New Year in the Gregorian Calendar has become a point in time for both public celebrations and private moments of reflection and resolution. These days we don’t associate New Year festivities and music so much with churchgoing, but in 18th-century Leipzig it was very much part of the Christmas cycle of celebratory services which ran from Christmas Day through to Epiphany. Johann Sebastian Bach was kept busy writing a new cantata for the 1st of January every year from 1724 to 1735, a series that was crowned in the 1734–35 season by his Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (8.550428-30). Part IV of the work—Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben—is the New Year cantata, praising the Son of God who will “quench the rage and fury of the enemy.”
January 1 is rather thin on the ground when it comes to composer anniversaries, though we might spare a thought for Bach’s youngest son Johann Christian Bach, the ‘London’ Bach, who died on this day in 1782. Here’s the opening of one of his Opus 18 Sinfonias (8.553367) which has plenty of festive atmosphere. Another composer who passed away on this date was J.S. Bach’s most prestigious pupil, Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713–1780), and you can hear the influence of the master in the opening of his Toccata et Fuga in A Minor (8.553924).
Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (8.571214), one of the best loved and most famous works of its kind,was given its première today in 1846 with his wife Clara as soloist, while Schumann’s friend Johannes Brahms heard his Violin Concerto (8.570321) first performed on January 1, 1879; here’s a snatch of the final movement. Brahms’ friend Antonin Dvorák had his String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96 ‘American’ (8.553256) premièred in Boston on January 1, 1894, the opening of which sets the scene for one of the most famous pieces in its genre.
New Year’s Day music has to be good for blowing away the cobwebs, and in 19th-century Vienna the many fashionable society balls held in that often troubled city resulted in the composition of vast quantities of popular music suitable for the purpose. But the current global association of New Year’s Day with Vienna and the music of the Strauss family is not as old as you might imagine.
The annual concert in the magnificent Musikverein is such a familiar image that you might assume it to be both a tradition going back to the days of the Strausses themselves, and a regular highlight in the life of the famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. In fact it wasn’t until 1925 that the orchestra gave an all-Strauss programme, and it was only in the late 1930s that the celebrated New Year’s Day connection was established by the conductor Clemens Kraus. The publicity for these New Year concerts has done more than anything to familiarise us with the works of the remarkable Strauss family, particularly Johann Strauss II, known the world over as “The Waltz King”. His waltz An der schönen, blauen Donau or ‘The Blue Danube’ has become one of the most famous ever written. And today’s world-famous, globally-broadcast concerts would be unthinkable without Johann Strauss I’s Radetzky March (8.225343), written to celebrate Field Marshall Radetzky’s victory at the Battle of Navara in Italy in 1848.
The success of the Strauss family’s music saw imitators popping up all over Europe. Danish composer Hans Christian Lumbye started concerts in the manner of Strauss in his native Copenhagen after hearing the older Johann Strauss’ band; so, here’s his Happy New Year! Galop from Christmas and New Year, Ball-Bouquet (8.225170), written in 1849.
New Year celebrations are also synonymous with champagne, and the influence of both Chopin and Strauss pop up in Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz’s energetic waltz Cotillon: No. 1. Champagne (8.573295). Dance traditions and ballroom opulence also held sway in old Russia, as in Prokofiev’s Waltz for the New Year’s Ball (8.553069) from his Waltz Suite Op. 110, which was originally used in his ballet War and Peace.
Finally, New Year just wouldn’t be the same without the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and who better to show how it should be done than Dame Nellie Melba (8.110738) whose voice, recorded in 1904, reaches out to us from historical archives. And when all the festivities have been done with and we’re left to face the morning after, what finer way to drive away the post-party blues than the vitamin-rich Big Band sound of Duke Ellington’s Hollywood Hangover (8.120810).
We wish you all a very happy and musical New Year!