Guest Blog: The Winds of Change: Harmonien and the French Revolutionary Wars

by Dr. Austin Glatthorn

Austin Glatthorn’s research focuses on the negotiation of music, politics, spectacle, and representation in Central Europe in the years around 1800. Specifically, he is interested in music at the crossroads of the old and new regimes, exploring the ways in which music articulated cultural and national identity during a seminal period of transformation in European (music) history. In this guest blog, he writes about how the disruption of the Revolutionary Wars contributed to the growing popularity of Harmonien.

By the mid-1790s the costly war against France that began in 1792 started to take its toll on many of the Empire’s noble families who had for years funded court orchestras (Kapellen) and theatres.  These expensive court ensembles projected at once the political power and cultural supremacy of their aristocratic patrons.  But facing invasion, occupation, and defeat, many nobles were forced to dissolve these courtly institutions, for the path of war forced them to flee or because they could no longer afford the vast resources required to maintain their orchestras.  Four years into the conflict, writer and art collector Johann Ferdinand von Schönfeld (1750-1821) seemed to reminisce in his Jahrbuch der Tonkunst von Wien und Prag that while it was once ‘very much normal for our great princely houses to maintain Kapellen’, they were now being ‘dissolved one after another to the point where almost no more exist [in Vienna] apart from that of the Prince of Schwarzenberg’.[1] Rather than abandon musical patronage altogether, these Viennese houses turned increasingly to more economical Harmonien:

Prince Graßalkowitz has reduced his Kapelle to a Harmonie.  Baron von Braun maintains his own Harmonie for Tafelmusik.  There is yet another Harmonie which is mostly funded by the Court Innkeeper Herr Jahn.  They play Tafelmusik in the Augarten during the summer.  The local artillery band…plays every summer evening by the lemonade hut on the bastion…[2]

Thus, some of Vienna’s wealthiest families began to rely increasingly on Harmonien to perform the music their lavish and exclusive court ensembles once had, but no longer could.  Yet by shifting from Harmoniemusik as princely Tafelmusik to outdoor entertainment at the public bastion, this excerpt is indicative of a wider social transformation occurring throughout Europe at this time.  No longer were courts the centre of musical taste; now the public increasingly became a no-less fickle patron of music.

The public’s enthusiastic reception of wind bands in outdoor spaces is illustrated in an article that appeared in Joseph Sonnleither’s Wiener Theater Almanach of 1794.  Identifying Harmonien as one of the principal serenading ensembles and operatic music as its primary repertory, the correspondent explains:

even if [serenades] might be given very late at night, and at hours during which everyone normally rushes home, one soon notices people in the windows—the musicians are quickly surrounded by a houseful of listeners, who applaud, request an encore more often than in the theatre, and seldom leave until the serenade is over, though they even more frequently follow them to other parts of the city in droves.[3]

A part of the city where Harmonien performed regularly was the Prater garden, which Joseph II opened to the public in 1766.  Amongst regular evening serenades in the summer, Harmonien on occasion accompanied opera-themed firework displays, performing airs from the featured work before crowds of 10,000 or more.

Josef Triebensee (1772–1846)

Josef Triebensee (1772–1846)

To meet this increasing demand for works for Harmonien among nobles and the public, musicians quickly set to work transcribing the latest and most popular pieces before a rival beat them to the profits.  Among the most prolific Viennese composers of and arrangers for wind band was Josef Triebensee (1772-1846). A virtuoso oboist and theatre musician, Triebensee studied composition with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809), as well as his father, Georg Triebensee, who was the first oboist in Emperor Joseph II’s Harmonie.  The younger Triebensee’s familiarity with both operatic and wind genres placed him in an ideal position to provide the Empire with original works and transcriptions of music for Harmonie.  In January 1804, Triebensee advertised in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung a subscription series for wind music.[4]  The musician promised that each issue would include six of the most popular operas or ballets alongside six original works for wind band.  To help inform his decision of which pieces to transcribe, Triebensee requested that his subscribers write to him to inform him which pieces he would like set for wind band.[5]  Indeed, the decision of which works to arrange were decided not by the wants or desires of a noble patron, but rather by popular vote. 

Harmonien and arrangements like these took on a new importance as the wars with France dragged on.  As early as 1803, the debt of one of the Empire’s largest and most powerful estates, Austria, was 600 million florins in debt and rising.[6]  War and the occupations of 1805 and 1809 put people’s priorities in order.  Many had to forego the entertainment of the public theatre to ensure that more fundamental needs were met.  Nevertheless, they could still rely on Harmonien to perform their favourite tunes.  For instance, the Journal militairischer Musik promised its subscribers not only marches and manoeuvres for military exercises, but also ‘works by Beethoven, Clementi, Cherubini, Dussek, Haydn, Himmel, Mehül, Mozart, Nauman, Paisiello, Reichardt, Righini, Weber, Zumsteeg, and others’, all for wind band.[7]  The same bands accompanying military manoeuvres to display strength by day were thus performing, among other pieces, operatic selections by night to help take the conflict off of the minds of war-weary audiences as the wars with France continued into the next decade.  And while the unrest caused by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars began to challenge and weaken the social norms of the Old Regime, music for winds assumed a new meaning: for aristocrats, Harmonien became the sound of nostalgia, for they continued to perform their favourite operatic music that their former—and exclusive—Hofkapellen and Theater once had, but no longer could.  For the emerging middle and lower classes, Harmonien were the sound of change, performing in and for the public music they—not an aristocrat—wanted to hear from stage works that they may not have been able to otherwise experience only a generation earlier.




[1] ‘Es war vormals stark die Gewohnheit, daß unsere großen fürstlichen Häuser eigene hauskapellen hielten...und eine Kapelle verlösch nach der andern, so, daß außer der fürstl. Schwazenbergischen fast gar keine mehr existirt’. Johann Ferdinand von Schönfeld, Jahrbuch der Tonkunst von Wien und Prag (Vienna: Schönfeld, 1796), 77.

[2] ‘Fürst Graßalkowitz hat seine Kapelle in eine Harmonie reduzirt...Hr. Baron von Braun hält eigene Harmonie zur Tafelmusik.  Noch ist eine Harmonie, welche der Hoftracteur Hr. Jahn meistens aushält.  Diese bläst zu Sommerzeit im Augarten bei der Tafel.  Die hiesige Artilleriebande...musizirt im Sommer alle Abende bei der Limonadehütte auf der Bastey...’ Schönfeld, Jahrbuch der Tonkunst, 77-78.

[3] ‘...sie mögen noch so spät in der Nacht gegeben werden, zu Stunden, in denen alles gewöhnlich nach Hause eilt, so bemerkt man doch bald Leute in den Fenstern, und die Musik ist in wenigen Minuten von einem Hausen Zuhörer umgeben, die Beyfall zuklatschen, öfters wie im Theater die wiederhohlung eines Stückes verlangen, und sich selten entfernen, bis das Ständchen geendigt ist, das sie öfters noch in andere Gegenden der Städt schaarenweise begleiten’.  Joseph Sonnleither, Wiener Theater Almanach für das Jahr 1794 (Wien: Kurzbeck, 1794), 173-174.

[4] ‘Subscriptions-Anzeige der besten und neuesten Opern und Ballete wie auch Originalparthieen für achtstimmige Harmonie gesetzt von Joseph Trübensee’, Intelligenz-Blatt zur Allgemeinen Musikalischen Zeitung (No. 6, January 1804), [25]-27.

[5] ‘Doch behält sich der Unternehmer vor, wenn während dieser Zeit eine neue grosse Oper oder Ballet, auf irgend einer Schaubühne in Wien mit ungetheiltem Beyfalle gegeben wird, hierin eine Abänderung zu treffen, um die Herren Subscribenten mit einem eben so vortrefflichen, doch noch neuerem Werke bedienen zu können—auch werden die Hrn. Subscribenten gefälligst ersucht, sogleich bey der Subscription anzuzeigen, welche Opern oder Ballete sie allenfalls in Zukunft auch von ältern Werken auf Harmonie übersetzt wünschen—wo der Unternehmer nicht ermangeln wird, dem Wunsche der Meisten jederzeit Genüge zu leisten’. Ibid., 27.

[6] Whaley, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, 581.

[7] ‘Werken von, van Beethoven, Clementi, Cherubini, Dussek, J. Hayden, Himmel, Mehül, Mozart, Nauman, Paisiello, Reichardt, Righini, Weber, Zumsteeg u.a.m.‘Anzeige für militairische Orchester und für alle Freunde der Harmonie-Musik’, Intelligenz-Blatt zur Allgemeinen Musikalischen Zeitung (No. 4 December 1804), 197.