How To Listen To the Powerful Wiener Philharmoniker Fanfare
It’s time to feature another fanfare, one composed for a specific orchestra and purpose. The Vienna Philharmonic is familiar to many; I’d guess that even people not overly familiar with classical music may have heard of the group.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) lived during the late Romantic/early modern era and was one of the major composers of his time. Strauss was influenced by the music of fellow German Richard Wagner (1813-1883). He developed as both a composer and conductor, despite some unconventional choices in musical interpretation.
The Vienna Philharmonic dates back to 1842. In 1924, the group held its inaugural ball in order to raise funds for the musicians’ pension. Strauss composed a piece for the occasion; it has been played at the beginning of every ball since then.
A Single Note
Like many fanfares, this one starts with a single note. It’s played by the E♭ trumpet (it’s like the trumpets you see in school band, but a bit smaller and plays a higher range). We hear a single pitch for three beats, followed by a set of triplet eighth notes on beat four. Keep this rhythmic motif in mind, as it’s woven throughout the entire piece. The trumpets repeat the motif, adding layers of harmony to the opening note. After the initial musical statement, the trombones echo in triplets (0:09), followed by the horns (0:12). They have a short conversation, then the trumpets join back in with their own line of triplets (0:20).
The layers build and build, with lots of give and take between the sections. They start to come together rhythmically at 0:30, although the timpani and horns want to continue to converse (of course… chatty little things). We build a bit more, trumpets and trombones against horns and timpani.
At 0:36 we reach what we’ve been building toward – a solid wall of triumphant sound, moving rhythmically as one through a majestic theme. The horns answer with their own motif at 0:44. In the next bit of the theme beginning at 0:47, we hear triplets from one voice or another, but they feel more supportive than conversational than the triplet figures we heard in the intro.
A Lyrical Line
With the second half of the theme (0:55), the pitch moves just a bit higher and is a bit more lyrical, introducing new rhythmic pattern at 0:59 (a very short new rhythmic pattern – it’s a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note instead of a set of three eighth note triplets. While both fit into the space of one beat ([quarter note], It’s a subtle yet distinct difference).
The lyrical line ends as the horns and trombones come in with the horn motif (1:04), which alternates with the running triplets in the trumpets and trombones. It’s interesting that the timpani is playing running triplets during the horn motif, not with the other triplets. The conversation builds again.
The lyrical theme comes back again at 1:16, but modified. It’s presented in a different key, sounds more minor. It doesn’t last long, though, and we’ve moved back into a happier-sounding place by 1:34. From there, we head into the second half of the lyrical theme. Or so we think. While Strauss gives us the first part of the second half, he doesn’t end it like before. He repeats the initial motif of that section up a little higher (1:39) and a little higher (1:43), then very briefly acknowledges an idea from the first theme we heard at 0:36 (1:47) before heading into a recap of the intro (1:51).
On to the End
In this last section, Strauss continues to build up the intro motif, going higher and higher with most of the ensemble, the horns and timpani (and one random trombone) answering back. After the third time through the motif, the trumpets and trombones shimmer on a high major chord while the horns milk their motif for all its worth (2:04). Yes, they’re playing that entire line from way down below to way up high. After the horns have had their say, the entire ensemble comes together for its final bows.
(To this day I’m ready to hear Overture to Candide immediately after hearing this piece. A concert I played years ago opened with this fanfare, followed by Candide. I listened to that recording so many times the two pieces are forever linked in my mind.)
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