Tone Poem Tuesday

Every year when I watch the New Year’s From Vienna concert, there are pieces that are new to me. This makes sense! That concert draws from a big body of music, much of which is not heard much these days at all, but which was all once very popular. Once in a while, though, one of those new-to-me pieces lodges in my mind and I have to dig a bit farther into it.

The New Year’s From Vienna concerts focus mostly on the music of the Strauss family, presenting waltzes, galops, polkas, and other dance music from the height of Habsburg Vienna. Sometimes they do feature music by composers who were not Strauss family members: my boy Franz von Suppe is a common one, for example. And this year there was a waltz by Carl Michael Ziehrer, which is my focus today.

Ziehrer, it turns out, was a big name in 19th century Vienna–one of the bigger names outside of the Strauss family, actually. He was a rival of the Strauss family, developing a strong name for himself as a composer and bandleader. Sadly, his musical legacy, like many others, was doomed by the fall of the Habsburgs after World War I. Ziehrer’s work was forgotten and his earlier success disappeared entirely, and it was as a poor man that he died in 1922.

How nice, then, to see this work, a waltz of his, featured in a concert devoted to the Strauss family, but also to the larger heritage of the light dance music of 19th century Vienna, in the centenary of his death.

This waltz is called Nachtschwaermer, which apparently translates to Night Owl or The Night Revelers. I suppose it is therefore a depiction of the people who stay out until the darkest hours, trying to eke out one more drink, one more kiss, one more dance, before the lights go out. It opens with a trumpet fanfare, perhaps signaling the end of the day’s official business, and then a series of typically Viennese melodies spins out, including the orchestra singing as if engaged in a final folk tune and then whistling. It’s easy to listen to this and picture revelers, cavorting a bit drunkenly, staggering with good cheer through cobblestoned streets lit by torches as they sing the tunes they remember from the Viennese woods and hills.

Here is Nachtschwaermer, by Carl Michael Ziehrer, as performed just a few weeks ago by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Daniel Barenboim.

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