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.