Even the lavish gowns worn by the principal female artists are designed by Andre and Marjorie Rieu and are valued around $A6,000 each.
And it was his penchant for extravagant detail that almost bankrupted him.
In 2008, after performing in front of Vienna’s famous Schönbrunn Palace, he decided he wanted to build a replica as a stage set for his concerts. “I thought ‘This is perfect! This is the most beautiful and romantic setting in the world!’
“So I said to Pierre, my son: “Please build a copy of this beautiful castle!” And being only 28 years old, he actually did it.
“We had real ice rinks, real fountains, gold (leaf) carriages, horses, and it was the original size. At that time it was the biggest stage set that had ever been built for a concert...a fairy tale.”
The set had to be built three times, with 500 people employed over five days to set it up and three days to take it down. It required 15,000 hotel nights for his travelling entourage in Australia alone.
Rieu described the Schönbrunn replica as ‘the best and worst idea I ever had’.
“It left me minus 34 million Euros (in debt). The bank wanted to take everything from me, even my Stradivarius (violin).
“But the head of the bank said: ‘Let him play!’ And the castle did so much publicity, all concerts were sold out the next year.
“It took me only one year to get back into the black.”
In spite of the financial near disaster, Rieu is still a risk-taker.
“I like to try new things and play in new places,” he said.
“Maybe if Richard Branson one day opens his hotel (on the moon), it will be possible.”
Until then, Rieu will keep doing what he does so successfully.
At 66 and a grandfather of four, there are no plans to put away the Stradivarius and retire to his castle.
“I am planning to live until I’m 120 years old, so retirement is not on the horizon.
“I’ve never felt better and I’m very much looking forward to many concerts to come.”
Despite selling over 400 platinum records, 35 million DVDs and holding 100 or so live concerts each year, Rieu believes his career path may have led him to a very different future.
“I would have loved to have become an architect.
“But I think if I hadn’t become a musician and if it hadn’t been for the support of my wife, I would have ended up in the gutter.”
Andre Rieu is touring Australia and New Zealand, 18 October – 3 November.
This article by Rosemary Desmond originally appeared in the August/September 2016 edition of 50 something magazine.