The year was 1848. Revolution shook Europe with wave after wave of civil unrest. Territories then occupied by the Austrian Empire (and today a part of Italy) decided to make a push for independence. The Imperial-Royal Army (led by Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz) was having none of that guff and was dispatched to quell the uprising.
Gathering near Verona on the 24th of July, Field Marshal Radetzky’s troops defeated the army of the Kingdom of Sardinia in the Battle of Custoza. The Italians, fearing more bloodshed, had no choice but to agree to a truce with the Austrian Empire. It is against this imperialistic backdrop that Johann Strauss Sr. drummed up his Opus 228: a march commissioned to honor the 81-year-old Radetzky and the Imperial-Royal Army while benefiting wounded war veterans at their victory celebration in Vienna.
The city hosted this bombastic gathering on the 31st of August, 1848, and Field Marhsal Radetsky arrived in full military dress to greet the throngs of people who had come to celebrate his decisive victory. His personal courage on the field of battle, especially at such an advanced age, had cemented his reputation among the men he commanded. When someone in their 80’s risks being stuck on the end of a bayonet after refusing to succumb to Mediterranean heatstroke, you throw them a party just because.
A massive success, the gathering was highlighted by the premier and command repeat performance of Strauss’ Radetzky March. The soldiers present loved Strauss’ composition so much that they began wildly clapping during its first performance to show their approval.
This is a tradition that has been passed down to every audience since then, particularly when the piece is played at the Neujahrskonzert held in Vienna every New Years Day. During performances of the Radetzky March, it is traditional for the audience to clap along with the beat of the second (louder) repetitions of the chorus.
The popularity of the March’s musical structure is owed to two important decisions made by its composer. First, Strauss recycled the theme of his Jubel-Quadrille (Op. 130) for the March. It was a risky move, but ultimately one that paid off. The rousing theme simply functions better in the context of a march, in addition to the fact that most people nowadays forget what a “Jubel-Quadrille” is (or how to spell it).
The second decision Strauss made to guarantee the widespread appeal of his Radetzky March was to copy aspects of the music of Franz Joseph Haydn. The rhythmic upbeat of the Radetzky March is eerily similar to the second theme from the “Allegro” in Haydn’s Symphony No. 100, a piece of music composed nearly 100 years earlier. It goes without saying that if you can copy Haydn and get away with it, you are probably doing something right as a composer (they don’t call him “Papa” Haydn for nothing!).
A memorable passage of Strauss’Radetzky March is its Trio, the inspiration for which the composer derived from an old folk melody with two known titles: “Alter Tanz aus Wien” (Old Dance of Vienna) and “Tinerl-Lied” (Tinerl-Song). In the time of Richard Strauss Sr., a “tinerl” was the name given to any contemporary Viennese song originally composed in 3/4 time. It is said that the soldiers of Field Marshal Radetzky were singing this popular tune as they marched back to Vienna after winning the battle of Custoza, making its partial recapitulation during their victory celebration even more personalized.
How the elder Strauss was able to observe them singing this melody while miles away in Vienna is unknown, but he somehow cottoned on to its importance to the soldiers in Radetzky’s regiment and converted their song into 2/4 time for inclusion in his March. The piece is still lauded today as being one of the finest pieces of music ever penned by Strauss Sr., and it continues to get the hands clapping and the feet stomping to this very day. After all, who doesn’t like to feel like they’re part of a winning team?
You can hear the Radetzky March as part of our Night at Oktoberfest!