Operetta Research Center
31 December, 2019
The New Year’s concert from Vienna, with the Vienna Philharmonic, is a beloved tradition for many. It rarely has anything new to offer, and this year under the direction of conductor Andris Nelsons will not be an exception. But behind the facade of the eternal sameness there is one big change to look forward to, and it involves the most beloved “let’s all join in and clap” number of the entire concert: the famous Radetzky March at the end. In 2020 you’ll hear a new version!
The old version that has been performed for decades – in the name of “tradition” – is a version created by composer and glowing Nazi supporter Leopold Weninger (1879-1940). This was confirmed by the Vienna Philharmonic press office earlier this month and reported on by various German newspapers.
As a consequence the board of directors of the Vienna Philharmonic, represented by Daniel Froschauer, commissioned the music archivist of the orchestra to produce a new version. “This version will be used from now on,” Froschauer said. “On January 1st the audience in the golden hall may clap along to a version of the Radetzky March that was created as a joint venture with the Vienna Philharmonic and that is not contaminated by a ‘brown’ past.”
The arrangement by Leopold Weninger, that millions listened to via TV every year, was first introduced to the concert series in 1946 by legendary conductor Joseph Krips. Though Mr. Krips was certainly not a Nazi, Weninger was. He famously arranged marches for the “Sturmabteilung” (SA). He also turned the 1848 march by Johann Strauss senior into a very militant affair, which helped make the number popular in Nazi times. He added a special snare drum to make it all sound even more pointed, removed ornaments, and “fixed” the tune in the middle section. He also made the sound more “massive” and overwhelming, more in sync with the times. At least this is how various newspapers described the matter.
We should not forget that Johann Strauss was part of the ideological Nazi campaign to redefine “operetta” as an “Aryan” genre and “save” it from its “decadent” Parisian roots. Johann Strauss junior was declared the “most German of composers,” the waltz was “the most Germanic of dances,” and 19th century “Viennese operetta” was the only true form of the genre everyone should aspire to, lifting it to classical heights instead of enjoying it as “banal” entertainment. That was left to the various new syncopated operettas, Maske in Blau, Hochzeitsnacht im Paradis, Clivia etc.
Countless books, recordings and movies cemented that ideology, among them Willi Forst’s Operette and Wiener Blut films (with the Vienna Philharmonic playing the soundtrack), and obviously the New Year’s concerts of the Vienna Philharmomic, originally introduced by Clemens Krauss. It continued after 1945 and transported many seemingly harmless ideas about Strauss, father and son, to a new era.
There have been debates about the Nazi past of the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concert for years. But this year something is actually changing. While at the same time the idea of a “golden” 19th century Viennese operetta, as opposed to a somewhat inferior later “silver” era has just been revived by The Cambridge Companion to Operetta. It seems some things are hard to chuck out. The Vienna Philharmonic starting with the Radetzky March in 2020 might herald a new way of dealing with the past – even in territory so defined by traditions that few like to question. Claiming things have always been like this, thus barring change.
Well, things have not always been like many Strauss and operetta aficionados like to claim. And there was a Strauss and operetta tradition before 1933/38 that is worth remembering, now that we’re about to enter The New Twenties.
Why a new version of Radetzky March had to be commissioned, when the original version by Strauss sen. was discovered by Norbert Rubey in 1999 and performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the 2001 New Year’s concert in Vienna, is another question. Probably a new version means new royalties, and who wouldn’t want those if they can be redirected? Also, the Harnoncourt version was played by the Vienna Phil pretty much “as always” so you need to listen very closely to notice any difference.
But obviously it’s always worth listening and looking closely when dealing with operetta history!
For more information on the concert and its program, click here. Various international TV stations will broadcast the concert live.