Richard Strauss — Festmusik der Stadt Wien



Strauss fin­ished the score of the “Fes­tive Music for the City of Vienna” on Jan­u­ary 14, 1943 at his Vien­nese home. It was writ­ten for the Vien­nese Corp of Trum­peters and scored for 10 trum­pets, 7 trom­bones (2 alto, 3 tenor,  2 bass), 2 tubas and tim­pani, divided into two choirs.  The score is ded­i­cated to the Vienna Town Coun­cil, offi­cially in grat­i­tude  for hav­ing been awarded its Beethoven Prize the pre­vi­ous year (see note below for more on this).  Strauss him­self con­ducted the work’s pre­mier in the Fes­tive Hall of the Vienna Rathaus on April 9, 1943. Ten days later he made a much shorter ver­sion of the work known sim­ply as “Vienna Fanfare.”


Every com­poser is faced with the neces­sity of writ­ing Occa­sional Music, that is music churned out (usu­ally) to please a patron or a group or in honor of a spe­cific event. Whether it is a march to cel­e­brate a mil­i­tary vic­tory, or a can­tata to inau­gu­rate the open­ing of a canal, com­posers usu­ally view the task more as a neces­sity than a joy,  a way to gar­ner favor from those in author­ity, or to put bread on their table — or both.

Dur­ing Strauss’s long life­time he com­posed his fair share of such pieces, a num­ber of them (usu­ally marches)  writ­ten at the express wish of the Kaiser. Though the “Solemn Pro­ces­sion of the Knights of the Order of St. John’s Hos­pi­taller,” which Strauss wrote to please the Kaiser in 1909 for 12 trum­pets, 3 solo trum­pets, 4 horns, 4 trom­bones, 2 tubas and tim­pani, must have taken on a life of its own, since it quickly appeared in an aston­ish­ing num­ber of dif­fer­ent arrange­ments includ­ing one for salon orches­tra and another for piano and har­mo­nium.   Strauss’s view of this part of a composer’s life was prob­a­bly summed up in a let­ter he wrote to his libret­tist Ste­fan Zweig in Decem­ber 1934: “I kill the bore­dom of the Advent sea­son by com­pos­ing an Olympic hymn for the pro­le­tar­i­ans — I, of all peo­ple, who hate and despise sports. Well, Idle­ness Is the Root of All Evil.” [The caps are in Strauss’s original.]

Despite the composer’s grum­bling, some Occa­sional Music was hon­estly writ­ten from the heart. One assumes the “Fan­fare for the Vienna Phil­har­monic” (1924) is an exam­ple, given the close ties between the com­poser and that orches­tra which went back to 1906 and included count­less con­certs and record­ings, plus two South Amer­i­can tours (1920, 1925) Strauss made with the group.

Strauss on tour with the Vienna Philharmonic

Cer­tainly the “Fest­musik der Stadt Wien” was writ­ten from a gen­uine sense of grat­i­tude on the part of the com­poser, and for far more than being awarded the city’s Beethoven Prize.  By 1941 Strauss was per­sona non grata with the Nazis, and he was becom­ing increas­ingly fear­ful about what might hap­pen to his Jew­ish daughter-in-law, Alice (who had had her pass­port and driver’s license con­fis­cated)  and his two grand­sons (who were con­sid­ered Jew­ish under Nazi law, and beaten up more than once because of it).  In addi­tion to harass­ment by the Nazis, the com­poser was wor­ried about liv­ing in Garmish, so close to Munich, a tar­get of Allied bomb­ing raids. The answer was to leave Ger­many and move to his house in Vienna (safe at the time from Allied air­craft) and where his fam­ily would be under the per­sonal pro­tec­tion of Bal­dur von Schirach, once head of the Hitler Youth but now Gauleiter of Vienna. Von Schirach was long­time admirer of Strauss’s music, the son of a promi­nent the­ater Inten­dant, who wanted to make Vienna once again the cul­tural capi­tol of the world.  Von Schirach would keep Strauss’s fam­ily safe from the Gestapo and the elderly Strauss would be an active par­tic­i­pant in Vienna’s musi­cal life. (Strauss’s out­spo­ken wife, Pauline, once told von Schirach, “When the war has been lost, we will give you refuge in Garmisch, but as for the rest of the gang…”)

The Vien­nese Corps of Trum­peters  was made up of mem­bers of the Vienna Phil­har­monic, the Vien­nese Sym­phony, the Vienna Volk­soper orches­tra, and usu­ally con­fig­ured as 12 trum­pets, 8 trom­bones, 2 tubas, tim­pani and per­cus­sion. In all like­li­hood, the slightly reduced orches­tra­tion for the “Fest­musik der Stadt Wien” reflects wartime changes in the group.  Strauss once blithely dis­missed his late instru­men­tal works as being merely “wrist exer­cises,” but his Meta­mor­pho­sen, the Oboe Con­certo, and the Sec­ond Horn Con­certo are far, far more that. They are won­der­ful addi­tions to the reper­toire and gems to be greatly admired.  If “Fest­musik der Stadt Wien” is not yet as well known as some of Strauss’s other late instru­men­tal works, that is more because of its unusual instru­men­tal make up, rather than any lack of skill or com­mit­ment on Strauss’s part. Indeed, while many com­posers would be con­tent, under the cir­cum­stances, with dash­ing off lit­tle more than a noisy vol­ley of fan­fares, Strauss com­posed an emo­tion­ally sat­is­fy­ing piece of gen­uine music.

In the Pref­ace to Vol­ume 26 of the com­plete works of Richard Strauss, Wal­ter Wer­beck writes:  “Strauss focuses his music after the rous­ing intro­duc­tion on two large expanses of lyric cantabile, of which the sec­ond ulti­mately returns in a sort of reca­pit­u­la­tion. Nor are we deprived of a vir­tu­oso devel­op­ment sec­tion sus­tained by antiphonal writ­ing for two brass choirs, or a proper finale. Yet shortly before the finale gets under­way the music bursts its fes­tive shack­les. And chro­matic pas­sages grad­u­ally con­geal into a cry of hor­ror. Bru­tally sweep­ing aside the beau­ti­ful mirage that had pre­ceded them. But this moment soon passes: the time for funeral music had not yet arrived.” (Eng­lish trans­la­tion: J. Brad­ford Robinson)

 This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with permission.