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.
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.